PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 11, 2006

Father and Son

by Jim Newsom

All wars are tragic. But this war, George W. Bush’s war, is especially so. It’s a war that has no raison d’etre other than the convoluted need for a boy to prove himself to his father, and for a tiny cadre of cowards to demonstrate their manliness and redeem the self images they’ve been carrying around for thirty five years or more.

I am neither psychologist nor psychiatrist, but I am both a son and a father, and I’ve learned something about relationships between boys and their dads. From Genesis to Bruce Springsteen, the story of a boy’s journey into manhood and his attempts to prove himself to his father, while simultaneously demonstrating that he is different or better, is an oft-drawn upon theme. First-born sons of successful men can find it an especially daunting task.

George W. Bush had a particularly difficult time becoming a man who could stand on his own. A party boy who didn’t take anything seriously far into adulthood, he was conflicted between the desire to emulate his father, who had been a teenaged war hero as well as a successful student and athlete at the same prep school and college, and the desire to rebel against the “Mr. Perfect” image of his dad. Friends at Yale have compared him to the John Belushi character in Animal House.

He continued to embrace this image long after finishing school. When he was twenty five, Bush is reported to have goaded his father after a drunken car crash, “I hear you’re looking for me. Do you wanna go mano a mano, right here?”

Most of us are aware that young George floundered around for many years, working in political campaigns for his father and his father’s friends, losing a run for Congress himself, buying and nearly bankrupting an oil company, and finally being set up by some family buds with a tiny stake in the Texas Rangers baseball team, from which he would make his fortune.

But to fully understand the reasons for the current Iraq war, the years 1968 to 1973 are probably the most important period in young W’s life. He graduated from Yale in the spring of ‘68, literally the height of the Vietnam War, and was about to lose his student deferment from the draft. On May 27, he went to the offices of the Texas Air National Guard outside Houston and asked to sign up.

Those who weren’t around at the time may not realize that in those days, joining the National Guard was a safe, legal way to avoid service in Vietnam. Unlike in today’s Iraq war, Guardsmen were never sent into overseas combat. They were used for domestic situations, from helping after natural disasters like floods and hurricanes to quelling anti-war rallies and urban race riots. Every Guard unit had a long waiting list, and those who got in were often the children of the prominent and wealthy. Poppy Bush was both, and at the time represented Houston in the U. S. Congress.

Although he had barely passed the pilot aptitude test, the junior Bush was accepted and sworn in the day he applied. The base commander personally handled the swearing in, posing for pictures with the congressman’s son. After completing a two-year pilot training regimen, he was assigned to the Texas Guard’s “Champagne Unit,” along with other sons of the state’s uppercrust.

Two other principal architects of the current war, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, also managed to evade the Vietnam-era draft—Cheney through student and marital deferments, Rove via student deferments even when he wasn’t a full-time student. Neither had the courage to oppose the war they didn’t want to fight in, yet both love to talk and act like tough guys. And both have something to prove to themselves if not to everyone else.

Egged on by such an inner circle, one of W’s first needs upon assuming the reins of presidential power was to establish himself as worthy, once again, of following his father. He had gone to the same schools, been an airman kinda like his dad, tried out the oil business, worked in politics. In so many ways he had retraced his father’s footsteps but he still hadn’t matched any of his achievements. If he could take out Saddam and finish the job his daddy had begun but left undone in the first Gulf War, he could finally point to an accomplishment he could call his own.

And so here we are, three years into a war for which a dozen official justifications have been advanced, but for which there is no valid reason. Except this: People are dying daily and the world is unraveling so that a little boy can prove himself worthy to his dad.

As Springsteen sang nearly thirty years ago, “You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames—Adam raised a Cain.”

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.