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George W. Bush: Life Before the Presidency

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George W. Bush was the first child of George Herbert Walker Bush and the former Barbara Pierce. George H. W. Bush enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday and became notable as the youngest pilot to earn his wings in World War II. Prior to enlistment, George H. W. Bush fell in love with Barbara Pierce, after meeting her at a country club dance in 1941. They were engaged in 1943, and Bush was deployed shortly afterward as a Navy pilot in the Pacific; he chose to paint his beloved Barbara’s name on the side of his plane. The two married shortly after Bush returned from the war, and George Walker Bush was born on July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut. The elder Bush attended Yale and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in just two-and-a-half years.

After graduation, the Bushes moved to Odessa, Texas, in 1948, and George H.W. Bush worked as an equipment clerk for an oil company. The young family rented a tiny apartment, which was so small that they had to share a bathroom with neighboring prostitutes. The family moved briefly to California, then returned in 1950 to Midland, Texas, which became George W. Bush’s childhood hometown. The young “Georgie,” as he was called, led the life of a typical suburban Baby Boomer that included playing baseball with the neighborhood children. 

In the spring of 1953, Bush’s three-year-old sister, Robin, was diagnosed with leukemia. Seeking help, her parents took her to the state-of-the-art Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City. Despite the doctors’ best efforts, however, Robin died shortly before her fourth birthday. Just seven years old, George W. was not made aware of his sister’s grave condition. Shortly after her death, his parents came to pick him up early from school. He ran to the car, blissfully unaware that Robin had died two days before. After Robin’s death, George W. became very close to his mother, and many think he inherited or learned to adopt her quick temper, sharp wit, and blunt opinions. The Bush family continued to grow with the birth of Jeb, who was seven years younger than George W., followed by Neil in 1955, Marvin in 1956, and Dorothy in 1959. 

Bush attended Sam Houston Elementary School in Midland and moved to Houston with his family in 1959, where he attended the private Kinkaid School. He spent his high school years at Phillips Academy Andover, in Andover, Massachusetts, which his father had also attended. It was a family tradition and a privilege to attend a school such as Andover, but it was not without drawbacks; life at the exclusive school was regimented, academically rigorous, cold, snowy, and devoid of female students. Bush learned to be self-sufficient but initially struggled in his studies. He received a zero on his first written assignment at the Academy, overutilizing Roget’s Thesaurus in order to boost his vocabulary. 

He was terrified of failing and embarrassing himself and his family. Lights-out was at 10 p.m., but Bush struggled to keep up with his studies and so kept working after curfew by utilizing the little bit of light that seeped under his door from the lights in the hallway. Although academic success came slowly for young George, he made friends easily. Academically, he developed what would become a life-long love for American history. When reflecting on his Andover years, Bush recognized that he received a first-rate education. In his first book, A Charge to Keep, Bush wrote that he learned to “bloom where he was planted” at Andover. He never again felt isolated; “I could make friends and make my way, no matter where I found myself in life.”

For Bush, there was little question of where he would attend college. He followed his grandfather’s and father’s paths by attending Yale University. As he was settling in as a freshman at Yale, his father decided to make a run for the U.S. Senate. George H.W. Bush garnered more votes than any Republican up to that point in Texas history, but he still fell short of victory. George W. Bush assisted with the campaign as much as possible, although he was in Connecticut, and he learned some of the basic lessons of grassroots politics during the experience. 

For Bush, Yale was a “work hard, play hard” experience. He majored in history, with a concentration in European and American studies. One course that was particularly memorable for Bush was on the Soviet Union, focusing especially on the struggle between tyranny and freedom. Outside the classroom, he was involved in fraternity life, joining Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) his freshman year, and during his senior year, he was among the fifteen yearly initiates of Yale’s preeminent secret society, Skull and Bones, into which his father and grandfather had also been inducted. He enjoyed athletics, but was unable to achieve much success as a pitcher for the junior varsity baseball team. He came to realize his talent was in rugby rather than baseball, and he made the varsity team in that sport. Bush was briefly engaged to Katherine Wolfman, but the two parted amicably.

Bush graduated from Yale in 1968, a year clouded by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, and the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. Considering his father’s war record and his family’s values, military service was nearly unavoidable for Bush while the country was at war. He chose to serve in the National Guard, and, in the fall of 1968, he was stationed at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia for his pilot training. His service in the Air National Guard became a point of contention for his political opponents because some accused him of benefiting from political favoritism by avoiding overseas service and combat and of not fulfilling his service obligations in full when he received permission to muster out before the end of his commitment. Moreover, it was argued, National Guard service itself was not an easy option to get for draft eligible men without privileged connections.

Bush continued his education by pursuing a Master in Business Administration (MBA) at Harvard University with the hopes of starting a career in business. After graduation, he headed back to Midland, Texas, where he had been told the oil business was booming. He received a job as a landman for an oil company, researching potential drilling sites and negotiating leases with the owners. After working as a landman for several years, he struck out on his own and founded Arbusto Energy in 1977. The company focused on low-risk but low-return wells, and it discovered a relatively profitable gas field that kept it afloat. The company was succeeded by Bush Exploration, which later merged with Spectrum 7 in 1984. From his experience in the oil business, where his father had also succeeded, Bush learned many valuable lessons. He wrote in A Charge to Keep: “I learned how to manage, how to set clear goals and work with people to achieve them. I learned the human side of capitalism. I felt responsible for my employees and tried to treat them fairly and well.” 

As his 30th birthday approached, Bush began to contemplate settling down. He still resided in a cluttered bachelor apartment, and was known for his love of beer and hard liquor. Both George W. Bush and Laura Welch had grown up in Midland, Texas. They even briefly attended the same school, but the two had never met. They were introduced to one another at a barbeque in July 1977, and the two hit it off immediately. Their first date was playing miniature golf the following evening. Laura, being much calmer and more naturally relaxed than George, balanced his energetic and outgoing personality. After only a few months, they became engaged and were married on November 5, 1977, in a modest ceremony. They honeymooned in Mexico and then spent the majority of their first year of marriage on the campaign trail for Bush’s first run for public office.

Laura and George both desired children but the couple experienced trouble conceiving. They explored adoption before the birth of their twin girls in November 1981. Being the granddaughters of the vice president of the United States, within hours of their birth a press conference was held to announce their arrival. They were named after their grandmothers, Barbara and Jenna.

Bush joined the Methodist Church shortly after his children were born. His spiritual journey would be slow but would gradually lead him to a strong faith. Bush had been baptized at Yale’s non-denominational Dwight Hall Chapel, and his parents had taken him to both Presbyterian and Episcopal churches in Texas but the experience never reached him very deeply. His views began to shift when his father invited the world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham to answer some questions with the collective Bush family assembled in the family vacation house in Kennebunkport, Maine. Graham spoke with Bush, who was moved by his message. He began reading the Bible more seriously and attending Wednesday night Bible studies. By the time he ran for President in 2000, his faith had solidified, and he spoke of it on the campaign trail, particularly when he named Jesus as his favorite philosopher during a presidential debate.

Bush’s behavior and actions in his younger days, particularly as they related to alcohol, raised some questions during his campaigns. He famously responded that he was “young and irresponsible” when he was “young and irresponsible.” His main concern, he said, was to protect his family and not have his daughters follow his mistakes. Just prior to election day in 2000, a bombshell exploded in the press when a story was released that Bush had once been arrested for drunk driving as a young adult. Most friends at the time did not see him as an alcoholic, but rather an occasional binge drinker. According to Bush, a turning point occurred on his 40th birthday, after a celebration at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. He awakened with a severe hangover and attempted his normal three-mile morning run, as he had done for the past fourteen years, but felt miserable. He wrote about his experience in his book, Decision Points: “My problem was not only drinking; it was selfishness. The booze was leading me to put myself ahead of others, especially my family... faith showed me a way out. I knew I could count on the grace of God to help me change. It would not be easy, but by the end of the run, I had made up my mind: I was done drinking.”

The Political Beginnings

On July 6, 1977, George W. Bush celebrated his 31st birthday without much of a resume to show for it. He had been a landman and a political aide but had held no position of distinction. Bush had never seriously considered politics as a profession, although he had worked full time on several campaigns. He considered, and decided against, running for the Texas state legislature after being discharged from the National Guard. Before flight training in 1968, he was a travelling aide to Congressman Edward Gurney’s Senate campaign in Florida and served as the political director to Red Blount’s Senate campaign in Alabama. In 1976, he volunteered on President Gerald Ford’s operation in west Texas for the Republican primary, but he was unable to garner any delegates for the President.

By the time of his 31st birthday, Bush received word that Representative George Mahon, Midland’s congressman for 43 years, was retiring. Most Republicans at the time began supporting Jim Reese, Mayor of Odessa, who had previously challenged Mahon. Bush decided to enter the race. He was the grandson of a senator, Prescott Bush, and his father was politically prominent on the national stage, but young George’s campaign message was that he wanted to go to Washington to stop the intrusion of the federal government into everyday lives.  

Doug Hannah, an old friend from Houston, recalls of Bush on the campaign trail: “He loved it and he was having a great time. My shock was that he was such a good speaker. I started to notice he sounded just like his father—if you closed your eyes, you heard his father.” His father had made the name “George Bush” well known in Texas and nationally, having served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Republican National Committee chairman, and in Congress. Many of his father’s friends also joined the campaign. It was during this period that Bush first became familiar with the brilliant political operative Karl Rove, who went on to become the architect of Bush’s two runs for the presidency. Bush won the primary, but lost in the general election. Losing his first political contest seasoned Bush, but he did not run for office again until after his father had left political office for the last time.

In 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush mounted his own race for the presidency. George W. moved to Washington, D.C., to assist and help oversee the staff. Working closely with famous political operative Lee Atwater on campaign strategy, George W. became a sounding board for his father. Bush staunchly defended his father in speeches on the campaign trail where he thanked volunteers on his father’s behalf. The elder Bush earned the nomination and ultimately defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis in the general election. George W. was not interested in becoming a part of his father’s administration, however, so he moved back to Texas to pursue business ventures.

In 1989, George W. Bush organized a group of investors and purchased the Texas Rangers baseball team. Owning the Rangers brought Bush publicity in Texas and valuable management and business experience. His efforts to build a new stadium gave him experience in public-private partnerships. He sold the team in 1998 for a $15-million profit. 

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush faced reelection in an unfavorable political environment, with a recession and controversy over a broken promise not to raise taxes. The younger Bush again assisted his father’s campaign, gathering more political experience and knowledge along the way. When Democrat Bill Clinton defeated his father, the loss freed George W. to begin considering his own political future. He believed that education and school funding plans in Texas were failing under Democratic Governor Ann Richards. Texas had also become a lawsuit capital, and Bush believed he could achieve tort reform, limiting the amount of money that could be awarded in civil cases, such as medical malpractice. He met with Karl Rove to discuss how to get involved, and they saw the opportunity to challenge Richards in 1993. After the failure of her “Robin Hood” education bill, taking from rich districts to give to poorer ones, Bush officially decided to run against Richards. His bid was a long shot, with even his own mother telling him that he could not win against the popular, charismatic incumbent.

With no Republican challengers, Bush was able to focus on the general election from the start, and he developed policy issues centered on education, juvenile justice, welfare policies, and tort reform. He disliked fundraising, but he enjoyed connecting with people at grassroots campaign events. His campaign hit a snag when he went on a publicized bird hunt and accidently shot an endangered Kildeer bird. He paid the fine both literally and politically but later made light of the event. His ability to laugh at himself proved popular with voters. Throughout the campaign, Governor Richards dismissed Bush as “some jerk,” and as “Shrub,” a play on his family name. Refusing to lose his temper, Bush reasoned that voters did not want politicians who could not maintain their professionalism. Shocking much of the political world, Bush defeated the famous incumbent handily, prompting The New York Times to label it a “stunning upset.” The victory proved particularly sweet for the Bush family because Richards had taunted H.W. for having been “born with a silver foot in his mouth,” at the 1988 Democratic presidential convention. A new Bush was now on the national political radar.

Before his inauguration, his mother handed Bush an envelope containing a letter of congratulations and approval from his father with his treasured cufflinks that he had received from his own father upon earning his Navy wings. On his first day as governor, Bush had the painting by W.H.D. Koerner, “A Charge to Keep,” featuring men on horseback navigating a hard trail, hung in his office as inspiration to him and his staff to keep their campaign promises. The title also reminded Bush of his favorite hymn by the same name, and he later borrowed the title for his 1999 campaign biography.

As governor, Bush worked across party lines to accomplish his goals. He met privately with Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, a powerful Democrat, to ensure positive relations with the legislature. In Texas, the legislature meets only 140 days out of every two years, and Bush’s goal was to achieve his top four policy initiatives before the end of the first session. Bullock’s cooperation was crucial. Bush also took the initiative to reach across the aisle to meet with both parties’ leadership before the beginning of the session. Bush, Bullock, and Speaker of the House Pete Laney met weekly to develop strategy. Possessing an explosive temper, Bullock often became frustrated when action stalled. He shouted at Bush during one of their weekly meetings, but the governor diffused the situation with humor. Their bipartisan relationship was characterized by strong differences, but an overarching desire to get things done guided them. Bush earned Bullock’s admiration, and the lieutenant governor later endorsed Bush for reelection, predicting that he would become the next President. During Bush’s first term, welfare and juvenile justice reform were progressing steadily, but efforts at tort reform stalled. Bullock and Bush had strong differences on the limit for punitive damages. Eventually, they were able to compromise at $750,000.

Once tort reform was resolved, the focus shifted to education, the issue closest to Bush’s heart. His flagship accomplishment became the passage of legislation overhauling the education system of Texas, the most sweeping changes in half a century. The bill added elements of choice and competition to the school system, focused on new efforts to insure every child could read, and developed a comprehensive set of knowledge and skill requirements. His efforts in Texas garnered national attention and became a model for other states. Foretelling some of his agenda as President, Governor Bush also pushed through major tax reform, including tax cuts, and instituted programs to assist faith-based initiatives, providing social services through churches and other private institutions.

Bush ran for reelection as governor in 1998 on his record of fulfilling his previous campaign promises and began to share his vision nationally. Seeking to take the rhetorical edge off his politics, he branded his philosophy “compassionate conservatism,” which focused on using traditional conservative ideas, such as small government and free-market principles, to help society. Bush won reelection with a record 69 percent of the vote. His brother, Jeb Bush, was elected governor of Florida that same night, which made them the first pair of brothers to serve as governor at the same time since Winthrop and Nelson Rockefeller in 1967.

With his success as governor of a large state, and with the Republican Party eager to reclaim the White House after two Clinton terms, party officials across the nation began discussing Bush as a possible presidential candidate. Bush considered his options, searching for something more inspirational than public opinion or Republican pressure. According to his campaign biography, a rousing sermon in which his minister emphasized the importance of making the most of every moment provided that inspiration he needed. After the sermon, he authorized Karl Rove, his top political adviser, to prepare for a run for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Gary L. Gregg II 

Professor Gregg is the director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville. He also holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in leadership. His writings include: 

Considering the Bush Presidency. (with Mark J. Rozell, Oxford University Press, 2004)

Thinking about the Presidency: Documents and Essays from the Founding to the Present. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)

Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College (2nd ed.). (ISI Books, 2008)

America's Forgotten Founders (2nd ed.). (with Mark D. Hall, ISI Books, 2012)

The consulting editor wishes to thank Connor Tracy and Travis Wilson for serving as research assistants on this project.