Washington — IT was 1968. Tensions were explosive. A crowd of angry white voters booed and catcalled as George Bush, then a young congressman, stood up to speak in his home district of Houston. Mr. Bush had just taken a risky political step. He had voted for a controversial open-housing bill to help minorities. Blacks were demanding it. Only a few days earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down. But whites were bitter about the new law.
Bush and members of his staff had been threatened because of his vote.
A state legislator, Bill Archer, was on the stage with Bush that night. Mr. Archer, now a congressman, says ``the atmosphere was electric. The intensity of emotions was about as great as I've ever seen.''
Critics charged that the open-housing law would lead to a government takeover of private property, a first step toward communism.
But Bush met the issue head-on. He spoke about responsibility, about the war in Vietnam, about black soldiers dying there. The jeers subsided.
``Somehow it seems fundamental that a man should not have a door slammed in his face because he is a Negro or speaks with a Latin American accent,'' Bush told the crowd. The audience listened silently. Finally, as his speech ended, the crowd at Memorial High School gave him a standing ovation.
Today, Bush calls that experience the highlight of his 25-year public career. He had taken a bold stand, based on his understanding of what was right, and he had won.
Vice-President Bush has now moved to a much larger stage. He is bidding for the White House in 1988. But this time, some critics say Bush is running a campaign of caution - no bold moves, no strong stands on controversial issues.
``George figures, just play it safe. He's got a little lead,'' says Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, Bush's main rival for 1988.
Yet those who know Bush well reject the notion that he has changed from those days when he stood up for civil rights. They say he is still a man of principle, but one now playing a different, and more difficult, role as vice-president.
Interviewed last Tuesday at his White House office, Bush rejected the advice of those who urge him to take dramatic stands, to swing for political home runs in the 1988 campaign.
Bush, who was captain of his baseball team at Yale, explains his approach to politics in baseball terms. He says he always preferred the quiet, sturdy Lou Gehrig - the famous ``Iron Horse'' of baseball - to the flashy home-run king, Babe Ruth.
``I don't feel the compulsion to be the glamour, one-shot, smart comment kind of guy. I think experience, steadiness, knowing how to interact with people is the way to get things done better,'' he says.
``But you've got to believe something strongly. I believe, as I look into the future, that the best road to opportunity is education. ... You've got to start moving right away when you get to be president on those things. But ... not in terms of a home run. ... It's a steadier approach, it's the Gehrig approach, that's necessary.''
If the early polls are correct, Bush now stands the best chance of anyone in America to be the next president of the United States. The Gallup Organization reports that 97 percent of the voters know his name. Just about everyone knows something of his background as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, United Nations ambassador, envoy to China, Republican Party chairman, and congressman.
Many also know that he was a bomber pilot, the youngest in the Navy, during World War II. They know he had a top-flight education (Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Yale University), that his father was Sen. Prescott Bush Sr. of Connecticut, and that he is moderately wealthy.
Yet Bush, for all his visibility, and his many public posts, remains an intensely private person, one who admits he has trouble opening up to others about his personal feelings, emotions, beliefs.
For the last seven years, Bush has been a cheerleader for Ronald Reagan, a man who counseled the President, but who at all times demonstrated unfailing loyalty.
Yet as Bush tries to move into the pilot's seat in January 1989, the vital question for American voters is: What makes George Bush tick? What does he believe? And where would he lead America?
Much can be learned about Bush by looking at his past. Presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution notes that Bush has one of the most impressive r'esum'es of anyone ever to seek the White House.
His career got off to a flying start. On his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the Navy to become an aviator. During the years that followed in the Pacific campaign against Japan, he had a number of narrow escapes.
Once, mechanical failure forced Bush down in the Pacific in his TBM Avenger, a single-engined bomber, with a full load of 500-pounders still aboard. The bombs exploded moments after Bush and his crew paddled away from the sinking plane in their life raft.
Another time his aircraft was hit by flak during an attack on Chichi Jima. Despite the damage, Bush completed the mission, then ditched the plane at sea. Both his crewmates died, one when his parachute failed to open. For his performance that day, Bush won the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Even then his adventures weren't over. Rescued by a submarine, the Finback, he suddenly found himself in the underwater Navy. The Finback was on combat patrol and soon it was attacked by a Japanese Nell bomber and was depth-charged by enemy warships. Bush clearly found life on a sub tougher than combat flying, and he later wrote in ``Looking Forward,'' his autobiography:
``Taking depth charges in a sub - even for 10 minutes - could seem like an eternity.''
After the war, Bush wanted to make up for lost time. He rushed through his education at Yale in 2 years. Then he loaded up his red Studebaker, and along with his wife, Barbara, and young child, headed for the land-of-quick-money, the oil country of west Texas. He had $3,000 in his pocket (saved from the Navy), and he was out to make his fortune.
Bush could have chosen a safer course. At the time, his father was a partner in the investment banking firm of Brown Brothers, Harriman Company. The family was well off. But Bush rejected the silver-spoon life and moved his family into a duplex (with a single shared bath) in Odessa, Texas. He wanted to learn the oil business from the ground up and worked in a drilling supply store, painted machinery, and traveled selling oil equipment.
Eventually, at age 26, he teamed up with a friend to launch the Bush-Overbey Oil Development Company, which traded oil leases and royalties. Later, Bush pioneered in offshore oil-drilling equipment, and his company was eventually absorbed by what is now Pennzoil.
By the time he was in his 30s, Bush was looking for new worlds to conquer. Politics seemed a logical choice.
Texas was Democratic in those days, but Bush was a Republican, and helped lay the groundwork for the GOP in Texas. Though he was whipped twice in races for the US Senate, he was blessed with a series of choice positions in Washington, starting with four years in the US House.
Sam Gibbons, a veteran Florida congressman, remembers Bush's arrival in Washington where he was a ``vigorous, hardworking, and honest'' freshman member of the House Ways and Means Committee. But every so often, Bush would ``get a little too active'' for the majority Democrats, including Mr. Gibbons.
If that happened, Gibbons chuckles, the Democrats would toss in a ``Texas amendment,'' maybe something affecting the oil companies. ``That drew Bush's attention for a while,'' Gibbons says. The vice-president laughs at that story, but says he thinks it's apocryphal.
Bush's broad experience gives him a unique perspective on American politics (he jokes that he ``doesn't hold a job very long'').
As he has moved from job to job and city to city (he's moved 28 times in 40 years of marriage), he has also accumulated a wide array of friends. He keeps up with hundreds of them by dashing off quick notes, or chatting on the telephone.
Indeed, friendship and loyalty are central to Bush's view of life and duty. At times, he has been so loyal to Mr. Reagan that it threatened to hurt his career. At other times, he has stood by friends in trouble, such as Oliver North and John Poindexter, who were involved in the Iran-contra affair, or Spiro Agnew, who was forced to resign as vice-president.
The other day, Bush took some new flak in the press for inviting Mr. and Mrs. North and Mr. and Mrs. Poindexter to his home for a Christmas party. The criticism angered him.
``Let 'em fire,'' he said in this interview. ``To suggest that at Christmas time you can't hold out the hand of friendship to somebody, pick 'em up, wonderful wives, and say, `I care.' Just a tiny kindness. If that's what politics is all about, and if that's what this city is all about, you may have hit what I feel strongly about. I don't turn my back on friends.''
Even when a friend is under intense criticism, Bush is inclined to stand close. One story making the rounds in Washington was that on the day Mr. Agnew was forced out of the White House on charges that he had taken bribes, Bush invited him over to play tennis. Bush says that report is inaccurate, but says that ``I might well have done it.'' Even though he did not invite Agnew over that day, ``it wasn't because I was embarrassed to. He's a friend. Friend gets in trouble, I'm not one who believes in turning a back on.''
At the time, Bush was the Republican national chairman. He was asked: Would inviting Agnew to play tennis, or to your house, condone what he had done?
``Absolutely not,'' Bush says.
``Because those two things are separate. ... A little kindness when somebody's had the hell kicked out of them, that's not going to hurt a damn thing. And I have the satisfaction of feeling that way.
``And that doesn't mean I embrace anything he's done. You can't point to incidents where I've been fraternizing with Agnew, and thus condoning something he's done wrong. But to lift a guy when he's hurt is not a bad thing to do in life.''
Could one who feels so strongly about friendship find the inner strength to discipline friends and associates in government?
Or would he cling to friends even when it was time for them to leave, as Jimmy Carter did to Bert Lance?
In a sense, Bush has already been tested. In 1974, at the height of the Watergate crisis, as the Republican chairman, Bush wrote to his good friend, Richard Nixon, to say: ``It is my considered judgment that you should resign.'' In his book, Bush explains: ``My letter ... was written because a political party and the country is bigger and more important than any one person, even a President.''
Bush might have added: even if that President is a friend.
Years later, Bush concedes he was fooled by Mr. Nixon during Watergate.
``I took the man at his word. Hey, a man looks you in the eye and says ... there isn't any smoking gun. Then you go off, you represent that to members of Congress that are defending him. ... There's an enormous letdown and disappointment.''
Bush says his long experience has taught him that it is ``values, integrity, honesty'' that are important in politics. He rejects the concept that one should rise or fall on single issues.
Ruth Morgan, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, has watched Bush's career unfold since he was a county chairman in Houston. She says there are two kinds of people in politics: revolutionaries and consolidationists. They are divided by temperament and philosophy.
``To a large extent, Bush is a consolidationist,'' says Dr. Morgan. ``He is not going to charge off on some issue, and live or die by it. But he will make the most of it.''
She says Bush's main traits are loyalty, commitment to the values of family and hard work, and perseverance. ``To a jaded society, this may seem a little too good to be true, so it create some suspicion.''
Rep. Jack Fields (R) of Texas draws a similar conclusion:
``People see his humility and confuse it with weakness and lack of direction. ... That is a myth.''
If Bush has a flaw, analysts say it is his tendency to be defensive. Even after many years in public life, he hasn't yet learned to shrug off criticism. At times, this makes him seem a bit peevish.
Bush says his faith (he is an Episcopalian) has given him the strength to continue despite difficulties, including the time when he and his wife lost one of their children to an illness.
``I don't believe that you could be president without having some faith,'' he says. He and his wife pray every night, he confides.
After his long career, in both the public and private sector, Bush still looks upon his family as the center of his universe. In his book, when describing what is greatest achievement is, he says simply:
``The fact that our children still come home.''