The media were excited to report that Robert Redford is working on a documentary about the scandal that brought down a president and created new heroes: the reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Given that the film All the President’s Men, in which Redford played the heroic Bob Woodward,practically made Redford’s career, we probably shouldn’t expect any big surprises.
But here’s one: In recent days, we’ve heard doubts from former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee about his journalists’ reporting on Watergate. This from a new book by Woodward’s own former assistant:
Ben talked about Bob’s famous secret source, whom he claimed to have met in an underground garage in rendezvous arranged via signals involving flowerpots and newspapers.
You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat…..Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen? … and meeting in some garage. One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how many meetings in the garage … There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.
Salon ran a kind of strange and foggy article about Nixon’s difficult relationship with the CIA, which nevertheless brought up an important question: what was the real role of the spy agency in Nixon’s downfall? That article doesn’t answer it. But I did—in my book, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years.
One of the major revelations is that, decades before George H.W. Bush was named CIA director as a purported outsider, he was already involved with CIA covert operations. Family of Secrets shows how the CIA has violated the spirit and letter of its charter by meddling secretly, and constantly, in American politics since its inception. The book follows the elder Bush and the CIA into the life of Richard Nixon and the scandal that brought Nixon down. It reveals new information about the background and actual role of Bob Woodward and other seminal figures in the drama. And it provides an explanation of Watergate that is the polar opposite of the one that most Americans have accepted for four decades.
Because people are talking again about Watergate and Nixon, we felt this was a good time to present the three Nixon chapters from the book. The first installment is today. It provides an alternate history of the rise of Nixon, and sets the stage for the momentous collision between Nixon and powerful forces in and out of government that would lead to his political demise. The next two installments, to be published imminently, cover Watergate itself.
Notes: (1) Although these excerpts do not contain footnotes, the book itself is heavily footnoted and exhaustively sourced. (2) To distinguish between George Bush, father and son, George H.W. Bush is sometimes referred to by his nickname Poppy, and George W. Bush by his, W. (3) Additional context can be found in the preceding chapters.
Family of Secrets, Chapter 9: The Nixonian Bushes
In early 1969, the newly elected Richard M. Nixon took one of his first acts as president: he arranged a date for his twenty-three-year-old daughter, Tricia, with George W. Bush. Not only that, he even dispatched a White House jet, at taxpayers’ expense, to pick up young Bush at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, in order to bring him back to Washington.
This would not be the only time that Nixon would bestow special favors upon the Bush family. Six months earlier, as the GOP presidential candidate, he had seriously considered Poppy as a potential running mate, even though the latter was just a freshman congressman. Two years after W.’s date with Tricia, following Poppy’s second unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, Nixon named him his ambassador to the United Nations. And two years later, with President Nixon’s nod, Poppy served a stint as chairman of the Republican Party. It was a quick rise from relative obscurity to the highest level of national politics—and all with Nixon’s help.
Taped conversations reveal that Nixon considered Poppy Bush a lightweight. Nevertheless, he repeatedly pushed Poppy ahead, often over people who were much more qualified. This put the elder Bush on the upper rungs of the ladder to the presidency. In all probability, had Nixon not so favored Poppy, he never would have reached the top. And had Poppy Bush not been president, his son George W. Bush almost certainly would not have either.
In no small way, Richard Nixon helped to create the Bush presidential dynasty.
What disposed Nixon so positively toward the Bushes? A little-known fact, certainly missing from the many splendid biographies of the thirty-seventh president, is the likely role of Poppy Bush’s father, Prescott, in launching Nixon’s own political career.
Beyond that, the depth and complexity of the ongoing relationship between Nixon and the Bushes, a relationship that spanned nearly three decades, has somehow eluded most historians. An index search of the name Bush in the major Nixon biographies—including even those published after George H. W. Bush rose to the presidency—finds at most a handful of mentions, and in some cases, none at all.
The long overlooked Nixon-Bush story is a tale filled with plots and counterplots, power lust and ego trips, trust and betrayal, strategic alliances and rude revenge. It has a kind of mythic circularity: the elite Bush clan created the “populist” Nixon so that a President Nixon could later play a major role in creating a Bush political dynasty. And finally, the trusted Bushes, having gotten where they wanted, could play a role in Nixon’s fall.
Generally, Richard Nixon was known to be a wary and suspicious man. It is commonly assumed that he was paranoid, but Nixon had good reasons to feel apprehensive. One was probably the worry that someone would unearth the extent to which this self-styled outsider from Whittier, California, had sold his soul to the same Eastern Establishment that he publicly (and even privately) reviled. At the same time, he knew that those elites felt the same about him. They tolerated him as long as he was useful, which he was—until he got to the top. Then the trouble started.
When Poppy Bush arrived in Washington after the 1966 elections, he was immediately positioned to help large moneyed interests, and by so doing improve his own political fortunes. His father, still influential, had twisted arms to get him a coveted seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes all tax legislation. The committee was the gatekeeper against attempts to eliminate the oil depletion allowance, and Bush’s assignment there was no small feat. No freshman of either party had gotten on since 1904. But former senator Prescott Bush had personally called the committee chairman. Then he got GOP minority leader Gerald Ford—a Warren Commission member and later vice president and president—to make the request himself.
It was a lot of voltage, but the rewards were worth the effort. Poppy now would be a go-to rep for the oil industry, which could provide Nixon with the Texas financial juice he would need to win the Republican nomination in 1968. Bush was also now a crucial link to an alliance that was forming between Eastern bankers, Texas oilmen, and intelligence operatives.
Indeed, Texans and Bush friends dominated the Nixon presidential campaign. For fund-raising, Poppy recruited Bill Liedtke, his old friend and former Zapata Petroleum partner, who became Nixon’s highest- producing regional campaign finance chairman. Poppy’s ally, Texas senator John Tower, endorsed Nixon shortly before the 1968 GOP convention and was put in charge of Nixon’s “key issues committee.” Once Nixon’s nomination was secured, Poppy and Prescott worked their networks furiously, and within days some of the most influential members of the Republican Party sent letters to Nixon urging him to choose Poppy as his running mate. The names must have given Nixon pause—the CEOs of Chase Manhattan Bank, Tiffany & Co., J. P. Stevens and Co., and on and on. Not surprisingly, executives of Pennzoil and Brown Brothers Harriman were among the petitioners. Thomas Dewey, éminence grise of the GOP, also pushed for Poppy. Nixon put Bush’s name on a short list. But as he glimpsed the prize in the distance, he began to assert his independence. To the surprise of almost everyone, he selected as his running mate Spiro Agnew, Maryland’s blunt and combative governor, who had backed Nixon opponent Nelson Rockefeller, the “limousine liberal,” in the primaries. Agnew seemed to offer two things. One, he could be the attack dog who enabled Nixon to assume the role of statesman that he craved. And two, there was little chance that he would outshine the insecure man under whom he would be serving.
(Poppy Bush would adopt a variation on this same strategy in 1988 when he selected as his running mate Senator Dan Quayle, who was handsome but inexperienced, and would be ridiculed for his gaffes and general awkwardness.)
After Nixon tapped Agnew, Prescott Bush, writing to his old friend Tom Dewey, registered his disappointment in a measured manner: “I fear that Nixon has made a serious error here,” Prescott wrote. “He had a chance to do something smart, to give the ticket a lift, and he cast it aside.” Actually Prescott was seething; he hadn’t felt this betrayed since John Kennedy fired his friend Allen Dulles as CIA director. As for the Bush children, they had learned years earlier to fear the wrath of their stern, imposing father. “Remember Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’?” Poppy once said. “My dad spoke loudly and carried the same big stick.”
But beyond political expediency, Prescott may have had good reason to expect Nixon to follow “suggestions” from the GOP establishment—a reason rooted in the earliest days of Nixon’s political career.
Nixon’s Big Break
In Nixon’s carefully crafted creation story, his 1945 decision to enter politics was triggered when the young Navy veteran, working on the East Coast, received a request from an old family friend, a hometown banker named Herman Perry. Would he fly back to Los Angeles and speak with a group of local businessmen looking for a candidate to oppose Democratic congressman Jerry Voorhis? They felt he was too liberal, and too close to labor unions.
The businessmen who summoned Nixon are usually characterized as Rotary Club types—a furniture dealer, a bank manager, an auto dealer, a printing salesman. In reality, these men were essentially fronts for far more powerful interests. Principal among Nixon’s bigger backers was the arch-conservative Chandler family, owners of the Los Angeles Times. Nixon himself acknowledged his debt to the Chandlers in correspondence. “I often said to friends that I would never have gone to Washington in the first place had it not been for the Times,” he wrote. Though best known as publishers, the Chandlers had built their fortune on railroads, still the preferred vehicle for shipping oil, and held wide and diverse interests.
Yet Voorhis appears to have recognized that forces even more powerful than the Chandler clan were opposing him. As he wrote in an unpublished manuscript, “The Nixon campaign was a creature of big Eastern financial interests… the Bank of America, the big private utilities, the major oil companies.” He was hardly a dispassionate observer, but on this point the record bears him out. Nixon partisans would claim that “not a penny” of oil money found its way into his campaign. Perhaps. But a representative of Standard Oil, Willard Larson, was present at that Los Angeles meeting in which Nixon was selected as the favored candidate to run against Voorhis.
Representative Voorhis had caused a stir at the outset of World War II when he exposed a secret government contract that allowed Standard Oil to drill for free on public lands in Central California’s Elk Hills. But the establishment’s quarrel with Voorhis was about more than oil. While no anti-capitalist radical, Voorhis had a deep antipathy for corporate excesses and malfeasance. And he was not afraid of the big guys. He investigated one industry after another—insurance, real estate, investment banking. He fought for antitrust regulation of the insurance industry, and he warned against the “cancerous superstructure of monopolies and cartels.” He also was an articulate voice calling for fundamental reforms in banking.
He knew Wall Street was gunning for him. In his memoir, Confessions of a Congressman, Voorhis recalled:
The 12th District campaign of 1946 got started along in the fall of 1945, more than a year before the election. There was, of course, opposition to me in the district. There always had been. Nor was there any valid reason for me to think I lived a charmed political life. But there were special factors in the campaign of 1946, factors bigger and more powerful than either my opponent or myself.
And they were on his side.
In October 1945, the representative of a large New York financial house [emphasis mine] made a trip to California. All the reasons for his trip I, of course, do not know. But I do know that he called on a number of influential people in Southern California. And I know he “bawled them out.” For what? For permitting Jerry Voorhis, whom he described as “one of the most dangerous men in Washington,” to continue to represent a part of the state of California in the House of Representatives. This gentleman’s reasons for thinking me so “dangerous” obviously had to do with my views and work against monopoly and for changes in the monetary system.
It is not clear whether Voorhis knew the exact identity of the man. Nor is it clear whether Voorhis knew that his nemesis, the Chandler family, had for several years been in business with Dresser Industries. The latter had begun moving into Southern California during the war, snapping up local companies both to secure immediate defense contracts and in anticipation of lucrative postwar opportunities. One of these companies, Pacific Pump Works, which manufactured water pumps, later produced components for the atomic bomb. The Chandlers were majority shareholders in Pacific Pump when Dresser acquired the company, and so gained a seat on the Dresser board, along with such Dresser stalwarts as Prescott Bush.
But there was even more of a Bush connection to the movers and shakers behind Nixon’s entry into politics. In October 1945, the same month in which that “representative of a large New York financial house” was in town searching for a candidate to oppose Voorhis, Dresser Industries was launching a particularly relevant California project. The company was just completing its purchase of yet another local company, the drill bit manufacturer Security Engineering, which was located in Whittier, Nixon’s hometown.
The combined evidence, both from that period and from the subsequent relationships, suggests that Voorhis’s Eastern banking representative may have been none other than Prescott Bush himself. If so, that would explain Nixon’s sense of indebtedness to the Bush family, something he never acknowledged in so many words but clearly demonstrated in so many actions during his career.
A Quick but Bumpy Ascent
In his first race for public office in 1946, Nixon went after the incumbent Voorhis with a vengeance. It was a campaign that helped put the term “Red baiting” into the political lexicon. After his victory, Nixon continued to ride the anti-Communist theme to national prominence.
Following two terms in the House, Nixon moved up to the Senate in the 1950 election. By 1952, he was being foisted on a reluctant Dwight Eisenhower as a vice presidential candidate by Wall Street friends and allies of Brown Brothers Harriman.
But the further Nixon rose, the more he resented the arrogance of his Eastern elite handlers. Though he would continue to serve them diligently throughout his career, his anger festered—perhaps in part over frustration with the extent to which he was beholden.
Meanwhile, George H. W. Bush, not yet thirty years old and a relative newcomer to West Texas, was named chair of the Eisenhower-Nixon campaign in Midland County. For someone with political ambitions of his own, it was an enviable assignment, and Poppy threw himself into it. When a heckler interrupted a welcoming ceremony for Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate, Poppy rushed at the man, grabbed his anti-Nixon sign, and tore it to bits.
Nixon himself would demonstrate a more effective response to criticism. His storied “Checkers speech,” answering charges that he had accepted political donations under the table, was a masterful appeal to middle-class sensibilities, with a maudlin self-pity that went up to the edge but not over.
Telegrams of support came pouring in to Republican headquarters; and one of the first politicians to write was the silver-haired U.S. senator from Connecticut, Prescott Bush:
No fair-minded person who heard Senator Nixon bare his heart and soul to the American people Tuesday night could fail to hold him in high respect. I have felt all along that the charges against Dick Nixon were a dirty smear attempt to hurt him and the Republican ticket . . . [These smears] will boomerang in his favor. Nixon is absolutely honest, fearless and courageous. I’m proud of him.
Nixon saved his political skin that night, but money problems would continue to plague him. This increased his seething resentment of Jack Kennedy, who never had to grovel for money (and who was smooth and handsome to boot). As anyone who knew Nixon, including the Bushes, must have realized, his dependence on the financial resources of others constituted a vulnerability. That vulnerability would later lead to his undoing.
The essence of Nixon’s relationship with the Bushes, as with other key backers, was that they had the wherewithal and he didn’t. And since money was behind the relationship that made Nixon, it was only fitting that when Watergate undid him, it was to a large extent money—as we shall see in chapters 10 and 11—that was behind his downfall.
During the Eisenhower years, the Texas oil industry really took off. Poppy was now part of a “swarm of young Ivy Leaguers,” as Fortune magazine put it, who had “descended on an isolated west Texas oil town—Midland—and created a most unlikely outpost of the working rich.” Central to these ambitions was continued congressional support for the oil depletion allowance, which greatly reduced taxes on income derived from the production of oil. The allowance was first enacted in 1913 as part of the original income tax. At first it was a 5 percent deduction but by 1926 it had grown to 27.5 percent. This was a time when Washington was “wading shoulder-deep in oil,” the New Republic reported.
“In the hotels, on the streets, at the dinner tables, the sole subject of discussion is oil. Congress has abandoned all other business.”
Following the discovery of the giant East Texas oil fields in 1931, there was nothing Texas oilmen fought for more vigorously than their depletion allowance. From its inception to the late 1960s, the oil depletion allowance had cost taxpayers an estimated $140 billion in lost revenue. Nixon supported the allowance in 1946, while Voorhis opposed it. Six years later, General Dwight D. Eisenhower supported it, and he got the oilmen’s blessings—and substantial contributions as well.
The Bushes backed Nixon passionately in his 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy. After Nixon lost—and then lost again when he ran for governor of California two years later—the oil lobby began to look for another horse. Poppy Bush saw his opening. He knew which way the political winds were blowing: toward an ultraconservatism based on new wealth, in particular the wealth of independent oilmen.
In 1964 the Bushes gave their support to presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, even though this meant turning against their longtime allies, the Rockefellers. One can only speculate as to their motives, though Prescott Bush’s puritanical streak may have played a role. Goldwater’s opponent, Nelson Rockefeller, recently divorced, had decided in 1958 to wed Margaretta “Happy” Murphy, an even more recently divorced mother of four. Prescott delivered Rockefeller a public tongue lashing that Time called “the most wrathful any politician had suffered in recent memory.” This may have been just a convenient target. As political historian Rick Perlstein put it, conservatives genuinely preferred Goldwater, “and welcomed the remarriage as an excuse to cut loose from someone they were never excited about in the first place.”
Goldwater’s success in snatching the 1964 Republican nomination from Rockefeller changed the ideological dynamics of the Grand Old Party. Even though Goldwater lost the presidential race, the party would never be the same. So-called movement conservatives managed to build an uneasy alliance between social issue ground troops and the corporate libertarians who finance the party. The ever-nimble Bushes managed to straddle both camps.
Political ambition ran in the Bush family. According to his mother, Prescott had wanted to be president and regretted not getting into politics sooner. The lesson was not lost on Poppy. If he wanted to be president, he would have to take the long view and get started early. An alliance with Richard Nixon could be useful. Nixon would vouch for his rightward bona fides, and thereby make moot the patrician residues of Yale that still clung to him.
Nixon Presidency, 1969
As for Nixon, he understood only too well the perils he faced. With his paranoid tendencies, he worried constantly about where the next challenge would come from. Robert Dallek’s biography Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power describes Nixon as “an introspective man whose inner demons both lifted him up and brought him down.” When he looked at George Bush—a handsome, patrician Yale man with no worries about money—he likely saw another version of Jack Kennedy, which for him was not a recommendation.
But people were nagging Nixon, people he couldn’t ignore—all the more so once he locked up the nomination in 1968. “As your finance chairman in Texas,” wrote Bill Liedtke, “I am committed, and will back you up what ever you decide [about a running mate]. However . . . George Bush, in spite of his short service in the House, could help you win. George has appeal to young people and can get them fired up. He’s got plenty of energy. Lastly, Dick, he’s a loyal kind of guy and would support you to the hilt.”
Instead Nixon chose a running mate who was less capable and ambitious, and consequentially, less threatening. Having angered both Prescott and Poppy with his choice of Agnew, he knew that he would need to make amends to them and their allies.
Outside the small circle of longtime Nixon loyalists, the Bush group seems to have fared better than any other party faction in Nixon’s first administration. Bill Clements, Poppy’s friend and sometime oil drilling partner, became deputy secretary of defense, a position that involved securing oil for the U.S. military. Bush’s ex-business partner Bill Liedtke of Pennzoil (formerly Zapata Petroleum), the prodigious Nixon fund-raiser, successfully recommended former Baker Botts lawyers for positions on the Federal Power Commission. The FPC made crucial decisions affecting the natural gas industry, including one that directly benefited Pennzoil.
For his chief political adviser, Nixon chose Harry S. Dent of South Carolina, the architect of his “Southern strategy,” which had centered on wooing conservative Democrats to the Republican cause. Poppy Bush’s election from Texas’s Seventh Congressional District had benefited greatly from this strategy. As his top aide, Dent chose Tom Lias, who had run the candidate selection process for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee during that election cycle. These men, especially Lias, are little known today. But they would play crucial roles in the process that would lead ultimately to Nixon’s resignation.
Meanwhile, to head the Republican National Committee (RNC), Nixon picked Rogers Morton, a congressman from Kentucky, who had been his convention floor manager. Morton, a Yale graduate, was an old friend of the Bushes who had served with Poppy on the Ways and Means Committee.
Morton in turn named as his deputy chairman Jimmy Allison, Poppy’s longtime friend, administrative assistant and former campaign manager. Because at the time the RNC chairmanship was a part-time position and Morton was busy on Capitol Hill, Allison was the de facto day-to-day manager of the Republican Party. This was a huge step up for Allison, and quite a triumph for the Bushes. In a phrase, they had the place wired.
Once in the Oval Office, some presidents have warmed to the public aspects of their role. FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton come to mind. Others retreat into a kind of self-imposed exile. They cut themselves off from outside advice and effectively hunker down against attack. That was the case with Nixon, whose reclusive tendencies were abetted by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.
As a longtime protégé of the Rockefeller family, Kissinger was suspect on both the left and right. Movement conservatives in particular feared that the Rockefellers had a grand global design that included accommodation, rather than confrontation, with the Russians and Chinese. Nixon would become embroiled in this growing dispute within the Republican Party, between the two factions known as the “traders” and the “warriors.”
The traders were the Eastern Establishment internationalists who supported free trade, arguing that it would prevent another world war. They generally had a sense of noblesse oblige that translated into the “corporate liberalism” of a Nelson Rockefeller, then New York governor, who believed that ameliorative social programs for the needy were the price of a healthy business climate. The warriors, on the other hand, generally represented new money from the Southwest and Southern California. Although they lacked experience in foreign policy, they resented having to take backseats to their Eastern rivals, especially when it came to the increasingly important task of securing oil and mineral resources in such places as Southeast Asia.
Personally, Nixon felt more comfortable with the warriors. But especially in his first term, he worked to accommodate both sides, while he and Kissinger fashioned foreign policy themselves, in a way that bypassed the Pentagon, the CIA, and even the State Department. He wasn’t about to let the “the striped- pants faggots on Foggy Bottom” tell him what to do, he said, and that included the Yalies at the CIA. As his secretary of state Nixon chose his old friend William Rogers, with whom he had worked on the Alger Hiss spy case. Rogers knew little about foreign policy, but Nixon considered that a good thing, because Rogers would keep quiet and do as he was told. “Few Secretaries of State can have been selected because of their President’s confidence in their ignorance of foreign policy,” Kissinger wryly observed.
However, this determined effort to conduct foreign policy in secret and exclude the entities normally charged with that function caused growing alarm, particularly within the military and the defense industry. Eventually, the Nixon administration would discover that the military had its own powerful “back channel.” That apparatus, little recalled today, was the equivalent of a spy ring inside the Nixon White House. Its operatives passed top-secret documents from the National Security Council to the Joint Chiefs of Staff without Nixon’s knowledge. On discovering what seemed to him not only disloyalty but also borderline treason, Nixon expressed his fury to aides, who convinced him that the only option was to handle the matter quietly.
The First Challenge
Despite his earlier attempts to keep the peace among the party’s factions, Nixon was soon embroiled in a series of power struggles. Perhaps the most important concerned the oil depletion allowance, as members of Congress in 1969 launched new attempts to rein in the costly giveaway. Representative George H. W. Bush was the industry’s Horatio at the bridge—or perhaps its George Wallace. “In an era when civil rights became the great moral issue that galvanized liberals,” observed Bush biographer Herbert S. Parmet, “the targeted oil depletion allowance was not far behind.”
Poppy had barely completed his first term in the House. But he had an urgent task. President Nixon was under pressure to support a reduction in the depletion allowance, and some signals were emerging from the administration that he might do just that. Poppy, joined by Senator Tower, flew to Nixon’s vacation home in California to help save the day. The trip was apparently a success. Nixon affirmed his intention to block the reform efforts. Bush later wrote Nixon’s treasury secretary, David Kennedy, to thank him for reversing an earlier statement hinting that the White House might cave in to popular pressure for reform, adding: “I was also appreciative of your telling how I bled and died for the oil industry.”
The moment passed, but protecting the allowance remained uppermost in the minds of independent oilmen—and Nixon was not proving sufficiently stalwart on the matter. The White House sent political operative Jack Gleason out to West Texas to calm flaring tempers. “Harry [Dent] sent me down to Midland, to the Midland Petroleum Club, to talk to them about the depletion allowance,” Gleason told me in a 2008 interview. Gleason had trouble understanding the complex issue, so he was not clear on precisely what the oilmen were mad about. “Almost got lynched and run out of town . . . It was a very ugly scene. Fortunately one guy . . . saved my ass, or otherwise I’d still be buried somewhere at the Petroleum Club.”
A battle to control the soul of the president, not unusual in any administration, was under way. While the conservative, hawkish in de pen dent oilmen thought he was insufficiently loyal to their cause, the Rockefeller Republicans felt the same from their side. Writing in the Dallas Morning News, Robert Baskin noted fears among the Eastern corporate elite that Nixon was being dominated by the right wing. A few months later Baskin further underlined the point in an article headlined “Divisiveness Within GOP Rising.” In truth, Nixon’s reign was a highly complicated one, far from doctrinaire, with issues handled on a case- by-case basis. Thus, Attorney General John Mitchell could say the administration was against busing but for desegregation. Nixon himself could complain about people in his administration being too tough on corporations, yet his Justice Department aggressively pursued antitrust actions that angered industry. While waging the Vietnam War, Nixon held secret peace talks with the North Vietnamese Communists. He also produced a series of liberal-leaning reforms, including creating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And Nixon implemented the first major affirmative action program. But some of his Supreme Court nominees leaned far to the right, and Nixon and his attorney general championed tough law-and-order tactics against political protesters and dissidents. His presidency was a mixed bag, meaning no one was entirely happy, and everyone perceived someone else as having the inside track.
Thus, the July 1969 Dallas Morning News article describing moderates as fearful of the influence of a cabal of conservatives—a cabal that included such names as Tower, Morton, Dent, and Allison. What was left unsaid was that all these people were in the Bush camp. If nothing else, it was a testament to Poppy’s dexterity: the embodiment of blue-blooded Wall Street interests had morphed into a champion of the radical, upstart Southwest.
Bush’s Run for the Money: The 1970 Campaign
As early as the 1968 GOP convention, Nixon had tried to keep the Bush family close but not too close. He assured Poppy that he would support him in another Senate bid, and Poppy took that seriously. By January 1969, even before Nixon’s inauguration, Poppy’s administrative aide Jimmy Allison was back in Houston to lay the groundwork for another campaign. (After several months in Houston, Allison would return to D.C. as deputy director of the Republican Party.) There was no mistaking Poppy’s ultimate goal, though—and “ultimate” in Poppy’s mind did not mean that far in the future. As his brother Jonathan commented, “It was a long shot but he wanted to get into position to run for President.”
Nixon’s support for Poppy’s Senate bid made sense strategically for the Republicans, and besides, he had little choice. As congressman, Bush had supported him unfailingly, backing even the president’s most unpopular policies, from the continuation of the Vietnam War to the Supreme Court nomination of Judge G. Harrold Carswell, a purported racist.
Nixon knew that in running for the Senate, Bush risked giving up a safe House seat and his powerful position on the Ways and Means Committee, which was so crucial to the oil industry. To sweeten the pot, Nixon told Poppy that if he won, he’d be in the running for the VP slot in 1972, replacing Agnew; if Bush lost, Nixon would try to find him a desirable cabinet position.
Bush’s prospects seemed bright in 1970. His presumptive Democratic opponent, Senator Ralph Yarborough, was an unreconstructed liberal populist in an increasingly conservative, buttoned-down state. Then disaster struck. Former congressman Lloyd Bentsen Jr. entered the Democratic primary—and he was even more conservative than Bush. In a summer 1970 newspaper column, Bush family friend William F. Buckley lamented Bentsen’s entry, praised Bush as “genuinely talented on the platform and in the ways of the world,” and quoted Rogers Morton that Poppy was the only one of his generation of GOP figures who could “go all the way to the top.”
Bush raised enormous amounts of money and campaigned relentlessly. But for a second time he fell short. This was particularly hard for the competitive Poppy, whose father had become U.S. senator from Connecticut without even bothering to run for the House. He was disconsolate and confessed to his old friend Robert Mosbacher, “I feel like Custer.”
President Nixon offered pro forma condolences. “I am sure . . . that you will not allow this defeat to discourage you in your efforts to continue to provide leadership for our party and the nation,” he wrote in a cable on November 5, 1970, right after the election.
Bush waited for a more tangible form of consolation, and then waited some more. When a friend tipped him off that Treasury Secretary David Kennedy was leaving, Bush called Nixon and made a modest pitch for a job—not of secretary but of undersecretary. Poppy knew too little about finance to assume the top post. Besides, it was the undersecretary who dealt specifically with issues of concern to oil interests.
Nixon’s response came as a shock. His new treasury secretary would be John Connally, the Texas governor and conservative Democrat who had just helped defeat Bush by throwing his weight behind Lloyd Bentsen. Connally would most certainly not want Bush on his staff—not that Bush would have wanted to serve under him anyway. And even if Connally had been willing, it was unlikely that Nixon would okay having two Texans in top Treasury Department posts. For Nixon’s part, he wanted at least one Democrat in his cabinet, to create a perception of bipartisanship, and also help his Southern strategy in the 1972 campaign. He also greatly admired the confident, handsome Connally. But the move must have raised suspicions in Bush’s mind about which candidate Nixon really had wanted to win the Texas Senate race.
Bush’s suspicions were on target. It would subsequently be shown that Nixon often secretly backed conservative Democrats, especially Southern hard-liners like Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, who would support his policies while staying out of Republican internecine squabbling.
Now, with the Connally business, Bush was livid. This is what he got for his loyalty to Nixon? John Tower put it this way: “He was out of work, and he wanted a job. As a defeated senatorial candidate, he hoped and fully expected to get a major job in the Administration. Yet the Administrationseemed to be paying more attention to the very Democrat who had put him on the job market. What gives?”
It was the kind of political snub that could not—and perhaps would not—be easily forgotten. Nixon had already disappointed Poppy by choosing Spiro Agnew over him as a running mate. Now this.
But Poppy was nothing if not resilient. Once again, he suggested a job to Nixon: ambassador to the United Nations. The case he made shows a keen grasp of Nixon’s neurosis and class envy, and a willingness to exploit it. There was a “dirth [sic] of Nixon advocacy in New York City,” where the U.N. was based, Bush wrote the president, noting that he was well suited to “fill that need in New York social circles.”
Nixon complied. Parmet described the meeting where the matter was settled:
Bush did most of the talking. He told the president that he preferred going to New York as ambassador to the United Nations… He and Barbara could . . . become invaluable . . . Nothing in the record of the session indicates any discussion of global factors, or, for that matter, US relationships with that world body.
The inexperienced Poppy was again being offered something for which he was ill-prepared—an important diplomatic post at a time of global turmoil. Among the hot-button issues on which he was expected to hold forth were the China-Taiwan dispute, Vietnam, and the Middle East conflict. Some of his closest friends were astonished. Congressman Lud Ashley, an old chum from his Skull and Bones days, put it this way: “George, what the fuck do you know about world affairs?” To which Poppy replied, “You ask me that in ten days.”
In private, neither Nixon nor his top adviser on foreign affairs, Henry Kissinger, thought much of Bush’s capacities. On April 27, 1971, several months after Poppy’s appointment, Nixon raised the possibility of sending Poppy on a secret diplomatic mission to China.
PRESIDENT NIXON: How about [UN Ambassador George H.W.] Bush?
KISSINGER: Absolutely not, he is too soft and not sophisticated enough.
PRESIDENT NIXON: I thought of that myself.
In a 1992 letter to Herbert Parmet, Nixon claimed that he had made the U.N. appointment because Bush “not only had the diplomatic skills to be an effective ambassador, but also because it would be helpful to him in the future to have this significant foreign-policy experience.” Although Bush was an amiable fellow, it is a stretch to believe that either the first or the second part of that statement fully conveyed Nixon’s true motives. But one thing was clear: Nixon did not feel he could leave Poppy entirely out in the cold.
Not only did Nixon appoint Poppy to the U.N.; he also upgraded the post to that of full ambassador, a title previously conferred only upon envoys to foreign states. He even made Bush a member of his cabinet. This was most unusual, but it put Bush in a unique position: although he traveled to Washington regularly for cabinet meetings, he was “a Washington outsider” by dint of his being based in New York. Whatever Nixon’s ultimate purpose in continuing to mollify him, these decisions clearly worked to Poppy’s advantage. When the Watergate scandal erupted, nobody thought to include George H. W. Bush in the circle of blame. He was literally out of sight, out of mind. But not necessarily out of the loop.