Baby Bush: Closet Liberal or Precocious Trickster?

In an otherwise ho-hum portrait last Sunday of the youthful years in Houston for Texas governor and likely presidential candidate George W. Bush, Chronicle political writer Alan Bernstein did expose a hitherto unreported claim concerning the Shrub's early political outlook.

Bernstein quoted Houston art supply dealer Ben Russell, the onetime 1970 Texas Senate candidate of the Peace and Freedom party, a zany national group whose presidential ticket was once headed by the late Dr. Benjamin Spock. Russell contended that the young Bush helped organize voters in Houston's black community for the fringe party, even as his own father was running for the Senate. According to Russell, Bush's involvement was evidence he "was a renegade to his father's politics."

Bush is quoted in the article as saying Russell's memory is faulty and denies doing anything to undermine his father's candidacy. Several Democratic veterans suggest that in fact Bush could have been helping his dad by organizing for Peace and Freedom. Here's how:

The black vote in Houston at that time was almost exclusively Democratic, and Bush's father was locked in a tight race with Democratic challenger Lloyd Bentsen. Bentsen had just been through a bruising Democratic primary to oust incumbent Ralph Yarborough. In the process, Bentsen's media campaign tarring Yarborough as a leftist infuriated liberals.

Those liberals would never vote Republican, but they might be coaxed to vote for a left-oriented third party rather than Bentsen. Any votes diverted from Bentsen directly helped Bush. Thus the politicos' suspicion that what Bush was actually engaged in was a cynical effort to help his father by feigning interest in the splinter party.

Former Houston mayor Fred Hofheinz served as Bentsen's organizer in the Houston black community in 1970 and says there was no doubt who had the younger Bush's allegiance.

"I was in several surrogate speaker situations against George W.," recalls Hofheinz. "His daddy had sent him into the black community to serve as speaker at the events where I would show up as surrogate speaker for Bentsen. I don't know about Peace and Freedom, whatever the hell that was, but he was appearing on behalf of his father in the Houston black community in that race."

Russell also credited the young Bush with helping progressive school board candidates in their races. But former HISD school board member Gertrude Barnstone, a groundbreaking progressive in Houston politics, doesn't remember any involvement by him on the school board campaigns. Barnstone also attended Peace and Freedom party get-togethers and does not recall ever seeing or hearing of George W. Bush.

Russell did not return repeated calls from the Insider concerning the possibility he had been a patsy for the 1970 Bush Senate campaign, rather than a leftist political inspiration for the candidate's son.

-- Tim Fleck

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