Book Explores Bush Patriarch

Posted March 14, 2003 at 1:30pm

When it comes to politics in America, Prescott Bush, former Republican Senator from Connecticut, father to one president and grandfather of the current commander in chief, stands as something of an enigma.

Though he played a role in the creation of what has become the GOP’s answer to the star-crossed Kennedys, the Bush patriarch never sought the limelight as aggressively as his Democratic counterpart, Joseph P. Kennedy. Indeed, before ascending to the Senate in 1952, he toiled for 17 years in the relatively obscure political perch of moderator for Greenwich, Conn., town meetings.

As Mickey Herskowitz, author of “Duty, Honor, Country: The Life and Legacy of Prescott Bush” asserts, this was a man who wasn’t above delving into “grassroots grunge work.”

Published last month by Rutledge Hill Press, the book, which features a brief introduction by former President George H. W. Bush, is the first to be devoted to the life of the late Senator, according to Herskowitz.

It also traces the development of the Bush clan from the Vermonter Obediah Bush, who fought in the War of 1812 and sought fortune in the 1849 California gold rush, through to the current president’s political rise in Texas and Washington, D.C.

Herskowitz, a Houston Chronicle sports columnist and prolific writer of tomes on other prominent personalities such as Mickey Mantle and Dan Rather, is a longtime acquaintance of the Bush family, having first met George H.W. Bush in 1968 at the Astrodome. “The Bushes have always been fanatic sports fans,” he observed. More than 30 years later, the idea for the book emerged when the former president said to Herskowitz, “My father’s a great man. I wished more people knew about him,” he recalled. In the months that followed, Bush granted Herskowitz access to members of the Bush clan, in addition to himself and his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, as well as to a personal Bush family scrapbook.

Born into a Democratic family in 1895, Prescott Bush attended Yale University, where he was a star first baseman and sang with the Whiffenpoofs. While still in college, Bush joined the National Guard and was commissioned as a field artillery captain during World War I, serving as part of the U.S. occupation forces in Germany. In 1921, he married Dorothy Walker, then made a fortune in investment banking and became a Republican. By the time the Depression was in full swing, he had bought part interest in the Columbia Broadcasting System, on whose board he would later sit.

Prescott Bush’s ascent in the political arena was slower. In his 1950 run for Senate, the former GOP state finance chairman narrowly lost to Democrat William Benton. Two years later, after the death of Democratic Sen. James O’Brien McMahon, Bush would best then-Rep. Abraham Ribicoff (D) in the contest to succeed him.

In the Senate, Bush — President Dwight Eisenhower’s frequent golfing partner — was the great conciliator, initially serving as a quasi-bridge between the more conservative politics of the powerful Republican Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio and Eisenhower’s more moderate stances, writes Herskowitz. As the author observed, Sen. Bush was “very close to being that vanishing species — a liberal Republican.”

His moderate tone didn’t make Bush impervious to the occasional controversy, however. As a freshman Senator, Herskowitz noted, the 6-foot-4 Bush was charged with arranging a testimonial dinner at the Burning Tree Golf Club for Taft, who had died in the summer of 1953. The dinner’s location at the Bethesda, Md., club — which to this day bars female members — presented one small problem: Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) would not be allowed on the premises. When Bush broke the news to Smith she was furious. Eventually, thanks to a little persuasive arm-twisting by Bush, the president of the club waived the rules so Smith could attend — but not before Bush had received the full force of Smith’s fury.

During his tenure in the Senate, Bush supported civil rights, higher taxes, legislation creating the federal highway system, and President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps. (Prescott Bush, though a Republican, was respected by the Kennedy family and at the behest of the then-Sen. John Kennedy once spoke to a meeting of now-Sen. Edward Kennedy’s University of Virginia Law School Forum, according to Herskowitz).

Weary of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s (R-Wis.) anti-communist offensive of the early 1950s, Prescott Bush served on a committee that held hearings on McCarthy’s conduct and subsequently voted to censure him. In 1956, Bush joined a group of Senators who unsuccessfully attempted to convince Eisenhower to remove then-Vice President Richard Nixon from the presidential ticket, Herskowitz recounted.

But Bush was also a deeply moral man who would one day oppose the presidential ambitions of Nelson Rockefeller, a man whose politics he largely shared, “because at that time … he didn’t believe that a divorced man should run for president or be elected president,” explained Herskowitz.

Though victory was likely assured, due to exhaustion and poor health, Bush — who famously insisted that his children call him Senator — decided not to seek re-election to that chamber in 1962. He died 10 years later, just eight years before his son would rise to the second-highest political post in the land.