George Bush: 'I Made a Mistake. I Went Too Far'

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President George Bush is plainly miffed. What right does Bill Clinton have to zing his son for being called "my boy" by his own father? "That's just the way I talk about my sons," the President says. But, he adds, he "made a mistake" with his angry televised rejoinder. "I went too far," he says. "That's it. I'm not going to say anything more." He puts his hand up and zips his lips. Sitting nearby is Barbara, who mutters something that sounds like "I'm going to say something," which she did the next day. In fact, he probably will too, eventually.

But now President Bush, his hip hurting a bit and stomach churning more than normal (old-time ulcer knocking on the wall?), is in Philadelphia's elegant Rittenhouse Hotel, humor and asperity bubbling, TV clicker in hand, scolding the blaring monster screen on which friends and foes from the days of power are babbling about him and W. And while watching TV he is riffling through magazines, offering his own irreverent editing. "That's crazy... good pictures... hey, they got that right for a change."

Barbara sits there, big pearls, white polka dots on vivid blue. The Silver Fox never looked foxier, needlepoint in her experienced hands. Madame La Bush. Pointed needle rising and swooping. Is that a new Bush-family crest to celebrate the dynasty? She launches a bemused but killer look; what she's making is a backgammon board. The dynasty idea drives her nuts — and him too. Her life's work is to love a family and make sure they love theirs. She says a few tart things about politics now and then. She gets away with murder and chuckles mischievously.

But the Bushes will have to live with the dynasty thing. The family is now so fused with the national interest. After W. there is Jeb, then Jeb's telegenic son George P. Their grandson Pierce, 12, Neil's son, grabbed a few moments of television and even answered questions on a possible political future. "He peaked too soon," says Barbara. That will probably curtail Pierce's immediate ambitions.

"I'm a sounding board," says the President, who vows he will not under any circumstances go off on his own in this campaign. "George W. has never asked me to do anything. His staff has, as they should." He can fund-raise; he can cheerlead a bit. "I am not going to talk about the issues. If I should deviate even a little from what W. says, then somebody is going to try to drive a wedge in there. I don't keep up with the positions."

Barbara will make sure to help out with the twin daughters, Barbara at Yale and Jenna at the University of Texas. Her duties include carrying tissues. When the girls teared up at the convention, they were inexperienced and empty-handed. She dispensed the Kleenex. And now and then she will fire off an e-mail to W. "Always positive, always hopeful," she says. A while back she thought he looked nervous on the screen, and not wishing to make a direct suggestion to relax, she whispered it to one of his aides. Within a few hours the phone rang. It was her son twitting her for being on his case. Leaks everywhere.

The President is going to stay close to his rocky shore in Kennebunkport, Me., in this campaign and pick up the phone when his son calls, which is almost every day. Some of the media will probably go nuts believing the deposed king is in a sinister power push for glory. But as much as anything, the talk will be about how the striped bass are running off the Maine rocks and how much water has collected in the new seven-acre lake built on W.'s Texas ranch. "It's beautiful," injects Barbara. "It has a river running through it, and the trees are wonderful."

The President seems already to be measuring the bass in the lake. "George gets a great joy from it," says the father, who gave him a fishing skiff for the lake. "That's a little boat he can get in and row around. He put in some bass holds. Those are holes dug in the lake bottom and filled up with branches, and the bass will hold there. We talk about how the holds are looking. And I got him a gun case for his birthday." Barbara glances up, chides, "Don't give it away." The President grins, a little sheepishly, "I've already told him."

"Nothing," he claims, "will diminish the father-son relationship. Nothing. And that is true, not just with W. but with our other four kids as well." He is struggling to stay out of the limelight for his son's sake. Of course, he agrees with the idea that Al Gore is Bill Clinton's "boy," pampered and propped up and corrected by Clinton, but, O.K., politics is sometimes unfair, and that's the deal.

After W.'s acceptance speech last week, when there was pandemonium on the stage, President Bush made a point to stay seated, away from the camera epicenter, and tell old stories with his pal, former senator Alan Simpson. "When we went back to our hotel suite, Barbara and I did something we never do," he said. "We had a drink after dinner. A glass of red wine."

The Bushes know better than anyone that tough days lie ahead. There is, for instance, the broccoli issue. President Bush revealed he hated the stuff. Angry broccoli farmers marched to the White House with wagonloads of menacing broccoli. The President wonders if the vegetable will rear its ugly head again. "Maybe George W. needs a little more instruction on that," he laughs.

Says Barbara: "I think he already eats it."