A Dad Reflects on His Family

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Former president george bush had grown confident in the last hours of the campaign. He had, in his words, "crossed a kind of river of doubt." But something nagged at him. Perhaps he knew that victory once again in his life was going to be elusive, and he had turned off his nerve ends in the thunderous stretch.

"A key state like Florida looked good a few days ago. Now I see a poll that shows us behind. How can that be? I wonder, are we lulling ourselves into a premature sense of false victory and complacency? It is a terrible time, a really awful feeling inside. The national polls show George ahead, and yet state by state, they show him behind. How can that be?"

History flip-flopped. Al Gore got the popular vote, and Bush, for the moment, has the edge in Florida. "Jeb says George is going to win," said the former President after the vote, spirits up again, though the political realist in him had prepared earlier for the possibility of defeat. "There is life afterward, and George is very strong; he is very strong — and resilient. He will land on his feet in five minutes, but there will be hurt, deep hurt.

"The family will take pride that he went as far as he did. It is not that this is John F. Kennedy's father driving his sons to do something. We are not that way in this family. This is not about vindication or legacy or entitlement. It is about the love of a father for his son, the love of a mother for her son."

Bush had been on an emotional roller coaster. He went through Tums and Mylanta and Rolaids, his stomach churning like a boa constrictor, to use his words: "At first it didn't get that tense. George was riding so high. He came out of Philadelphia with all the surveys showing him ahead. We felt he did a good job at the convention. It's like a football game. If you are three touchdowns ahead at halftime, then you don't worry so much.

"Then the Gore campaign came on. And I am saying to myself, ‘Look at that kiss. Isn't that going to turn people off? And listen to his program — money for everything, the old-style New Deal.' Three days later, I find out I was wrong.

"Then George was down, and some of the members of Congress were running for cover, worried they were going to get killed all up and down the line. Barbara and I stayed up in Kennebunkport until November, but the fishing gave way to anxiety. It's been tension city since.

"About three or four days before the election, the reports were beginning to get very positive, upbeat; then along comes the Kennebunkport incident with John Newcombe. I stayed awake all night and the next day. Barbara and I had totally forgotten about it. Calvin, the police officer, came to our house and said, ‘George, I got to take you in.' I don't know what really happened that night. George was with John Newcombe, a black-belt beer drinker. He was arrested for driving too slow. He accepted his responsibility.

"I saw it as a last-minute dirty trick, and I turned my anger at the sleazy politicians who were making the disclosure — not an October surprise, but a November surprise. The timing reminded me of the release of the (Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence) Walsh indictment of Cap Weinberger late in the game in 1992. One CNN poll had us closing the gap. But that's all it took. From there on, things stayed the same!"

No matter how the election turns out, there will be good memories. "One good moment was in Philadelphia when they had that family party, and Jeb got up and said something very nice. He said, ‘I see my brother as presidential.' I tell you that if there is anything that is dreaded, it is these stories saying Jeb was holding back. One story even suggested he was doing it so he could be center stage. That hasn't anything to do with polls. That has to do with family. Jeb worked his heart out for his brother.

"George P. (Jeb's son) brought us great family pride. When he got out there, he lighted up the world. But he had been accepted for law school at the University of Texas in the fall. He wrote his uncle this beautiful e-mail that he felt he just had to go to law school, and he would miss the campaign. We wondered how George, who was so driven, would feel. George W. wrote P. back that he understood. He was doing the right thing. He had done everything he could in the campaign. That was a beautiful thing from the family's standpoint.

"Nan Ellis, my 75-year-old sister, left Boston and flew out to Columbus, Ohio, and got a $50-a-day room and worked to get out the vote. I called the other day and was told, ‘She's in the middle of something.' I said just tell her that her brother called. It's these kinds of little things that finally mean so much."