Miller Center

George W. Bush: Family Life

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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."

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Carl M. Cannon

Mr. Cannon is the White House correspondent for National Journal. His writings include:

Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush (Co-authored with Jan Reid and Lou Dubose, Public Affairs, 2003)

The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005)