WASHINGTON - On George W. Bush's 29th birthday, his father wondered privately what would become of his eldest son.
''If he gets his teeth into something semi-permanent or permanent, he will do just fine,'' the man who would be America's 41st president wrote hopefully but uncertainly in his diary about the son who would become the 43rd.
Twenty-five years later, the elder Bush has his answer.
In a go-for-broke presidential race, George Walker Bush proved himself a tenacious competitor, audacious enough to seek the presidency after just six years in public office and confident enough to stand fast during five wrenching weeks of postelection limbo.
''I know you can't win unless you run,'' the future president likes to say. It is a phrase he first coined in his 1994 surprise ouster of Texas Gov. Ann Richards, a race even his mother doubted he could win.
During the peaks and valleys of the last five weeks, Bush ''had an absolute peace'' about him, says longtime friend Nancy Weiss, who recalls Bush playfully coming back with his own banter when she teasingly dubbed him ''Mr. Almost-President Bushie.''
''George is able to accept life,'' she said. ''He just thought this would work out for the best.''
As Bush himself said in a summertime interview, ''I'm comfortable with my fate,'' reflecting an open-to-possibilities outlook that was instilled from the start.
When the Bushes of Midland, Texas, sat down to supper, two future presidents scooting up to the table, politics was rarely on the menu.
''There wasn't anybody who sat around and acted presidential,'' recalled Doro Koch, kid sister to George W. Bush. ''We were always just a family.''
America's next president is a product of privilege and breeding with a strong streak of the ordinary in him as well, a quality that friends find disarming and critics disconcerting. The Ivy League-educated son of a president and grandson of a senator, is a plain-spoken ''guy's guy,'' in the view of friends.
Adjectives to describe the next president: energetic, loyal, blunt, impatient.
''He's a very high-energy, frenetic type of a person,'' says Clay Johnson, his chief of staff in the Texas Statehouse and a longtime friend. ''There's a lot of activity.''
As governor, Johnson says, Bush changed the topic a lot. He'd have three or four meetings on different subjects in one hour. No dawdling or lingering over decisions. Staffers who ramble or showed up unprepared were abruptly cut off.
''He's saucy; he's got an edge to him,'' said Mike Wood, a Washington businessman who's known Bush since high school and college. ''It makes him seem real and it makes him seem interesting.''
Critics look at the same person and see a man who fails to take serious things seriously enough and who lacks gravitas. They cite reports, for example, that he mocked pickax murderer Carla Faye Tucker after her execution.
Bush denied making light of the execution and says he simply knows how to keep things in perspective, maintain a sense of humor and get the most out of life, all part of his free-spirited West Texas upbringing.
''When it is all said and done,'' he once said, ''I want somebody to say, the man's dance card was full.''
Ever was it so. When Bush was 2, his dad wrote that young Georgie ''greets me and talks a blue streak, sentences disjointed of course but enthusiasm and spirit boundless.''
As a young man, Bush had a front-row seat for the historic events of his time, courtesy of his father's high-profile jobs culminating at the White House.
George W. squired Tricia Nixon to dinner on a blind date lined up by his dad. (He drove the family's purple Gremlin right up to the White House.) He hung out in China for six weeks during his dad's tenure as ambassador. (Had his tooth drilled and turned 29 while there.) He ensconced himself at campaign headquarters during his father's 1988 presidential bid. (As self-styled ''loyalty enforcer.'')
And yet, he remains oddly unaffected - an admirable quality to his friends, a worrisome sign to his detractors.
''He has a genuine simplicity,'' said Kenneth Cohen, an Atlanta dentist who went to Yale with Bush and still counts him as a friend.
Bush says he never felt a nudge to enter the family business of politics, or indeed any parental pressure to achieve greatness.
Of his father, Bush says, ''This is a man who never said, 'We're going to go out in the backyard and you hit the tackling dummy for 30 minutes a day. I want you to be the greatest pulling guard in the history of Midland High School.' If I had been inclined to become an artist, he'd have said, 'Fantastic, son, let me buy your first picture.'''
Still, Bush wrestled - still does, in fact - with the inevitable questions about how to be his famous father's son and yet his own man.
In a rare moment of public self-analysis, he once admitted he had to make ''a fairly big splash'' to gain recognition. ''My pool has been expanded so much because of who my dad is,'' he explained.
Bush took his time finding his direction in life. A so-so student at Yale and Harvard, he went through a self-described ''young and irresponsible'' stage after school, drank too much and got a newly revealed arrest for drunken driving.
Tracing his father's footsteps, Bush set out to make it big in the Texas oil business. He gave up drinking, settled down as a family man, made a losing run for Congress. But when the oil business went bust, he packed up with his wife and twin daughters and headed to Washington to help run his father's 1988 presidential campaign.
Bush brought his Texas bravado right into the campaign, dressing down those he felt weren't giving their all for his dad. His brother, Marvin, remembered him ''barking orders and yelling and trying to figure out what was going on.''
By his own admission, Bush's straight talk at times looks more like impatience, even arrogance.
''I can be abrupt,'' he acknowledged in a campaign interview. ''I guess I'm an impatient person at times. ... I get caught up in the moment and I'm not very good about stepping back at times.''
Bush was at a crossroads after his father's election. He knew he wanted to leave Washington and get back to Texas but he wondered aloud to aides, ''What next?''
To help in the decision, aide Doug Wead prepared a report for Bush on what had happened to other presidential offspring. The results were uniformly depressing: higher than average rates of death, divorce and alcoholism, and a number of failures in politics.
Bush groaned once when he saw it, Wead recalls, but said little more.
But within six years of that moment of indecision, Bush's future in politics had become clear. He'd put together a deal to buy the Texas Rangers that gave him both the money and the high profile to run for governor.
Speculation about a presidential run soon mushroomed, and Bush seemed restless as he began his second term in Austin.
''He's a person who gets bored pretty quickly,'' said longtime friend Charlie Younger, a Midland surgeon. ''He's a guy who likes a lot on his plate, not just enough.''