A Crisis In The First Family

The report, compiled during the White House transition, must surely rank as one of the more fascinating and poignant documents of the Bush presidency. Forty-four pages long, it is entitled, "All the Presidents' Children," and it is a compendium of the private and not-so-private problems of presidential offspring through the years. Among other findings, the paper concludes that the sons and daughters of American presidents have suffered from higher-than-average rates of alcoholism, divorce and accidental death--disturbing evidence of the stress that living in the shadow of history can cause. Neil Bush may recall one prescient passage. "The presidential child in business faces the pressure of enormous scrutiny," the report's author, White House staffer Douglas Wead, wrote. "Two things the media and the public won't allow? Success or failure. Keep the business mediocre, maintain a personal low profile, and you will be left alone."

Neil Bush's low profile is gone, possibly for good--and whether he deserves it or not, the president's third son now stands at the vortex of the biggest financial scandal in the nation's history. The argument that the allegations are not criminal--that they consist of apparently unintentional violations of banking rules--does him no good at all: he is a quasipolitical figure, and he is fair game. Commenting on his son's difficulties, Bush pere told reporters that "it's tough on people in public life, to some degree. I've got three other sons and they all want to take to the barricades, every one of them when they see some cartoon [that is] totally demeaning of the honor of their brother . . . I say, 'You calm down now, we're in a different role . . . You can't react like you would if your brother was picked on in a street fight. That's not the way the system works'."

The Bush clan may have to wait for months to find out if the system works for Neil: if he continues to fight the regulators' complaint against him, final disposition of the case will not occur until November at the earliest. Meanwhile, GOP political operatives are worrying about the potential damage to Bush and to the party, and the president and Mrs. Bush are anguishing over their son's troubles. Privately, Bush has been far less philosophical than he was with the press last week. "If it weren't for me, Neil wouldn't be getting this heat," he told a family friend. "Bar and I feel so helpless."

First son George W. Bush, a Dallas oilman and co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, said Neil is "getting hosed because his father is president of the United States, period." Neil, he said, "is the most kind and gentle of all the Bushes--he cares. He's probably got the biggest heart in the family, and there's not a devious bone in his body."

As a family friend says, "Neil is the sweetest and most vulnerable" of the four Bush sons--George W., 44; Jeb, 37, a Florida developer, and Marvin, 33, a Washington investment broker. (The only daughter, Dorothy LeBlond, 30, recently returned to the Washington area after filing for divorce from her husband, a Maine contractor.) While confident that Neil did nothing wrong, friends acknowledge that his optimistic nature may have warped his judgment. Longtime friend Jonathan Orloff says, "When you see the best in everybody, and that's your narrow scope of vision, it really colors the way you see things. It may have made him vulnerable to participating in things others might find questionable." By his own account, Neil, 35, had a more difficult time with schoolwork than his siblings. His handicap, he suspects, was dyslexia, a fairly common impairment of the brain's ability to interpret printed symbols. Neil spent countless hours being tutored by his mother or attending remedial reading classes, and he was the first of the Bush boys not to go to Andover. A teacher at St. Albans, the prestigious Washington prep school he attended, once told his parents Neil might never graduate.

He did, in 1973, and enrolled at Tulane University, where he earned a B.A. in international relations and then an M.B.A. In 1979 Neil went to work in his father's first presidential campaign. He met his wife, the former Sharon Smith, while he was stumping door to door in New Hampshire during the hectic days of his father's losing campaign against Ronald Reagan for the- 1980 nomination. Settled in Denver since 1981, the couple have three children: Lauren, 6, Pierce, 4, and Ashley, 15 months.

The early '80s were a boom time in Denver, and Neil Bush went there with the same ambition that his father had had in Texas during the 1950s: to start an oil company, and to get rich. In 1983 he founded JNB Exploration, an oil and gas wildcatting outfit, with two partners, James Judd and Evans Nash, and with a $300,000 investment stake from i two bigger energy companies. JNB, according to Bush himself, drilled 31 test holes without ever hitting oil or gas, and by 1989 all three partners had gone on to different dreams. "It wasn't very common for guys his age to be able to drill that many times without a strike," says one industry source.

But Bush, by then, had become a well-known figure in Denver Republican circles--a good speaker, a pleasant guy, someone everyone liked. And it was politics, in all probability, that led him to Michael Wise and the Silverado Banking, Savings and Loan Association. Two former associates say that Wise, who was Silverado's chairman until it went bust in 1988, had discussed plans to run for the U.S. Senate--and one of them says "the acquisition of Neil Bush was a logical part of his plan." Bush went on the board in 1985, three years before the S&L went down. "Most of the people I've talked to think he was in over his head," says state Sen. Bill Owens, a Republican friend. The Feds will determine whether that is a fair appraisal of Neil Bush's time on the Silverado board. But it is a painfully accurate description of where he stands now.

In his office on the 20th floor of a Denver sky scraper, Neil Bush spoke I with NEWSWEEK'S Thomas M. DeFrank about his predicament. Excerpts:

Bush: It was touching. But it just hurts me inside that he has to focus any time or attention on this matter because this matter doesn't deserve that kind of time and focus.

Typical father-son conversations. He called [on Wednesday] to give me encouragement and just to express his feelings that this is going to pass ... It probably tears him apart that he can't step in and wave a magic wand, but I wouldn't want him to. He's doing the right thing in staying out of it. I'm glad Dad's removed himself from this because I can speak out now a little more aggressively.

I don't want to say that, but an awful lot of people have told me that's the case. I can't speak to why they're doing this ... I don't live inside the Beltway. I don't understand the politics. I'm a Denver guy ... Why bureaucrats within the [Office of Thrift Supervision] are trying so hard to make this case something more than it is is a question you need to ask them.

I should have thought about that. I probably am guilty of not being the savviest political guy in the Bush family ... [But] I didn't do anything wrong. I acted properly as a director. I was as fit as any director to sit on the board. I have lived up to a very high ethical standard in my personal conduct, and it will survive the test of any agency that looks into it ...

I have to admit a certain anger level has risen. The OTS has approached this in a malicious way. The fact is OTS has concealed evidence of the very disclosure they claim I didn't make . . . That's absolutely unfair and wrong and ought to be realized by the public ...

I feel like the Lone Ranger sometimes out here, and I would rather have it that way, because I don't want the public to see this as somebody fixing a Neil Bush problem.

I have kind of a sour taste in my mouth with regard to the system. A lot of tax dollars have been wasted in pursuing Neil Bush. It's unjustifiable and it's disillusioning to me. A lot of individuals are pursued by the IRS and other agencies. In most cases, there's probably justification. But in some cases, there isn't--and I can empathize with those people now that I'm being bullied by a very large, deep-pocketed authority out there.

I don't see where the light is at the end of the tunnel yet. It's so overwhelming right now. But the facts and the truth will win in the end ... This is the most aggravating thing I've ever been through in my life. But I've grown from it. I'm turning it into a positive experience.