George Bush Off The Record

Dad was worried. In the summer of 1998, he had sons running in two of the most important governors' elections in the country--George W., seeking re-election in Texas, and Jeb, heading for victory in Florida. "Your mother tells me," Bush wrote them in a letter on Aug. 1, "that both of you have mentioned to her your concerns about some of the political stories--the ones that seem to put me down and make me seem irrelevant--that contrast you favorably to a father who had no vision... I have been reluctant to pass along advice. Both of you are charting your own course, spelling out what direction you want to take your State... But the advice is this. Do not worry when you see the stories that compare you favorably to a Dad for whom English was a second language and for whom the word destiny meant nothing."

Kind, generous words--but the former president's book of letters suggests that he is in fact both a master of the language and a man of uncommon ambition. Bush understands that "destiny" is something you work for, and the countless notes he wrote over the years were part not just of everyday life in mid-century America but were also political coin. He may be tongue-tied at a rostrum, but on paper and now on e-mail, Bush is a gifted communicator who produces choppy but charming prose. The portrait of the former president in "All The Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings" (640 pages. Scribner. $30) is naturally favorable: Bush and his chief of staff, Jean Becker, chose which notes to include. But the result does offer an unusual glimpse of the private thoughts of a public figure.

Far from his caricature as an out-of-touch WASP, the Bush in these notes is an expressive, engaged family man. Perhaps the most moving is a letter he wrote his mother about Robin, the Bushes' daughter who died of leukemia at 3 1/2: "There is about our house a need... We need some starched crisp frocks to go with all our torn-kneed blue jeans and helmets. We need some soft blond hair to offset those crewcuts." The letters also show how Bush, always eager to make himself useful, maneuvered in the political wars. In a memo to President Ford and Henry Kissinger when he was being summoned from China to clean up the troubled CIA, Bush expresses reluctance, then accepts: "... [I]f this is what the President wants me to do the answer is a firm 'Yes'. In all candor I would not have selected this controversial position if the decision had been mine, but I serve at the pleasure of the President and I do not believe in complicating his already enormously difficult job."

Then there's the goofy Bush. In the 1940s, his mother asked his guidance when she apparently caught the future president's sister kissing a beau. This leads "Pop," Bush's family nickname, to a good-humored exegesis on the mores of "necking." ("For a kiss to mean engagement is a very beautiful idea, Mama, but it went out a while back I guess.") The letter is signed: "Much love, Pop, professor 'sexology' Ph.D." Years later, he dictated this to his diary about "Hee Haw" and the Grand Ole Opry: "It's a great mix of music, lyrics, barrooms, Mother, the flag and good-looking large women..."

In a recent note to his kids about aging, Bush wrote, "I don't expect to be on the A team any more; but I want to play golf with you. And I want to fish or throw shoes. And I want to rejoice in your victories be they political, or business, or family happiness victories." As the nation gets to know his sons, this book is a useful guide to understanding the man who raised them.