Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

George W. Bush

It took an extremely contentious vote recount and a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, but in January 2001, the Bush family succeeded in accomplishing that rarest of American exactas: a father and son who both served as President of the United States.

George W. Bush took the oath of office as the 43rd President twelve years after his father had done so—and 176 years after John Quincy Adams became the 6th President. The senior Bush, with a nod to history, once referred lightheartedly to his eldest son as "my boy Quincy," but within the Bush clan the first President Bush was often referred to as "Forty-One," and the second as "Forty-Three." In a nation divided bitterly along partisan lines, however, millions of Americans had other shorthand ways of referring to this polarizing President elected without a majority—or even a plurality—of the popular vote.

Despite the slender nature of his mandate, George W. Bush did not project himself as a minority President, and did not govern defensively. With the advantage of extensive pre-transition planning his administration hit the ground running. In his first six months in office, Bush had accomplished most of his 2000 campaign trail agenda.

Candidate Bush's priorities centered on two main issues, both of them domestic: First, he insisted that, with the federal budget in surplus, Americans were entitled to a significant tax cut. Second, he vowed an increase in federal funding for education as part of a sweeping plan for accountability from the states and districts. The schools would have to improve reading and math proficiency, particularly among minority students.

Bush almost always stressed a third issue when he ran as well, although it was more of a theme than a policy change: He promised to usher in an era of improved civility and cooperation in Washington.

His fast start notwithstanding, events intruded on this vision. And four years later, as Election Day 2004 approached, it was clear that Bush's razor-thin margin of victory and the ensuing Florida recount, a bitter fight over the makeup of the Senate, his conservative domestic policies, and the devastating attacks of September 11 and resulting war in made his four years in office far from tranquil, leaving an already evenly divided nation even more polarized than before.

Road to the White House

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Bush moved as a toddler to West Texas and had what he has described as an idyllic upbringing in post-World War II Midland, the eldest son of Eastern establishment parents trying to carve out their own identities. This sense of serenity was broken by the death of his little sister Robin from childhood leukemia, a family tragedy that longtime friends believe had a hand in shaping Bush's personality. As he sought to console his parents, the boy became something of a ham—but he was a cut-up with a fatalistic streak. The episode also helped forge a lifelong closeness between Barbara Bush and her eldest son.

Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Bush attended prep school, first in Houston, then in Andover. From there it was on to Yale, where he received a bachelor's degree in history in 1968, and Harvard Business School, where he received a master's degree in 1975. In between was a Vietnam War-era stint in the Texas Air National Guard where Bush flew F-102 fighters. This period of his life would later become controversial, but it wasn't at the time. Bush moved back to Texas in the mid-1970s and went into the oil business. After marrying and launching an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1978, he put together the partnership that acquired the Texas Rangers baseball team.

Bush was the public face of the Rangers front office until 1994, when he left that job to run for governor of Texas. He defeated popular incumbent Ann Richards that year and won re-election in 1998 with 68 percent of the vote. Already, the Republican establishment was lining up behind Bush for a possible presidential run in 2000. Bush raised so much money that he became the first major political candidate to eschew federal matching funds in the primaries. His only real competition for the GOP nomination was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, whom Bush outlasted, in part, because of his huge advantages over McCain in money, organization, activists, and fellow Republican officeholders. Positioning himself as a "compassionate conservative," Bush then squared off against Vice President Al Gore.

In a closely contested election that featured three presidential debates and a vice presidential debate, as well as two unified political conventions, no national consensus emerged; going into Election Day, polls showed Bush leading the race—but within the statistical margin of error. A fast-closing Gore caught Bush the weekend before November 7, in part because a story surfaced about an old drunk-driving arrest that Bush had never admitted previously. Gore ended up winning the popular tally by half-a-million votes, but it wasn't until the contentious Florida recount process was finally ended by the Supreme Court on December 12, 2000, that the election was decided.

Divided and United

In his first months in office, Bush got off to a solid start. He signed the broad-based tax cuts he had campaigned on and followed that success by shepherding through Congress a sweeping education bill that came to be called the No Child Left Behind Act. The legislation was pending in a House-Senate conference committee on September 11, 2001. In fact, Bush was in Florida drumming up support for it—the photo-op of the day was to feature him reading to a group of sixth graders—when the World Trade Center was hit by two hijacked passenger airliners.

If Bush's tenure in the White House until that date had been marked by unexpected legislative success, he had not been successful in improving the civility of the political discourse. There were several reasons for this: Partly, feelings among Democrats about the Florida recount were too raw; also Bush's vision on domestic policy was so different from the Democrats' in Congress that a true détente was probably not plausible. Complicating that dichotomy was Bush's insistence that he not govern as a minority President: Just as President Clinton had done eight years before, he rammed through his tax bill with hardly any support from the opposite side of the aisle. In the midst of these budget battles, longtime liberal Republican senator James Jeffords of Vermont quit his party and threw in his lot with the Democrats, giving them a one-vote majority in the Senate. The ramifications of Jeffords' switch were enormous. The change in the leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee meant that Bush could no longer count on getting his conservative judicial nominees confirmed; indeed, he ran into trouble even getting his cabinet confirmed. The upshot was that the new President's honeymoon, like his transition, was cut short.

All that was swept aside, at least for awhile, by the attacks of September 11, 2001. Reeling from the devastating blows to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—and mindful that a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was headed toward the Capitol or the White House—the nation's political leaders banded together while Americans of all political stripes rallied behind the commander-in-chief.

Bush's job-approval ratings soared as he faced this new challenge, and stayed at near-historic levels for well over a year. And the man who had sought the Oval Office without articulating clearly defined foreign policy goals suddenly found himself a wartime President, fighting a shadowy army of Islamic extremists holed up in some 60 countries under the direction of Osama bin Laden, who headed a worldwide terrorist organization called Al Qaeda. Bush almost instantly refocused his priorities, telling his aides that fighting what he called an international "War on Terror" was now the primary mission of his administration and those who worked in it.

But if the terrorists were scattered around the globe, their headquarters was Afghanistan, then under control of the reactionary Taliban movement. The Bush administration almost immediately issued an ultimatum to the Taliban to surrender bin Laden—a demand that was rebuffed. On October 7, 2001, the United States began air sorties against Al Qaeda terrorist camps in Afghanistan.

"We are supported," Bush said in an Oval Office address, "by the collective will of the world.

A War Presidency

Support for a military invasion of Afghanistan was certainly not unanimous in every world capital, but in the days after 9/11, the expressions of solidarity with the United States was a worldwide phenomenon—even in much of the Muslim world. In Pristina, where American armed forces under President Clinton had prevented genocide, some 10,000 Muslim Kosovars marched on September 12, 2001, carrying American flags and signs of support. Ethnic Albanians on the other side of the border, also Muslim, held candlelight vigils. "We are all Americans now!" declared the headline in Le Monde.

Yet already plans were being drawn up in the war councils of the White House and Pentagon to ready America's military forces for another invasion, one that would prove costly in lives, materiel, and national prestige: the invasion of Iraq.

In a lopsided and bi-partisan congressional vote on October 11, 2002, Bush received authorization to invade Iraq if it did not turn over its presumed arsenal of biological and chemical weapons, as well as what was thought to be its reconstituted nuclear weapons research. Iraq insisted it had no such weapons, and United Nations inspectors could not find them. But the President, expressing certainty that Iraq was hiding evidence and convinced that replacing the repressive and violent Baathist regime with a democracy would have positive and far-reaching implications throughout the Middle East, took the nation to war.

Iraq Pushback

On March 19, 2003, Bush informed the American people—and the world—that the invasion of Iraq was on. "We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace," he said in an Oval Office address. "We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others, and we will prevail."

In less than six weeks, American troops were in control of Baghdad, early concerns about massive civilian casualties were unrealized, and Iraqi troops had been killed, had surrendered, or had melted back into the general population. On May 1, 2003—at a time when only 137 American military personnel had been killed—Bush told the American people that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."

The early euphoria, however, proved premature. Remnants of the old regime, joined by Islamic terrorists who infiltrated the country, kept up a steady insurgency throughout the summer of 2003 and into the autumn. A war described as one of liberation took on the feeling of a war of occupation. In April 2004, 139 Americans were killed in Iraq in a single month. By July, the number of soldiers and Marines who had died there stood at more than 1,000.

By then, world opinion had shifted strongly against the United States—Le Monde had long since retracted its pro-American headline—and, at home, a strong anti-war sentiment re-energized the Democratic Party. The initial beneficiary was little known former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who spoke of "regime change" not in Iraq but in Washington. Dean fizzled in the primaries, but the Democrats' energy didn't, and the party settled on Massachusetts senator John Kerry as its presidential nominee. Kerry didn't mind reminding people that his initials, J.F.K., were the same as John F. Kennedy's, but Democratic party regulars agreed privately that the animating force in their party was A.B.B.—"anybody but Bush." Meanwhile, public opinion surveys showed Bush with near-unanimous support among Republicans. He'd run for office vowing to be "a uniter, not a divider," and he achieved that goal after a fashion: he helped each party to unite behind itself.

George W. Bush entered this world in Grace-New Haven Community Hospital (now Yale-New Haven Hospital) in the summer of 1946 as his father, another future President, was finishing his sophomore year at Yale.

On both his mother's and father's side, the baby soon to be called "Georgie" was the scion of American aristocrats, but outwardly, at least, the circumstances of Bush's early childhood were modest. In early July 1946, George and Barbara Bush brought their baby home to 37 Hillhouse Avenue, a dwelling that, in the housing shortage after World War II, had been converted into apartments for returning veterans and their families. The house was shared by a dozen veterans and their wives—all of whom had a child (except for one couple with twins)—meaning that some 40 people were quartered in a space originally designed for one family. Already, however, Bush's father had his sights set on the wider open spaces far from New England.

In 1948, Barbara Bush flew west with her 2-year-old son—whom she called "Georgie" to differentiate him from his father—to Odessa, Tex. to meet up with her husband, who'd driven out ahead of her. An oil boom was underway in West Texas, and Big George wanted to be a part of it. The small family took a lease on an apartment in a "shotgun" house in which they shared a bathroom with two hookers who lived next door. Bush's father took a job as a $375-a-month clerk in an oil-drilling equipment company owned by the father of one of his Yale friends. The family was briefly transferred to California, a place Bush never remembers living, before returning to Midland, Texas, where Georgie would set down roots. The Bush family sojourn to California was brief, but it produced a blessing: a baby girl named Pauline Robinson Bush, whom the family called Robin.

Returning to Texas, the Bush family was living what Big George unselfconsciously characterized as the natural pursuit of the American Dream. Bush had teamed up with some friends to form an oil exploration outfit incongruously called Zapata Petroleum Corp., bought his family a bright-blue, two-bedroom house with an FHA loan, and had another son, John Ellis Bush, who arrived in February of 1953 and was quickly dubbed Jeb. "Moved from the shotgun to a duplex apartment to a house and lived the dream," as Big George described it in his 1988 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. "High school football on Friday night, Little League, neighborhood barbecue."

Yet, in March of 1953, the darkest of clouds would descend on this growing American family. Barbara Bush noticed her 3-year-old daughter sitting listlessly and asked her what she wanted to do that day. The little girl replied that she couldn't decide between lying down and reading or lying down and watching cars go by outside. Her mother realized something was wrong, but it took blood tests to determine just how wrong: Robin had advanced leukemia, a disease that a half-century ago was nearly always fatal.

Robin Bush succumbed to it two months before her fourth birthday, despite heroic efforts to save her at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York. His parents had never really informed their 7-year-old son just how sick his sister had been, and one October morning in 1953 they drove up to the schoolyard at Sam Houston Elementary to fetch him. The little boy thought he glimpsed his sister in the backseat and dashed up to the teacher. "I've got to go," Georgie Bush said. "My mother and father and Robin are here."

"I run over to the car," Bush recalled many years later. "And there's no Robin."

His parents instructed him to get into the car, and told him then that his sister was gone. Young George had had no idea she was dying.

"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked plaintively.

His parents, then as now, had no real answer to this question. For all of the world that they had seen, neither was yet 30 years old. Barbara Bush, then 28, had another infant to raise; her hair had begun to turn prematurely white in the hospital while caring for Robin. It was during this time that she forged a connection with her eldest son that exists to this day. In his acceptance speech in Madison Square Garden where the Republican Party nominated him for a second presidential run, George W. Bush singled out his mother: "Now and then I come across as a little too blunt," he told the delegates. "And for that we can all thank the white-haired lady sitting right up there."

As a boy, however, Bush's skills were more subtle. In this suddenly gloomy Midland household, Georgie took it upon himself to cheer up his parents, and it was during this time that he developed into something of a performer. Elsie Walker, a Bush cousin who lost one of her own sisters, phrased it this way in a 1999 interview with The Washington Post: "You look around and see your parents suffering so deeply and try to be cheerful and funny, and you end up becoming a bit of a clown."

His Mother's Son

If so, he was a clown with a gift. After the tragedy, the Bushes and their family friends tended to avoid mentioning Robin, so as not to upset Barbara. But this omission also bothered Barbara, a common reaction among bereaved parents, and one her son picked up on. At one of those Friday night football games in Midland, the little boy was standing on his tiptoes straining to see the action on the field, when he suddenly blurted out, "Dad, I wish I was Robin!"

An awkward silence followed until his father asked why he'd said that.

"I'll bet she can see the game better from up there," he said, referring to heaven, "than we can from down here."

Barbara Bush herself recalled much later that she didn't quite realize who was taking care of whom until the day a neighbor boy came to the house to fetch Georgie, who then said he could not come out and play because he had to stay with his mother, who was lonely. "I was thinking, 'Well, I'm being there for him,'" she recalled later. "But the truth was he was being there for me."

The passage of time and the birth of three more children—Neil, Marvin, and, finally, another girl, Dorothy—softened the blow. But it never really went away. In 1999, George Herbert Walker Bush told Larry King, "We hurt now." George W. Bush's eyes welled with tears when he was asked about her during the 2000 presidential campaign. But the Bush family dreams ploughed ahead, and as the family grew, so did Zapata Petroleum. The family settled in a sprawling 1960s-rambler home with a pool out back.

Thus did Bush grow up as a happy child—but the unreserved aspect of his carefree approach to life was not rooted in innocence, but more nearly, its opposite.

"Midland was an idyllic place to grow up, a real Ozzie-and-Harriet sort of town, and there's a great sense of nostalgia among our group of friends for that time," Charlie Younger, an orthopedic surgeon and close friend, once recalled. "George and I were hashing something out, and he turned to me and said, 'If I died today, I'd like to be buried in Midland.'"

John Kidde, another high school classmate, also recalls that Bush would tell his teenage friends, "You think your life is so good and everything is perfect; then something like this happens and nothing is the same."

It is this fatalism that would free Bush—or perhaps oblige him—to live in the moment, say those closest to him. His brother Marvin would later say that Bush approaches his life "in chapters," taking advantage of opportunities as they arise without looking backward, and without obsessing about what the future might hold.

Sports and School

Like many boys of his generation, Bush daydreamed about being a major league ballplayer. Texas generally and Midland, in particular, is known for football, but baseball was young George's passion. In 2000, at a time when his presidential race against Al Gore had tightened to a virtual dead heat, Bush appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show and agreed to answer an impromptu quiz on things like his favorite food and best song. He hesitated in answering some of the questions—but not the one about his "fondest" childhood memory. "Little League baseball in Midland," he replied.

This was the game of his father and grandfather, and when it came to baseball his father made time for him. Georgie played three years for the Central Midland Cubs with Big George as the manager. Later, at Yale, Bush would not match the diamond exploits of his father or grandfather—he would never rise above the level of relief pitcher on the junior varsity team—but as a Little League catcher he was good enough to make the Midland All-Star team. Forty years later, Austine Crosby, a retired Sam Houston Elementary School teacher, recalled how young Bush organized games at recess, mitt in hand. "He was a nice boy, one you remember, and always a help to me in the room," she said. "He was always ready to play baseball. He'd round up the other boys, get a game going. He was quite the organizer."

This is how former Sam Houston Principal John Bizilo remembers him, too. "Old George was a class clown," he recalled. "He was a pretty active boy. He wasn't mean or vicious, but he was the leader of his clan." Bizilo will be remembered in a historical footnote as the educator who once paddled Little George in the fourth grade for what seems like the harmless prank of painting sideburns on his face to imitate Elvis Presley. But the principal's strongest memories about Bush revolve around sports. "University of Texas football was king around here then, but George liked baseball better," he said. "He was a pretty good little player. Well-coordinated for his age, and aggressive. I'd hit fungoes to the boys before school and during recess, and he always caught more than his share. He'd run those flies down."

At San Jacinto Junior High School, Little George did play football—quarterback—and ran, successfully, for class President. In Houston, Bush was enrolled in the eighth grade at the Kinkaid School, a private school in the city's wealthiest neighborhood. Bush made friends easily there and was elected a class officer as well. Two years later, he was off to boarding school, in Andover, Massachusetts, like his father, where he established himself as the "high commissioner" of an informal spring intramural league for stickball, an urban version of baseball played with a rubber ball and broomstick. Colin Campbell (Class of '63) remembers Bush as a young person of considerable skill and charm who had the perfect combination of traits "for this goof-off afternoon sport . . . (which) had kind of a subversive element to it."

Bush also was a junior varsity basketball player at Andover, though not a good one. "He played guard and he could only dribble with his right hand," one teammate, Richard W. Clapp later quipped to ESPN. "It was easy to defend him because he could only go to his right. It's my contention that he's still the same—politically."

Bush was popular at Andover. At Yale, however, he had some problems fitting in—though not because of sports. Bush arrived on that campus in the autumn of 1964, overlapping with John Kerry, two years ahead of him, and he would stay for four years. By all accounts, including his own, Bush was an indifferent student. His transcripts, obtained by The New Yorker during Bush's first presidential campaign, show he was a solid C student—and one who did poorly in the subjects he might have been expected to excel at, namely political science and economics. He did best in anthropology and philosophy, though he is not remembered by classmates as a philosophical young man. "I would agree that he's not contemplative or reflective," Michael M. Wood, a friend at Andover and Yale, told the New York Times in 2000. "He's not a guy who would go off by himself thinking of something. He's more likely to be hiding in a tree to jump down on somebody."

Wood was a fraternity brother of Bush's in the Delta Kappa Epsilon house, and he and others recall a moment that did hint at Bush's true talent: As part of the hazing process, new recruits, called "pledges," are asked to name the other pledges in the room. Most could do half-a-dozen or so of the 55 Yale freshmen present. When it was his turn, DKE pledge George W. Bush named every single person in the room.

"This notion of (intellectual) lightness is totally missing the point," Lanny J. Davis, a former special counsel to President Clinton, and adviser to Al Gore, asserted before the 2000 campaign. "There are times when George coasted through Yale courses and through exams or seemed overly facetious. But don't mistake that for not being intellectually acute. My memory of George—and I've no reason to say nice things about him, because I hope he loses—is that he was an astute observer of people and had an incredible talent for getting along with people. I tell my fellow Democrats not to underestimate him."

In the main, this is not the kind of acuity valued by college professors, however, and the primary reaction of his instructors years later is that they had no recollection of him at all. This was not the case with Bill Clinton, for example, or Al Gore, who made lifelong friendships among those who taught the future vice-President at Harvard. Bush himself once alluded to this phenomenon on the campaign trail. "Can you imagine how much it hurt," Bush joked, "to know that Dad's idea of the perfect son was . . . Al Gore?"

Rediscovering His Roots

There was more to the apparent disconnect between Bush and Yale than the young frat boy's study habits. As both sides attest, there was a cultural estrangement as well. Yale, having been radicalized by the Vietnam War like so many other universities, would be a different place in 1968 than it was in 1964, and Bush did not change with it. He learned early on that this was not his father's Yale. As a freshman, Bush approached university chaplain William Sloan Coffin and mentioned his dad, who had just lost a bruising Senate race in Texas to Democrat Ralph Yarborough. "Oh yes, I know your father," Coffin replied. "And frankly, he was beaten by a better man."

If that seems a tactless and inconsiderate way for a man of the cloth to speak to a college freshman, that is also the way it seemed to Bush, who mentioned this incident in his autobiography. though Coffin says he doesn't remember the conversation quite the same way; through 2004, the priest continued to be a persistent critic of President Bush. Conservative author John Podhoretz' sympathetic biography, Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane, believes the encounter with William Sloan Coffin had a profound effect. "If Coffin was the best the East had to offer," Podhoretz wrote, "then Dubya would be what he had been as a child—a Texan."

F-102s, Harvard, Oil, Politics, and Baseball

Graduating at the height of the Vietnam War, Bush landed a coveted billet in the Texas Air National Guard. Assigned to the 147th Fighter-Interceptor Group, he attended flight school for 53 weeks at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. He took an eight-week leave beginning in September of 1968 to work on a Florida Senate campaign, but by Christmas 1969 he was training on F-102 fighters full-time at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. In May of 1972, he moved to Montgomery, Ala., to work on another Republican campaign, moving to Boston the following year to attend Harvard Business School.

It was during this period that Bush was grounded for lack of training time during his last two years in the Guard. He apparently risked being drafted by not attaching himself to a unit in Massachusetts. With American involvement in Vietnam waning, he was not drafted, and was honorably discharged from the service on October 1, 1973. (His sporadic record during the last two years became grist for Democrats during their primary season as well as during the general election campaign, although it is unclear whether the issue gained traction with voters.)

By the time Bush enrolled at Harvard Business School, he was 27-years old. He arrived with a pretty good idea of where he was going—back to Texas—which distinguished him from most of his younger classmates, who were preparing for careers on Wall Street. Harvard classmates remember an iconoclastic character who drove a messy Oldsmobile Cutlass, listened endlessly to the distinctive Latin jazz sound of John Rodriguez Jr., and who sat in the back of the classroom in his bomber jacket chewing tobacco—and discreetly spitting the juice into a paper cup.

Bush couldn't have known it, but he was preparing for the job in life that seems to have made him the most happy: running the Texas Rangers baseball team. After Harvard, Bush sought to make his fortune in the oil business. He formed Arbusto Energy in 1977; later changing the company name to Bush Exploration in 1982. By then his father was Ronald Reagan's vice President. In Texas, Bush was known then as a socially active, hard-drinking bachelor. In an interview in 1999, Bush referred to this period in his life as his "nomadic" years. He settled down upon meeting and marrying Laura Welch, a public school librarian from Midland.

Bush would later say that the one thing he promised Laura Welch before marrying her was that she'd never have to give a political speech. It was one promise he didn't keep: Baseball was his first love, but Bush already had the political bug even before he helped buy the Rangers. He ran for Congress in 1978, winning the Republican primary, but losing to Democrat Kent Hance in the general election. Bush then devoted himself to business. With the nest egg he acquired when his company was bought by Harken Energy Corp., he put together the syndicate that bought the Rangers from previous owner Eddie Chiles. His partners managed to put together the public financing that helped erect a state-of-the art ballpark in Arlington, Tex., which made the enterprise financially successful. It also made Bush a rich man: His original $600,000 investment in the team reaped an extraordinary profit when he cashed out with $15 million.

Bush was also respected by those on the baseball side of the enterprise. He had an easy rapport with the Rangers' players, especially Latin ballplayers, whom Bush would put at ease by conversing with them in Spanish. Something of a baseball purist, Bush favored natural grass over artificial turf and believed baseball's designated hitter rule was an innovation the game could have done without. Later, he would make self-deprecating jokes about how dumb it was for the team to trade slugger Sammy Sosa, but Bush earned the respect of his own employees and other owners, some of whom believed he would make a good commissioner. After Bush went into politics instead, numerous baseball people—including a manager he once fired—contributed financially to his campaigns. Bush is proud of his time in baseball. As he began his run for the Texas governorship, he took a Texas reporter on a tour of the $191 million stadium then being constructed and said with a wave of his arm: "When all those people in Austin say, 'He ain't never done anything . . .' Well, this is it."

Texas Statehouse

Bush's rivalry with Ann Richards began several years before he ran to unseat her as Texas governor. It started in 1988, at the Democratic National Convention, when she mocked Bush's father. "Poor George," Richards said sarcastically in her keynote address. "He can't help it if he was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

Such class-based attacks had always struck the Bush family as unfair, especially when the media extrapolated unmanliness from Bush's upper-crust mannerisms, a criticism that reached its zenith in 1987 when a Newsweek cover story pictured Bush with the headline, "Battling the Wimp Factor." After George W. Bush nailed down the 1994 Republican gubernatorial nomination, Richards was derisive of him as well. She made light of him—and his family name—referring to Bush as "Shrub"—and once muttered that he was "some jerk running for public office." Following advice from his political team, a group that included a Texas operative named Karl Rove, Bush didn't respond to Richards in-kind. He took pains to refer to her as "Governor Richards" while running a disciplined campaign with a tightly controlled message. The polls in the state showed the race close for months, but in the weeks leading up to Election Day, Bush began pulling ahead. He won with 53.5 percent of the vote.

As governor, Bush found that his skill as a schmoozer and his willingness to share credit—a rarity in politics—could take him a long way. He befriended Texas House speaker Pete Laney and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, both Democrats, and worked with them to form large working legislative majorities that passed statutes on tort reform, work requirements in welfare, and statewide accountability standards in public education while liberalizing the law to provide easier reimbursement for emergency medical care, authorizing 48-hour stays after childbirth, and providing legal protection to physicians who lodge written complaints against HMOs.

The new governor's poll numbers reached such stratospheric levels in his first term that Texas' Democratic Party had trouble recruiting a candidate with statewide name identification to run against Bush when he came up for reelection in 1998. The Democrats ultimately settled on Land Commissioner Gary Mauro. President Clinton spent a great deal of time in the state, but he could raise neither money nor enthusiasm for Mauro. Bush was so popular in Austin that Bob Bullock broke party ranks to endorse Bush, even though Bullock was godfather to one of Mauro's children. But Bush, Rove, and the rest of the Bush brain-trust were intent on running up the score. One reason was that they had their eyes on the "down-ticket" races, which Texas Republicans swept that year. The other was the looming GOP presidential nominating contest. On November 3, 1998, Bush served notice to other prospective Republican presidential candidates that he was someone to be reckoned with, rolling to a 1.4 million vote victory over Mauro. It was a landslide in which Bush won 239 of Texas' 254 counties and garnered an estimated 40 to 50 percent of its Latino vote.

Republican activists from all over the nation, including contribution-rich California, began making pilgrimages to Austin. Bush, without declaring himself a candidate, emerged overnight as the man to beat—in a party that likes frontrunners. On March 7, 1999, he announced the creation of a presidential exploratory committee.

"I believe in the promise of America—the fundamentally American conviction that each of us can be what we want to be, can achieve what we want to achieve, so long as we are willing to work and earn it," he said. "The promise is meant for everyone, not just a few—and as we move into the 21st century, I want the party of Lincoln to be the party that makes sure no one is left behind."

George W. Bush was elected the 43rd President of the United States after prevailing in the Florida recount and winning the Electoral College by a margin of 271 to 266. Bush lost the popular vote, however, becoming the first candidate since Benjamin Harrison to do so and still make it to the Oval Office. His final total of 50,456,062 was more than half-a-million votes short of Al Gore's total of 50,996,582. Liberal consumer advocate Ralph Nader, running on the ballot of the Green Party, received nearly 2.9 million votes, and Patrick J. Buchanan, running as a conservative populist, garnered about 439,000 votes. Such a mixed result has happened four times in American history, but the most recent was in 1888, and the 2000 result generated calls in some quarters—though not a serious political movement—to abolish the Electoral College.

Bush ran for the presidency vowing to be a "compassionate conservative," but by the time Al Gore conceded and Bush made his acceptance speech from the Texas statehouse, the trait of Bush's that Americans were most familiar with was his competitiveness.

Run for the White House

Although new to national politics, Bush was practically anointed as the Republican standard-bearer by the GOP establishment in early 1999 after he proved to be a one-man fundraising machine that scored a record $68.7 million the year before the election. There was a speed bump on the way to Bush's coronation in the form of one John Sidney McCain III, a Vietnam war hero and senator from Arizona who used New Hampshire's open primary to soundly thump Bush. This upset made the South Carolina contest all-important. There, Team Bush was able to upend McCain, but the roughness of its tactics ruptured the relationship between the two candidates' respective loyalists and staffs—and strained relations between the senator and the governor as well. "I want the presidency in the best way," a bitter McCain said after he lost South Carolina to Bush. "Not the worst way."

McCain stayed in the race, winning primaries in Michigan and Arizona, but Bush's vastly superior organization, war-chest, and list of surrogates—McCain only had four of his GOP colleagues aboard the "Straight Talk Express," while 37 Republican senators signed onto Team Bush—made the outcome seem inevitable. Yet by the time the Republican convention was held in Philadelphia that summer, McCain was on board. He forcefully endorsed Bush in a prime-time convention speech and appeared on stage with the nominee on the convention's last night. In 1992, Bush's father had been hurt by a convention portrayed as intolerant, right-wing, and too-white. Rove and the other architects of the 2000 campaign did not make that mistake. Polarizing preachers from the Christian right were kept away from the podium. Prominent speaking roles went to blacks, Latinos, and women. In his acceptance speech, Bush vowed to "extend the promise of prosperity to every forgotten corner of this country." Signaling his intention to set a new tone in the nation's capital, which had been the scene of an acrimonious impeachment fight during Bill Clinton's presidency, Bush indicated that he would behave neither like Clinton nor the House Republicans who attempted to hound Clinton out of office.

"I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years," Bush said in his nomination acceptance speech. "I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect."

For the next three months, the race between Bush and Al Gore see-sawed back and forth. In three debates, Bush was consistent and steady, projecting a reasonable persona and not flubbing any questions. Gore's staff had inexplicably raised expectations for their candidate by publicly disparaging Bush's intellect prior to the debates. Certainly, Gore also knew his brief and, particularly on foreign policy, was able to demonstrate his experience and expertise. But Gore lost points with the public with his impatient and patronizing attitude toward Bush, and public opinion polls going into the last weekend showed that Gore's one-time lead had evaporated, with Bush slightly ahead. A story of a long-ago Bush drunk-driving arrest surfaced over the weekend, but pollsters detected only a slight drop in Bush's support. On November 7, Americans went to the polls with the same uncertainty about the outcome as the candidates. They—and the nation—would remain in the dark for another six weeks.

Gore initially conceded to Bush on election night, then later rescinded his concession in a terse phone call to Bush when it appeared that Florida was too close to call—and that victory in the Electoral College depended entirely on Florida. This set the stage for a no-holds-barred recount in Florida that went to the Florida Supreme Court (which ruled 4-3 for Gore) and the U.S. Supreme Court (which ruled 5-4 for Bush.) A strange-looking "butterfly ballot" in Palm Beach County resulted in more votes for third-party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan than was expected, while partially punched voting cards with their infamous "hanging chads" made the job of recounting tense and uncertain. In the end, a recount paid for by news organizations showed that Bush indeed won Florida by 537 votes, but many Democratic activists remained unconvinced of Bush's legitimacy even after he was sworn in. Partly, this was because of Gore's victory in the popular vote. In addition, the presence of Ralph Nader on the ballot almost certainly cost Gore the win in Florida—and in tiny New Hampshire, which also would have given Gore the presidency.

The 2002 Midterms

Democrats immediately began planning revenge against Bush in the 2002 midterm elections. For one thing, they said, Bush's brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush, was finished. They also vowed to harness Democratic anger to retake the House and the Senate. This effort might well have been successful, except that by November 2002, the political landscape had been changed by the attacks of 9/11.

Bush's job approval ratings in the Gallup Poll, which had been in the mid-50s in the summer of 2001, shot upward after 9/11. They peaked in the high 80s around November 2001 and stayed high for nearly a year. The mid-term campaign of 2002 and the impending war with Iraq took the luster off for many people: A Gallup survey taken in the first week of October 2002 showed Bush with a 55 percent job-approval rating—identical to what his numbers had been in early August 2001. But Bush's high popularity during the previous year had helped the Republican Party recruit a high-powered class of Senate Republican candidates. In several bruising races around the country, these Republican challengers either captured open seats or waylaid Democratic incumbents. Bush spent a lot of political capital campaigning for these Republicans. One of the issues he stressed was Democratic reluctance to back his version of a Department of Homeland Security bill. This stance proved particularly damaging to Georgia senator Max Cleland and Missouri senator Jean Carnahan. Privately, some party activists blamed the Democratic leadership in the Senate for bucking Bush on homeland security, but Democrats were also highly critical of the way Bush and the Republican candidates used this issue—particularly against Cleland, a triple amputee from injuries sustained while he was a soldier in Vietnam. After the votes were counted in 2002, however, Republicans remained in control of the House and recaptured the Senate.

As he had done in South Carolina while defeating McCain, Bush prevailed at the ballot box, but at a heavy cost. The political advertisements run in Georgia against Cleland galvanized the Democratic party for two years, and were an issue in the 2004 presidential race.

Cleland spoke at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston where John Kerry was nominated, and his very name became a battle cry for Democrats. When the dust settled on 2002, Bush's willingness to play hardball had undermined whatever good will was left among Democrats on Capitol Hill. It set a tone for a 2004 presidential campaign that was relentlessly negative from the start as the Democratic candidates launched proactive strikes against a President they believed would do anything to win.

2004 Presidential Race

Unlike his father, George W. Bush began his reelection bid with no opposition within his own party. Meanwhile, the Democrats lined up nine-deep to challenge him. The one who emerged briefly during the winter was little-known former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who tapped into a deep reservoir of disillusionment over Bush's foreign policy in general, and the Iraq invasion in particular. The four best-funded and best-known Democratic candidates—Representative Dick Gephardt, and Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and John Edwards—had all voted in favor of the Iraq war resolution sought by Bush, and two of them—Gephardt and Lieberman—supported it vociferously. Dean's own contemporaneous statements about the wisdom of that venture were not ambiguous, but Dean hadn't had to vote one way or the other on the measure and was easily able to adopt the mantle as Bush's most vocal anti-war critic. This stance brought him adoring crowds, surging campaign contributions, and unexpected press attention; it did not bring him the nomination. His third-place finish in Iowa and second-place finish in New Hampshire all but ceded the race to Kerry, who won both contests, and Democrats eager to defeat Bush swiftly united behind the Massachusetts senator.

Because of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law signed (reluctantly) by President Bush, the 2004 race was supposed to be the first without huge influxes of unregulated "soft" money from wealthy donors or corporate interests. Nevertheless, this law had a loophole large enough to drive several trucks full of cash through, and the Democrats were the first to spot it. The loophole was for so-called "527" committees (named for a section of the bill) which could raise money with hardly any limitations and spend it on the federal election, provided they didn't coordinate directly with the campaign and that they didn't overtly endorse a candidate. This ban on coordination was impossible to enforce—and was essentially meaningless anyway. One 527, for example, was led by a Democrat who was John Kerry's campaign manager as recently as November 2003. By the end of 2004, some $300 million was raised and spent by these committees, most of it on television ads. Moreover, the campaign reform law itself all but ensured that these ads would be negative hit pieces—a committee can attack a candidate, but it can't endorse one. It was a Democratic-leaning 527 ( that aired Internet ads comparing Bush to Hitler. It was a Republican-leaning 527 (Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) that aired ads labeling Kerry a traitor to his country and his Vietnam-era comrades-in-arms.

In the midst of this mud-slinging came the presidential debates. It was a merciful—and valuable—diversion. Operating on the theory that the issues played to the President's strength, Team Bush insisted that the theme of the first debate, held at the University of Miami on September 30, be foreign policy, war, and terrorism. Things did not work out as it had hoped. A scowling Bush came across as impatient and repetitious; if anything, Kerry looked the more presidential. Bush improved his performance markedly in St. Louis on October 8 at a debate held with a town-hall format, and yet again during the last debate in Arizona on October 13, where he came across as knowledgeable on domestic policy and very much at ease. Kerry was steady, as he had been throughout the three debates, setting up a furious last 2 ½ weeks of campaigning in an election that public opinion polls showed to be a virtual dead heat.

When George W. Bush took the oath of office, he became the third President out of the past four who had cut his teeth in public life as a governor. True to this pedigree, the issues Bush initially focused on were domestic in nature. They ranged from cutting taxes and seeking to expand energy production to bolstering public education. In fact, he arrived in Florida on September 10, 2001, to try to draw attention to his education initiatives. The next day, September 11, President Bush was told of the planes hitting the World Trade Center while reading to students. Of course, the events of that day—and Bush's response to them—shaped every aspect of his presidency from that moment forward. But Bush pursued his domestic agenda with considerable success both before and after 9/11.

The Tax Cutter

During the 2000 election campaign, the Bush camp allowed visitors to the campaign's Internet web site to plug in their income and deductions to figure out how much they would get back from a Bush tax cut.

In September 1999, President Clinton vetoed a $792 billion tax cut over 10 years that the Republican Congress sent to him as a pre-election year ploy. Al Gore, the Democrats' nominee-in-waiting, previewed his 2000 campaign language by denouncing the GOP gambit as a "risky scheme." Clinton himself actually taunted the Republican presidential candidates—Bush included—by quipping that they could now run on a tax cut. Bush was already doing just that, and he seized the initiative on this issue by proposing a tax cut even larger than the one Clinton had vetoed.

By the summer of 2000, with the federal budget in surplus, Gore began to worry he was falling behind on this issue—and so proposed a $500 billion, 10-year tax cut of his own. Thus, even before being elected, Bush had set the agenda on this issue.

In the first week of Bush's presidency, Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan testified that Bush's proposed tax cuts—he was now asking for a $1.6 trillion cut over 10 years - would not harm the already slowing economy, and might do some good. Democratic congressional leaders Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt promptly announced that they'd accept a 10-year figure of up to $900 billion. Moderate Democratic senator John Breaux of Louisiana, set a ceiling of $1.25 trillion—the number that passed the Senate on Bush's 77th day in office. By then, the President had finally signaled that, he too, would compromise, and after differences were ironed out between the House and Senate versions of the legislation, Bush had wrangled out of Congress a tax cut estimated at $1.3 trillion to $1.4 trillion over 10 years. The measure, signed by Bush in the East Room on June 7, 2001, exempted millions of Americans from paying any taxes, created a new 10 percent bracket for the working poor, while lowering the top three brackets as well: by 2006, the top tax rate was to decline from 39.6 percent to 35 percent; the 36 percent rate to 33 percent, and the 28 percent rate to 25 percent.

"A year ago, tax relief was said to be a political impossibility. Six months ago, it was supposed to be a political liability. Today, it becomes reality," Bush said at the bill signing ceremony. "This tax relief plan is principled. We cut taxes for every income taxpayer. We target nobody in, we target nobody out. And tax relief is now on the way."

Indeed, as he spoke, $300 and $600 rebate checks were being prepared for mailing to American taxpayers. This idea originated, ironically, with Representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the only Socialist in Congress. But amid Bush's euphoria, nay-sayers warned of potential land mines buried in the legislation. One was that if the economy were to slow down further, the effects on the federal deficit could be explosive. The second was that the most politically popular portions of the bill—ending the so-called marriage penalty, phasing out inheritance taxes, and doubling the child credit—were not phased in for years under the legislation—and that there would be political pressure to expedite them, adding even more to the deficit.

"I think this is kind of a tax-cut time bomb," Bruce Bartlett, an economist for the National Center for Policy Analysis, noted when the bill passed. "No matter what happens in the 2004 elections, there probably has to be another tax cut in 2005."

Bartlett proved prophetic—although Bush did not even wait that long to propose—and sign—legislation escalating the speed with which the cuts were to take effect. For his part, the President insisted that his tax cuts had shortened the recession he inherited in both duration and depth. Many economists agreed, but they also noted that the deficits the Bush administration were running in 2004 were the largest in history—with no end in sight.

No Child Left Behind Act

In time, this piece of legislation would be disparaged so successfully by the National Education Association, which was always skeptical of it, that most of the Democrats running for President in 2004 would routinely allude to it negatively in their standard stump speech. But its history serves mainly as a cautionary tale about the difficulty of effecting change in Washington. When No Child Left Behind passed, it had as much bipartisan support as any major legislation in many years. Moreover, both the machinery and objective of this program were borrowed from President Clinton, who aggressively promoted his version of school accountability ("Goals 2000") for eight years, and who devoted much of his 1999 State of the Union Address to explaining why it was important to keep the momentum on education reform moving forward.

In his inauguration address, Bush said that in accepting low scholastic achievement by minority students as the norm, the United States was engaging in the "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Bush's version of a plan to address this condition passed the House on a vote of 381-41; the Senate approved it 87-10. The President signed the bill on January 8, 2002, while sitting at a school desk in Hamilton, Ohio. The legislation mandates student testing and ties federal funding to the results; low performing schools won't have their funding withdrawn, but must take concrete steps to improve. From the start, however, Democrats expressed concerns that not enough money was being appropriated for what Bush was trying to accomplish.

In early March of 2002, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who'd shepherded the bill through the Senate and appeared in public with Bush to promote it, broke with the White House over funding. Kennedy called the administration's budget requests for education "a severe blow to our nation's schools"—and less than the administration had promised. "It's time for the administration to match its rhetoric with real resources," Kennedy added.

In time, this refrain became a rallying cry for the Democrats and for the teachers' unions, and was echoed by big-city school districts whose finances had suffered from a downturn in their local economies. By the 2004 campaign, John Kerry was offering the No Child Left Behind Act as an example not of bold reform but of a broken promise from a President who "is misleading the American people." Bush, in his final debate with Kerry, countered that he had increased Department of Education spending some 49 percent. In fact, the President was understating the case. The true figure was closer to 60 percent.

This pattern of "point-counterpoint" became a feature of Washington politics. Bush would work an issue, get bi-partisan support, then watch as Democrats—even those who'd voted for the legislation—refused to give him any credit, and indeed, criticized the legislation bitterly. It happened on No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, and a broad-based reform of Medicare that included the first-ever drug benefit for seniors. In the Bush White House, the Democrats' change of heart on these issues was evidence that the Democratic Party is too easily whipsawed by powerful liberal special interest groups. Democrats viewed it differently. To them, Bush's conciliatory rhetoric and bipartisan legislation were undermined by an unwillingness on his party to fund his own programs sufficiently, and by an incompetent execution of his own policies. And they didn't limit this criticism of the President to domestic policy.

In the second presidential debate of the 2000 campaign, moderator Jim Lehrer asked Al Gore to explain the justification for American military interventions in a host of places, including Kosovo to Haiti. Lehrer then turned to Bush and asked him specifically about Somalia. "Started off as a humanitarian mission and it changed into a nation-building mission, and that's where the mission went wrong," Bush replied.

"The mission was changed. And as a result, our nation paid a price. And so I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow the dictator when it's in our best interests. But in this case it was a nation-building exercise, and same with Haiti. I wouldn't have supported either."

As President, Bush developed a more benign view of the value of nation-building—a reaction, he explained, to the attacks of 9/11—but looking back there is something buried in Bush's comment in that debate which proved more telling: his matter-of-fact statement about using American military force to "overthrow the dictator."


The Twin Towers had not yet collapsed before CIA director George Tenet was telling subordinates that the attacks had Osama bin Laden's fingerprints all over them. The Al Qaeda leader was then holed up in Afghanistan where the Taliban had given him sanctuary. The United States immediately demanded the Taliban turn him over, but Bush and his foreign policy advisers knew this was unlikely to happen; the night of the attacks, Tenet told the President that in his opinion, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were one and the same.

Nine days later, on September 20, 2001, Bush went to Capitol Hill to deliver a speech that members of Congress understood to be a declaration of war. Bush explicitly demanded that the Taliban surrender to the United States not only bin Laden but all al Qaeda leaders currently operating within Afghanistan. He also called on it to free all foreign journalists, diplomats, and aid workers "unjustly imprisoned" there, close every terrorist training camp, and arrest "every terrorist and every person in (the terrorists') support structure."

"They will hand over the terrorists, Bush said, "or they will share in their fate."

Emphasizing a theme he would return to many times, Bush took pains to say that Islam was not the enemy; rather, the United States was fighting a "fringe form of Islamic extremism . . . [advocated by those following] in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism."

"The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends," Bush added. "Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them."

British prime minister Tony Blair attended the speech as a show of solidarity with the United States, and subsequently issued his own ultimatum to the Taliban: "Surrender bin Laden or surrender power," Blair warned.

The war in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001. "On my order, U.S. forces have begun strikes on terrorist camps of al Qaeda, and the military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan," Bush said in a somber, televised address from the White House Treaty Room. The air assaults, he said, were joined by Great Britain, with assorted intelligence efforts and logistical support coming from several other nations, including France, Germany, Australia, and Canada.

Apparently anticipating U.S. retaliation for 9/11, Al Qaeda had, a few days before the attacks, assassinated Ahmed Shad Massoud, the leader of an anti-Taliban rebel force known as the Northern Alliance. It was widely believed that without Massoud, the Northern Alliance would fracture as a fighting force. Instead, bolstered by U.S. warplanes and U.S. Special Forces, the Northern Alliance helped oust the Taliban, first by taking Mazar Al-Sharif on the northern frontier and then the capital city of Kabul. A fledgling democracy was installed in Afghanistan, but even before that country was truly pacified, the Bush administration had turned its attention to an old adversary, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

"Axis of Evil"

Iraq had not been implicated in the attacks of 9/11. But Bush said that his decision to invade the country and seek to replace its Baathist regime with a democracy was based on several considerations that grew out of that attack.

Convinced by intelligence reports, which later proved erroneous, that Saddam had amassed huge caches of biological and chemical weapons—and was trying to develop nuclear devices—a group of hawks in the Bush administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, argued that Iraq would be a likely source for terrorists to obtain such weapons. These officials argued for a final decisive move against Saddam. The United States had fought a war against Iraq ten years earlier when Bush's father was President—Cheney had been the senior Bush's secretary of defense—but Saddam was allowed to remain in power after his troops were ejected from Kuwait, subject to various considerations. Among these terms were that Iraqi warplanes were not allowed to fly in Shiite areas of the southern part of the country or Kurdish areas in the north, and that Saddam destroy his caches of biological and chemical weapons, and dismantle his nuclear weapons research program.

In his January 29, 2002, State of the Union address, Bush made it clear that he would not allow Saddam to acquire such weapons, and included Iraq in a list of nations—the other two were Iran and North Korea—that he termed "an axis of evil."

From that day until March 19, 2003, when the invasion began, Bush spoke publicly about Iraq 164 times. Each time, he cited multiple reasons to replace Saddam's regime:

  • that Saddam was acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and that his gassing of Kurdish towns and Iranian troops in the 1980s had proven his willingness to use them;
  • that Iraq had been defying United Nations resolutions since the end of the Persian Gulf War;
  • that the regime was a destabilizing influence in the region, having invaded Kuwait and Iran, and launched Scud missiles against Saudi Arabia and Israel;
  • that Saddam supported terrorism, even to the point of paying off Palestinian suicide bombers who killed Israeli citizens;
  • that a democracy in Iraq would set a badly needed example for the Arab world;
  • that such a government, in turn, would make it easier to forge a lasting peace in Israel and Palestine;
  • and that Saddam and his sons and his secret police had inflicted unimaginable horrors on the Iraqi people, who have every much as right to be free as Americans.

"Freedom is not America's gift to the world," Bush said many times. "It is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world."

The Road to Baghdad

Bush's decision to invade Iraq became by far the most controversial of his administration, and costly in numerous ways. In October 2002, he presented Congress with a resolution authorizing him to invade Iraq if Saddam Hussein did not surrender what everyone on both sides of the debate assumed to be a reality: its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

On October 11, the measure passed both houses of Congress with broad bi-partisan support. In the House, the tally was 296-133. The percentage in the Senate was even greater, where it passed on a vote of 77-23. All Republican senators save one gave it their support; 29 Democrats voted for it, with only 22 in opposition. "America speaks with one voice," Bush said after the vote. Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said much the same thing, but it was never quite that simple.

"This is the Tonkin Gulf resolution all over again," West Virginia Democratic senator Robert Byrd warned his colleagues. "Let us stop, look, and listen. Let us not give this President or any President unchecked power. Remember the Constitution."

From his perch in Baghdad, Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Tawab Al-Mulah Huwaish termed the administration's insistence that Iraq retained chemical and biological weapons "a lie" and offered to let U.S. officials inspect any manufacturing facility it harbored suspicions about. "If the American administration is interested in inspecting these sites, then they're welcome to come over and have a look for themselves," he said.

Those who feared America was rushing needlessly into war asserted that Iraq was not a threat to the United States, and that the no-fly zones, U.N. sanctions, and other measures had put Saddam in a box from which he could not easily maneuver—and that, in any event, no attack appeared imminent. In the White House, Bush believed that one lesson of 9/11 was that you never knew for sure when an attack was coming.

"Some have said that we must not act until the threat is imminent," Bush said in his January 28, 2003, State of the Union Address. "But trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy and it is not an option."

Regarding Iran, the Bush administration deferred to European-led non-proliferation protocols; in North Korea, Bush himself pushed for—and got—multi-party talks designed to pressure Kim Jong Il. But when it came to Iraq, the administration was busy lining up military allies. On November 8, 2002, Bush secured a 15-0 vote in the U.N. Security Council authorizing the return of weapons inspectors and promising "serious consequences" if Iraq did not cooperate.

The clock was ticking. On March 17, Bush made a nationally televised speech giving Saddam 48 hours to give up power or face an invasion. Two nights later, the war began. In the midst of his March 19, 2003, speech informing Americans that the invasion had been launched, Bush paused to speak directly to the U.S. armed forces. It was then 4 a.m. in Baghdad. The rationale for war, he told the troops, was based on human rights.

"To all the men and women of the United States Armed Forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you," Bush said.

Nineteen months later, 1,100 American soldiers, sailors, and Marines had been killed, and 7,500 wounded. Another 138 men fighting in the coalition forces have died, entire cities are off-limits to foreigners, and a terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda has kidnapped and beheaded civilians from numerous countries and detonated bombs that have killed thousands of Iraqi citizens.

The capture of Saddam and the killing of his sons did nothing to alleviate the chaos—and the crisis in Iraq emerged as the central issue in the 2004 general election. "The President has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment," Kerry said in the first presidential debate. He was speaking for millions of disillusioned Americans. Bush responded, as he has throughout the election season, that progress is being made, that elections are coming to Iraq in January, and that someday Americans will look back on the sacrifices that were made with pride.

"I think it's worth it because I know in the long term, a free Iraq, a free Afghanistan will set such a powerful example in a part of the world that's so desperate for freedom," Bush replied. "It will change the world so we can look back and say we did our duty."

George W. Bush's father, George Herbert Walker Bush, delayed going to college by enlisting in the United States Navy on his 18th birthday, days after matriculating from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Bush senior was the youngest pilot in the Navy when he received his wings, and during his 58 combat missions one of the youngest pilots in the Pacific theater. He was wounded when his Grumman Avenger was shot out of the sky on September 2, 1944, over water near Chichi Jima. The plane's radioman and gunner were killed in the fight, but Lt. JG Bush bailed out safely, parachuted into the sea, and was rescued four hours later by a U.S. submarine as Navy fighters circled protectively above him.

Lt. Bush spent a month aboard the sub, recovering from his wounds, and was returned to his ship, the carrier U.S.S. San Jacinto. Later, he was assigned to train pilots in Norfolk and, after the Japanese surrender in 1945, entered the freshman class at Yale. There, he joined Skull & Bones, played first base on the Eli's varsity baseball team, and began a family with his sweetheart, Barbara Pierce, whom he'd married on August 6, 1945, while on leave.

A later generation of Americans would know Barbara Bush as the white-haired, matronly, and somewhat formidable-looking woman, but pictures from those days show a thin, auburn-haired beauty. She also came from a wealthy and accomplished family. Her mother was the daughter of an Ohio Supreme Court justice; her father a wealthy New York magazine publisher related to former U.S. President Franklin Pierce.

This was the family George W. Bush was born into, a clan that was the epitome of the Eastern Republican establishment. When George H.W. Bush went to Yale, he was simply following in the path of his own father, Prescott Bush, who also attended Yale, where he was a power hitter on the baseball team, and who married the well-connected Dorothy Walker. When the United States entered World War I, Prescott Bush enlisted in the United States armed forces, serving as a captain in the Army artillery in Europe. Upon returning home, he began a career in banking and politics, serving ten years in the U.S. Senate, beginning in 1952.

Although much was made of George W. Bush's rebellious days as a young man and his break with Eastern establishment, he was very much a scion of this family. He wasn't even the first to leave the East Coast for the West Texas oil fields; his own father had done that before him. And though Bush and his father liked to think of themselves as oilmen, the true family business was politics; four years after Bush became governor of Texas, his brother won the governorship of Florida.

This point has been extensively explored by George Mason University professor Hugh Heclo, who maintains that the image of George W. Bush as a rebellious, late-blooming ne'er-do-well who stumbled into a political career at a relatively old age doesn't really square with his résumé. George W. Bush not only grew up in a second-generation political family, he attended the same prep school and college as his father (and grandfather), flew military jets, went to Harvard for an M.B.A., volunteered in three Senate campaigns, worked in his father's presidential and vice presidential campaigns, and even ran for Congress himself in West Texas in 1978. "In sum," writes Heclo, "George W. Bush, with an admittedly brash style, did what Bush men were supposed to do." Texas journalist Bill Minutaglio, writing in First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty, the first full-length biography of Bush, put it this way: "If anything, the first son was born into politics—in almost every sense possible."

But George W. Bush also put his indelible stamp on the political identity of the Bush clan, moving it South not just physically but ideologically as well. The evolution of the Republican Party from a Midwest and East Coast-based party of big-city bankers and small-town business owners to a Sunbelt party of suburban church-goers and rural NASCAR fans can be traced through the ideological migration of the Bushes.

In his younger days, Prescott Bush had been a Herbert Hoover conservative, which implied a belief in limiting both government spending and U.S. involvement in foreign affairs. The Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II made that an untenable ground from which to fashion a national majority, however, and five consecutive Democratic victories in the race for the White House drained the ideological purity out of many party activists, who chose Dwight Eisenhower over the conservative establishment's candidate, Robert Taft of Ohio. Prescott Bush described himself then as a "moderate progressive."

Eisenhower made little attempt to reshape the Republican Party in his own image, but the party took its cues from Ike, anyway. From 1952 onward, the GOP housed liberals, moderates, and conservatives, even as the issues that helped define these positions changed. It was not until 1980, when Ronald Reagan emerged as the unquestioned leader of the Republican Party, that the GOP's conservative wing reasserted itself over Prescott Bush's "moderate progressives." And it was more than a historical footnote that Reagan's running mate in 1980 was Prescott Bush's son, George, who had transitioned away from a Planned Parenthood, Houston country-club Republican. With the emergence of his twang-talking, ranch-owning, anti-abortion, Christian-espousing eldest son, the transition for the Bush clan—and the Republican Party—was complete.

Once, confronted when he had run his car over the neighbors' garbage cans in the middle of the night, George W. Bush challenged his father to go outside "mano-a- mano." This story is usually told in the context of George W. Bush's drinking and rowdiness as a young man, but it is also instructive to note that the two men never came to blows that night. George W. Bush may have been in some ways closer to his mother, but he is fiercely protective of his father, and his run for the presidency in 2000 has some of the same sense of familial revenge that motivated Al Gore to seek national office after his father, Senator Albert Gore, was defeated for re-election in Tennessee in 1970.

White House officials would occasionally tell journalists on background that George W. Bush was seeking to avoid some presumed mistake of the first President Bush, but Bush 43 himself did not talk this way. Even in his decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein—an issue his father had decided a different way—Bush never implied criticism of his dad. In fact, he used it the other way: In building his bill of particulars against Saddam, Bush 43 occasionally mentioned that Iraq had been implicated in a plot to assassinate Bush's father.

Unlike his dad, George W. Bush did not marry young. He was fixed up by mutual friends at a 1977 barbeque with an attractive school librarian named Laura Welch. The two had attended middle school in Midland at the same time—and lived in the same Houston apartment building in their 20s—but had somehow never crossed paths. They were married only four months later. "I can't tell you how lucky I am," Bush said in the third presidential debate when asked about the first lady:

"I met her in the backyard at Joe and Jan O'Neill's in Midland, Texas. It was the classic backyard barbeque. O'Neill said, come on over, I think you'll find somebody who might interest you. So I said, all right, popped over there. There's only four of us there, and not only did she interest me, I guess you could say it was love at first sight."

The couple has two children, twins Barbara and Jenna, who appear to have the mother's good looks and their father's temperament. Bush's term in the White House coincided with their college years, along with the obligatory tabloid stories of underage drinking, cigarette smoking, and ditching of Secret Service agents. The twins' official coming out party—politically-speaking—occurred at the 2004 Republican convention, where they did an irreverent on-stage routine that received decidedly mixed reviews, and is memorable mainly for their gibe at their father. "We kept trying to explain to Dad that when we were young and irresponsible . . . well, we were young and irresponsible."

The implication is that he, above all others, would get it.

Laura, by all accounts, wields a different sort of influence on the President. When Bush came across less like a President and more like a West Texas sheriff by declaring that he wanted Osama bin Laden "Dead or Alive," she needled him by adopting an exaggerated Texas accent and saying, "Bushie, you gonna git 'im?"

Bush took the point, just as he did after the first presidential debate in 2004. Bush was asked in the final debate by moderator Bob Schieffer what he's learned from the strong women around him. Alluding to advice his wife must have given him after the first debate, Bush made everyone laugh, including John Kerry, by replying, "To stand up straight and not scowl."

George W. Bush promised America a "humble" foreign policy, an image that many of his critics found difficult to square with the man who led the United States into Iraq and who swaggered on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, in a flight suit declaring that "major combat operations" in Iraq were over. Bush looked confident that day, and the sailors and airmen aboard gave him a rousing welcome—under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished." It was all too premature, and the Democrats who complained that the President had turned the entire U.S. Navy into a campaign photo-op began pointing to that event as something else—Bush's hubris and sense of unreality.

Good Will

When the 2000 recount was finally over, George W. Bush proved to be a gracious winner. This was made easy for him by Vice President Al Gore, who accomplished the hard task of being gracious in defeat. Gore realized that if he continued to challenge the results in Florida, there would be pressure on him to deliver an unstinting concession speech if he lost in the end. Gore provided the requisite speech and did so with perfect historical pitch, even as some of those around him were trying to explore other options to keep the contest alive.

"Almost a century and a half ago," he recalled, "Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, 'Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless.' Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country." For his part, Bush spoke in the same spirit. "As I begin, I thank President Clinton for his service to our nation," Bush said at the outset of his inaugural address. "And I thank Vice President Gore for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace."

Bad Will

Yet Bush's attempt at lowering the level of venom in American politics didn't get far. The reasons are varied, and perhaps his goal was a naïve one to begin with. For one thing, not all Democratic Party leaders were as philosophical as Gore had been and many simply never forgave Bush for how he assumed the presidency. In an attempt to keep their activist base motivated, Democratic National Committee chairman Terence McAuliffe and other leading Democrats openly questioned the very legitimacy of Bush's presidency. In so doing, they unleashed forces they could not control, especially when they introduced the toxic subject of race and "vote suppression" into the conversation.

Tipper Gore took to publicly describing the election as the time "when we won, but the Supreme Court decided we couldn't serve." Her frustration was understandable, but she wasn't alone. "Gore . . . beat the other guy. The election was stolen," declared former Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.

"We won that election, and they stole that election," McAuliffe said in a 2001 speech to the Democratic National Committee. "President Bush tells us to get over it. Well, we're not going to get over it!" Some of the nation's most prominent liberals took their cue from such comments. "Bush is not our elected President," Gloria Steinem told college audiences in 2001 and 2002. "He took office due to fraud in Florida. He should be impeached."

Long before he made the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 challenging Bush's reaction to the terrorist attacks, filmmaker Michael Moore said in an interview, "The majority of Americans never elected this guy in the White House. And I'll keep saying that until he's out of there."

Bush's Own Role

Bush was not blameless, either. After suggesting he'd staff his administration with Democrats as well as Republicans, he appointed a single Democrat, former California congressman and Clinton administration official Norman Y. Mineta, to his cabinet. "Norm felt as though he was like that kid in 'Home Alone,' one longtime Mineta aide quipped. The administration did not compromise much on its tax bill, either, meaning that it passed with only Republican support. Bush did reach across the aisle on education reform, but did so in ways that ultimately caused more ill feelings than goodwill. Democrats such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Representative George Miller of California helped with passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, but later felt undercut by the administration when the funding levels requested by the White House and approved by the Republican-led Congress seemed too low. Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party in May 2001—breaking the tie and giving Democrats a 51-49 voting majority. One of the issues he cited most often as affecting his decision was education funding. Jeffords' defection gave every committee chairmanship in the Senate to Democrats, including Judiciary, which began stalling—or even outright rejecting—Bush's more conservative nominees.

This set up the bitter 2002 campaign. Judicial appointments may have been the stakes, but the context was the war on terrorism. Less than a year after the nation had been attacked and Democrats and Republicans had sang God Bless America together on the Capitol lawn, the two sides went at it tong and nail, with each side calling into question the patriotism of the other.

Amid talk among political professionals about "Fifty-Fifty Nation" and "red" states and "blue" states was a basic truth: the United States was becoming more polarized culturally and politically, as certain unifying forces in American life—sporting events, places of worship, network television—were themselves fragmenting into self-selecting places for the like-minded to congregate. Gerrymandered districts across the country produced a Congress in which true centrists are rare. News talk shows that at one time would try to produce a rough consensus featured, instead, designated liberal and conservative commentators who are paid—literally—to tow the party line.

Will the center hold? It's hard to see, in Washington, how it could. But as Bush and Kerry scrambled for every possible vote in a handful of battleground states, a promising thing happened. The few swing voters who are still out there began being heard—they, after all, were the main voters still being courted—and their sheer reasonableness was cause for optimism.

"I think what's happened is that the Republicans have really gone to the right," Linda Grabel, one of the audience members selected to ask the candidates a question at the St. Louis debate, explained later. "And the Democrats have really gone to the left. With the Democrats, if anyone has a problem, the government can help you with it. And the Republicans want to legislate morality for everybody. They're way over to the right. But most of the American people are kind of in the middle."