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Folksy and friendly political portraits. Campaign biographies

By Leonard Bushkoff / March 4, 1988

AMONG the flummery that presidential elections generate is the campaign biography/autobiography. A biography can help dignify the meager record of the McGoverns and Carters - and of a John F. Kennedy, whose campaign biography in 1960 by the authoritative James MacGregor Burns helped establish the genre. Yet such books, though destined ultimately for remainder tables or yard sales, should not be ignored. This is not truth but mythology, revealing how Candidate X or Y hopes to be perceived - and admired. So the books reviewed here are strong on folksiness and friendliness, on small-town childhood and supportive marriages, on optimism and good cheer. Of introspection and self-revelation there is little.

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George Bush does tell us about repressing his youthful anger, and Pat Robertson - predictably - discourses on the ``emptiness'' that brought him to fundamentalism. Only Bob Dole lets the mask slip, mentioning the despair caused by his war wounds.

The ideal is a forthright, laissez-faire, authentically American problem-solver and nice guy, who prefers barbecue to pesto and Peoria to Paris - or even Washington. The reality is prosaic men with vast ambitions and some competence but little vision or imagination.

Consider George Bush. His problem is clear: patrician behavior. In Looking Forward, by George Bush with Victor Gold (Doubleday, New York. 270 pp. $18.95), no amount of fudging of stories about the Navy and Texas can fully camouflage his background, his distance from ordinary people, and his paradoxical combination of ambition and diffidence. Ambition has spurred him toward the Oval Office since 1976. Throughout his career, diffidence and amiability have made him a loyal and hardworking - if overly cautious - team player in one tightly structured organization after another.

It began in a large, competitive family in the classic bedroom suburb of Greenwich, Conn., with wealthy, traditional parents who ruled firmly, demanded achievement, and bestowed little praise. ``Poppy'' Bush didn't disappoint, doing all the right things from early on. He went from Phillips Exeter into Navy combat flying in the Pacific during World War II. Married at 20, he galloped through Yale by 1948; of ideas, courses, teachers, he says nothing, of his college baseball career, far too much.

Soon it was off to west Texas and big money in oil. It wasn't easy for an outsider, but Bush is skilled at adjusting to hierarchical situations where loyalty, hard work, and self-discipline are crucial. So he chokes off with a few platitudes about Tex-Mex cooking what might have been a solid story of risk, grit, and guts by a Yankee on the rise. It doesn't wash: The true George Bush remains an establishment type, only mildly successful in elections (two congressional terms from a wealthy Houston suburb, followed by a defeat in a Senate race), but much more so on the appointments ladder from 1970 to 1976. It was as United Nations ambassador, Republican National Committee chairman, head of the liaison office in China, and CIA director that Bush acquired experience and prominence.