It was like a coming out party. After eight years of purdah, Aitch and Dubya finally emerged into the glare of the television cameras.
Like a young couple newly exposed to the public eye, with Fox Television acting as their chaperone, they looked quaintly bemused by the attention. It was their first interview together since January 2001, when the George Bushes became the second father-and-son team in U.S. history to both claim the keys to the White House.
As if to underline the family connection, on Sunday they both wore dark grey suits and checked blue ties. Senior sounded the frailer of the two, but Junior, surprisingly, had the whiter hair and a more furrowed brow.
Despite the 22 years that separate them, it was the older man who showed deference. He called his son “the president,” while the younger man used the far more familiar “forty-one,” his father’s number in the list of U.S. presidents, or just plain “Dad.”
The question we’ve all been waiting to ask them is, when W took his most contentious decisions — unseating Saddam, say (Dad never did that), or condoning waterboarding — was his father quietly fuming in the background, or was he on the phone egging him on?
According to the Bushes, the truth was neither. If you’re a Bush, then blood is far thicker even than the presidency.
“I was determined to stay out of the way,” Aitch said. “All this speculation about what does the old guy think — you don’t need that.”
“When I talked to my Dad I was more interested in the father-and-son relationship,” Dubya concurred. “You have plenty of advisers, but you rarely have people who can pick up the phone and say ‘I love you son, hang in there son.’”
People tend to think that the interactions of U.S. presidents 41 and 43 must be very clinical, 43 said. But it was quite the opposite. “Dad’s phone calls are not ‘you must do this or that,’ his phone calls are ‘I love you,’ and that’s very powerful.”
It’s hard to tell through the anaesthetised medium of TV, but was there a slight stiffening of Aitch’s shoulders when he heard this outpouring from his touchy-feely, Bushy-tailed eldest son?
Things got slightly awkward when the two men were asked to assess each other’s presidency. Forty-one played a straight bat, saying he viewed his son’s two terms “very positively — he’s been tested like no other president.” Forty-three probably thought he was being equally complimentary, but it sounded close to damning with faint praise. He said of his father’s period in office — just one term, remember, not his two — “He was almost too humble to be president.”
Surely the shoulders stiffened then.
How would both their presidencies be remembered? Dubya leapt at the question, saying he was still reading biographies of George Washington. “If they are still writing about the first guy, the 41st guy and the 43rd guy simply don’t need to worry about it.”
Aitch paused for a second, as if searching for a suitable response to his son’s astonishingly blase comment. Then he found it: “We won’t be around to worry about it,” he said. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009