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George W. Bush: Life Before the Presidency

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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."

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)