Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

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.