Conversations With a Father

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No. 43 and No. 41 at the memorial service in Washington

George H.W. Bush, no. 41, as he is known in the family, put in a call to the White House late Thursday after his son George W. Bush, No. 43, had finished his war speech to the joint session of Congress. "He and Laura were alone in that big house," the former President recalled. "George was putting out the dogs."

It is most often that way in the Bush family. Just when the media and political power schemers figure the father and son have their heads together in some shadowy corner dividing up the world's leaders for telephone pleas, they talk family, dogs and how the bass are doing in the Crawford pond. Thursday night, No. 41 was off in Canada hunting pheasants with friends, including former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a deliberate response to No. 43's national call to keep life as normal as possible. Bush and son are both hunters, yet another bond of sorts between these two men who make history with every conversation, with every meeting.

The former President and First Lady had been at the White House the night before the terrorists struck. They were flying to St. Paul, Minn., when the first news was flashed to their Secret Service detail. Their plane was diverted to Milwaukee, Wis., and they were rushed off to a motel beyond the city limits. They could do very little but follow events on television as the rest of the nation was doing. The grief, the horror of the atrocity, pervaded their small outpost. The President, flying out of Florida, put in a call to his father. "Where are you?" the son asked. "I'm in Milwaukee," reported the father. "What are you doing there?" the son wanted to know. "This is where you grounded me," explained the father, racked with a full range of anxieties.

There was the unspeakable death toll in New York and by then the estimates of hundreds more in the Pentagon crash. The former President recalls being profoundly worried about the possibility of an assault on the President, not only because it was his son but because his long years in and around the presidency and the CIA made him especially aware of the importance of the presidential office at a time of crisis. He counseled his son to return to Washington as soon as possible, as soon as the Secret Service was satisfied there would be no follow-up attack, instructions the President had already given his detail. Much of the talk even in this trauma and at that level of authority was father-son talk, reasserting his faith that No. 43 was up to the task. The later news reports of his son hunkered down in an Omaha, Neb., bunker irritated his father, even though he had learned long ago that every presidential move is found by ever present critics to be either too fast or too slow.

It is still hard for some to grasp, but this habit of small, intimate confidences is the rock on which the Bush clan is founded and the reason it endures. "There was a story about how I was calling all these Arab leaders," explains the father. "That's just not true. Now and then George will ask me about something. But I am out of the line. I'm not up on things any longer. And I don't want to get crossways with his people. They are the best in the business." What he does not say is that these very staffers are his men and women, now older, now more seasoned and by most measures wiser.

"It is a different problem," says the father as he thinks back over his experience in Desert Storm 11 years ago. "I knew who the enemy was. I knew what our mission was. This is a more difficult battle; this will be a longer battle." As Reagan's Vice President in the 1980s, he headed up a task force on terrorism. That gave him a good understanding of what can and what cannot be done.

"There are some similarities to Desert Storm," Bush says, "like getting other nations to support us, convincing them that our intentions are good. We have to show the Arab countries that we are not going to disrupt them. There can be great hostility in the Arab world."

In fact, in his regular conversations with his son, No. 41 has stressed his concern that the Muslims in the U.S. might be abused. In the back of his mind is the internment of Japanese after Pearl Harbor. As an 18-year-old naval aviation cadet back then, he did not give the issue much thought. He does today and judges that internment wrong.

No. 43's almost unanimous and vocal support from Congress has surprised the former President. Quite a few members of Congress questioned the elder Bush's decision to attack Iraq on the ground in Kuwait. They urged him to wait for economic sanctions to take effect, and there were scary stories about the military's shipping over 50,000 body bags. That sort of political division is not yet apparent, but No. 41 has warned his son of the questions that will surely follow this surge of patriotism.

"George is so strong," declares the father. "I told him that I did not know how he got through that speech without showing more emotion. There was one time when I think he looked out and saw some tears, and that got to him. I know that I could not have looked up at the woman in the gallery, the wife of the man who tried to thwart a hijacker, without breaking up. What I can do these days is kind of put my arm around him from hundreds of miles away."