Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recently told my Daily Caller colleague Alex Pappas that he has "pretty much quit answering" questions about his controversial father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Referencing George W. Bush's campaign for president in 2000, Paul continued: "Did he get tons of questions about his dad? ... I don't know that he did, to tell you the truth."
This is a silly semantic game for Paul to play. Whether or not George W. Bush was directly asked a lot of questions about George H.W. Bush in the run-up to the 2000 race is almost irrelevant. Because it is something close to an irrefutable fact that the elder Bush has loomed large over W.'s career and life for decades. In the minds of millions of Americans, there was no separating the son from the father — much in the same way there is no separating Hillary from Bill, or Jeb from a pair of Georges.
A simple search of the news archives is telling. As far back as 1978, when George W. Bush lost a bid for Congress, Bush declared: "We don't need dad in this race." When his opponent attacked him over his family connections and pedigree, Bush responded: "Would you like me to run as Sam Smith? The problem is I can't abandon my background. I'm not trying to hide behind any facade."
George H.W. Bush was a congressman, director of the CIA, vice president, and president. It is a legacy no son could escape — particularly a son who entered his father's profession.
Ron Paul does not have nearly the record that the first President Bush did. But he is still a leading political figure in his own right. Perhaps the country's most famous libertarian, the maverick congressman from Texas has an extremely passionate following, and became a nationally known figure thanks to several failed presidential bids. Rand Paul is kidding himself if he thinks he won't have to deal with his dad's legacy.
If after four years in the political limelight, Rand is already tired of answering questions about his dad, well, he's got a long haul ahead of him. The "fortunate son" charge first lodged against Bush in 1978 was leveled more than two decades later, during the 2000 GOP primary. "If [John] McCain's book is titled Faith of My Fathers," quipped Margaret Carlson, "Bush's should be called Friends of My Father."
Of course, George W. Bush also faced the challenge of subtly distancing himself from his father's "read my lips" flip-flopping image, without throwing the old man under the bus. Today, it's easy to see 41 as a wise old statesman, but in 1999 and 2000, skeptical conservatives still didn't trust the Bush clan.
The good news for the younger Bush was that after eight years of President Bill Clinton, Republicans were desperate for a winner (and the perception of being a winner can cover a multitude of perceived sins).
And for us mainstream conservatives, word had gotten out that Dubya was more conservative than his father — that he was "one of us." He came of age studying Lee Atwater's campaign style and Ronald Reagan's political philosophy, we were told. The son was not like the father, the whispers went, answering questions we all had, even if they weren't asked of the candidate himself.
Good luck finding any contemporaneous documentation to back this up, mind you. You'll just have to take my word for it. We conservatives were somewhat quiet about it. But a 2003 Bill Keller article retroactively confirms this messaging: "That Bush is Reaganesque is a conceit that some conservatives have wishfully, tentatively embraced since he emerged as a candidate, and one that Bush himself has encouraged," Keller noted. "The party faithful have been pining for a new Reagan since Reagan, and for Bush the analogy has the added virtue of providing an alternative political lineage; he's not Daddy's Boy, he's Reagan Jr." (Emphasis added)
For all the talk about Poppy and Dubya — and I'm sure they have a strong bond — the backers of George W. Bush had to burn a lot of calories distancing the son from his old man. And this lasted well into his presidency. "When Bob Woodward asked President Bush if he had consulted with his father about the decision to go to war in Iraq," Bob Herbert recalled in 2005, "the president famously replied, 'There is a higher father that I appeal to.'"
Similarly, Rand cannot escape his father, just as Jeb and George W. couldn't, and just as Hillary Clinton cannot escape her husband. "Hillary Clinton spent eight years in the Senate and four at the State Department," says Dave Weigel, "but has to answer for her husband's actions in the mid-1990s. Paul, with three years behind him in the Senate, says he does not have to answer for what his father does right now."
I'm not sure it's fair to judge anyone based on the sins of their father, the successes of their father, or whom they're married to. But these comparisons and questions are inescapable, and have always been so. Rand Paul cannot appeal to historical precedence to evade comparisons to his dad. Because fair or not, voters still want to know how far the apple falls from the tree — and they always have.
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