Sins of the Father

How Bush’s family life opposes his rhetoric.

Barbara and Jenna Bush

It is not the fault of Jenna or Barbara Bush that their father, the president, has gotten us into a war that he doesn’t know how to get us out of. And, although you can blame parents for almost anything, George W. and Laura Bush are no longer responsible for the behavior of their twin daughters, who by now are in their mid-20s. Presidents, like the rest of us, don’t get to choose their relatives. Remember Billy Carter?

Anyway, Jenna and Barbara are far from George W. Bush’s biggest familial problem. The law of averages has given him at least one ne’er-do-well brother—Neil. The biggest familial thorn in the president’s side is probably his father, always ready (or so it seems) to send out a Brent Scowcroft or a James Baker with some patronizing and excruciatingly public advice for the young pup. As for the twins, we actually know next to nothing about them. George and Laura Bush made the wise decision to keep them out of the limelight and—with surprisingly little slippage—they have managed to enforce this policy on the press, on the Republican propaganda machine, and on the girls themselves. Good for them.

From what little has leaked out, it seems that Jenna and Barbara are party girls, who like to drink and dance until the wee hours with aristocrats and frat boys. Jenna is interning for UNICEF in Latin America (not actually teaching kids, as originally reported, but involved somehow in education). The twins recently took a trip to Argentina. Their first night there, partying in Buenos Aires, Barbara lost her purse to a thief.

So, it would appear that George W. Bush’s daughters are not Amy Carter or Chelsea Clinton or Karenna Gore. So what? Are you surprised?

Nevertheless, there is a war on. It’s a war that has killed 3,000 Americans, most of them around Jenna and Barbara’s age or younger. It has killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis of all ages. And even more Americans and Iraqis have been injured, lost limbs, suffered excrutiating pain. President Bush can be quite eloquent in talking about the sacrifices of American soldiers and—he always adds—their families. In the Reagan style that has become almost mandatory, he uses anecdotes. He talks of Marine 2nd Lt. Frederick Pokorney Jr.: “His wife, Carolyn, received a folded flag. His two-year old daughter, Taylor, knelt beside her mother at the casket to say a final goodbye.” And of Staff Sgt. Lincoln Hollinsaid *, who “in his last letter home from the Middle East … said how much he appreciated getting mail from his family. He added, ‘I wish my truck and boat knew how to write.’ “

Bush says truly, about the American dead, “They did not yearn to be heroes. They yearned to see mom and dad again and to hold their sweethearts and to watch their sons and daughters grow. They wanted the daily miracle of freedom in America, yet they gave all that up and gave life itself for the sake of others.”

Living your life according to your own values is a challenge for everyone, and must be a special challenge if you happen to be the president. No one thinks that the president should have to give up a child to prove that his family is as serious about freedom as these other families he praises. But it would be reassuring to see a little struggle here—some sign that the Bush family truly believes that American soldiers are dying for our freedom, and it’s worth it. Who knows? Maybe they have had huge arguments about this. Maybe George and Laura wanted the girls to join the Red Cross, or the Peace Corps, or do something that would at least take them off the party circuit for a couple of years. And perhaps the girls said no. But I doubt this scenario, don’t you?

The opposite approach to this question is taken by Jim Webb, the incoming senator from Virginia. Webb seems to believe that because he served in Vietnam, anyone who could have but didn’t should shut up. That includes people who opposed that war—that is, who got it right—as well as those who supported it. Webb’s son is serving in Iraq now, and—in a gesture that would throw Dr. Freud for a loop—Webb wears the son’s combat boots. At a White House reception for new members of Congress, Webb avoided the receiving line, and then, when Bush came up and asked him how his son was doing, he basically told the president to flake off. Webb’s self-righteousness can be obnoxious. But at least he is being morally serious.

At first it seemed like a brilliant strategy—repellent, but brilliant—to isolate most Americans from the cost of the war in Iraq. It’s starting to seem a lot less so. As the deaths and injuries mount, more and more people are touched by the war—and become understandably resentful of those who are not. Bush, in his speeches, is eloquent about what no one doubts—the sacrifice—but banal about what most people have come to doubt: the purpose.

But no amount of eloquence can overcome the bald contrast between that rhetoric and how his own family lives. His daughters are over 21, and he can’t control them, but that doesn’t let them off the hook. They are now independent moral actors, and their situation requires that they either publicly oppose their father’s war or do something to support it. Is it unfair to expect Jenna and Barbara to shape their lives around their father’s folly? Of course it’s unfair. If this is war, then unfairness comes with the territory.

Correction, Dec. 5, 2006: Due to an editing error, this article originally referred to Staff Sgt. Lincoln Hollinsaid as Lincoln Hollin. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)