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The Faith of George W. Bush
By Joel Kilpatrick
Charisma HouseCopyright © 2004 Joel Kilpatrick
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Charge to Keep
It was not the Longhorns, the Aggies, or the Dallas Cowboys they were thinking about that day in Texas. Though football is nearly the state religion, Texans had something else on their minds. And they were not worrying about the price of crude. Oil seemed to be selling just fine. No, on that day in January of 1995, most Texans were thinking one thing: Today George W. Bush will be inaugurated as governor of our state.
He had done it. Very few thought he would. They had laughed when he announced his candidacy. Columnist Molly Ivins called him "Shrub," and even his friends chuckled when someone called him just another "rich son of a Bush." But he surprised them all, even his parents, and defeated the extremely popular incumbent, Ann Richards. He would become only the second Republican governor of Texas in the nearly 120 years since Reconstruction.
For "Dubya," the day was a blitz of events, one stacked upon the other. He was distracted as he dressed that morning; the speech Karl Rove had been writing for him played itself in a loop through his mind. There had been last-minute changes in wording, and since delivering speeches still was not his strong suit, he wanted to get it right. The speech would only last ten minutes, but it meant so much.
He was aware but not fully engaged when his father came to him and pressed a pair of cuff links into his hands. He knew what they were and probably showed some gratitude. But it may have been forced. He was still in a bit of a haze and had not really grasped the full meaning of the moment. Then, as they left the capitol to attend a prayer breakfast at a nearby church, his mother put a note in his hand. Again, there were thanks and a hug but no sense of the weightiness he would come to attach to it all later.
Then, there was the limo ride to the church and the waiting crowd. He waved as he walked toward the door, shook hands with well-wishers as he entered, and sat in silence once he found his seat. There was the usual business of such an event: the greetings, the songs, and the readings from the Bible. His mind wandered. Perhaps it all was moving too fast for him. Perhaps he wanted to remember the whole day, and it was already becoming a blur. He rehearsed the morning in his mind; perhaps that was when he recalled the note he had quickly shoved into his pocket. The preacher warmed to his text as George W. pulled the envelope from his pocket and began to read. And the tears came.
* * *
Another day, another year, another Texas city: It is 1943. The place is a hot, dusty air base near Corpus Christi. The Second World War is in full fury, and the United States is training recruits and shipping them abroad as fast as they can be readied. It is the ninth of June, and a graduation has just taken place at this busy airfield. Three figures are standing together in the brutal Texas sun. One is nearly six and a half feet tall and every bit of 250 pounds. There is a woman, much shorter than the other two and clearly the larger man's wife, with a noble grace already etching itself in her face. Then there is the beaming one, the tall, underweight seaman second class who has just received his navy pilot's wings. He is barely twenty years old.
The larger man, obviously the father of the new pilot, reaches into his pocket to take hold of something small, which he then presents without ceremony to his son. It is a set of gold cuff links. The son knows their meaning, for he has come to understand the ways of his father, who is not an overly expressive man. "My father is proud of me," he senses, "and these are the symbols of his joy at this wonderful and fearful moment of my life."
The boy treasures the gift and, even more, his father's pride. He thinks of it later when he is shot down over the Pacific Ocean. He remembers it when he studies at Yale, runs an oil company, wins a seat in Congress, heads the CIA, and becomes vice president and then president of the United States. And he thinks of his father and the gift the day his oldest son, George W., becomes the governor of Texas. They are his most prized possession, but it is time to pass them on.
* * *
George W. Bush has not heard much of the sermon. Yet, the preacher must think he is doing very well. The governor-elect is in tears, after all. The sermon must be a hit. But it is the note in his hand that has undone the newly elected governor. It is from his father, the former president. "These cuff links are my most treasured possession," the older man has written, and he invokes that June day in 1943 when his own father first gave them. "I want you to have them now," the note says, and then the father speaks of the son "receiving his wings" on this inauguration day, of how he understands the younger man's excitement, and how he will be a fine governor. It is, in a sense, a blessing-the kind fathers have given their sons for generations.
There is more in the note, however, and through the years George W. would rehearse each word again and again. But it is the last line that sticks, that he will never forget, that now moves him to weep.
Having expressed his love, his pride, and his confidence, the father writes in closing to the son: "Now, it is your turn."
Throughout the years, the Bush family has been reticent to speak of itself with words like legacy, dynasty, or, certainly, empire. They prefer to talk in terms of trust, destiny, and faith. But there is little question that what passed between former President George Herbert Walker Bush and his governor-son was more than jewelry and a note of encouragement. It was, as one scholar has written, "a symbolic passing of the torch."
Clearly, the father was attempting to connect the son to something that had come before and that might sustain him in the days ahead. All families are defined by their stories. It is the oft-repeated tale that fashions the family culture and, if the stories are inspiring enough, fashions the family sense of purpose. The Bush heritage contains stories of the kind to fashion a sense of destiny, and if we are going to understand the faith of George W Bush, we must first consider how his family history may have shaped his beliefs.
* * *
It is hard to say what part of the Bush legacy most inspired George W., but there is certainly fuel for the imagination in the tale. There were, for example, the dreamer/adventurers. Obediah Bush of Vermont is one of these, a man who left his home during the War of 1812, became a schoolmaster, then caught gold fever and left for California during the Gold Rush of 1849. Two years later, he tried to return home to reclaim his family and take them west. He died in the attempt, though, and was buried at sea, leaving his wife and seven children alone in Rochester, New York. Though his dreams were unfulfilled, he left the legacy of a visionary romantic for those who bore the family name.
There were also philosopher/poets in the Bush saga. The second of Obediah's seven children was one of these, a child named James who was born so sickly the doctor told his mother, "You better knock him in the head, for if he lives he will never amount to anything." The child's mother, Harriet, was in a grand tradition of stubbornness that would survive her, and she determined to nurse the child to health. She did. Sixteen years later, the boy had not only lived but also developed into the kind of man Yale College eagerly wanted to admit.
There is a description of James Bush while he was at Yale, and had it not been written in 1907, one might suspect the author of reading the characteristics of later Bushes back into the lives of their ancestors. "His classmates speak of him," wrote William Barrett, a family friend, "as tall and slender in person, rather grave of mien, except when engaged in earnest conversation or good-humored repartee; ever kind and considerate and always a gentleman-still, very strong in his likes and dislikes. He made many friends. Anxious to make the most of his opportunities, he ranked high in his studies. Fond of athletics, he achieved considerable reputation as an oarsman, rowing stroke in his class crew. He was also quite noted as a high jumper."
James was possessed of a deeply spiritual nature and determined to become a Presbyterian minister. The needs of his family prevailed, though, and to support them he decided to study law. He was admitted to the bar and opened an office in Rochester. Not too long after, James fell hard in love with a woman of renowned beauty, Sarah Freeman, and she agreed to marry him. Their happiness did not last long, however, for she died of fever a mere eighteen months after the wedding. James was devastated, and, as often happens with the grieving, his mind turned to the spiritual. He decided to give up the practice of law and become an Episcopal priest. In time, he was ordained by the bishop of New York and took a parish in New Jersey, where he served for ten years. Love came twice for the Rev. Bush. He met and married a woman with the same name as his mother, Harriet. She was a descendant of the Samuel Prescott who rode with Paul Revere, and the editor/poet James Russell Lowell said of her, "She possessed the finest mind and was the most brilliant young woman of my day."
James' romantic soul had absorbed his father's sense of adventure, and when an opportunity came his way to serve as chaplain on a risky voyage to South America, he eagerly took it. The story is told in Rev. Bush's paper "The Trip of Monadnock," which he read before the Concord Lyceum in 1886. The episode is worth recounting here because it gave the Bush family their guiding motto.
During the voyage, a fire started near the magazine, where the explosives were kept. The captain, Mr. Franklin, leapt into the hold to put the fire out despite the horrible danger of being killed along with all on board. A crewman, moved by the captain's bravery, shouted after him, "Mr. Franklin, you're a brave man; you shan't go to hell alone." The captain's courage and his success at putting the fire out so inspired Rev. Bush that he challenged the Concord Lyceum, "Is it not by the courage always to do the right thing that the fires of hell shall be put out?" With these words, "Do the Right Thing" became the Bush family motto and has been passed from generation to generation.
Rev. Bush continued his pastoral work first in San Francisco and then at Staten Island. His ministry seemed to be flourishing, yet a year later he resigned his pastorate. It was a crisis of theology that led to the break, and it had been long in coming. Some years before, a friend had quoted lines from Emerson's "Problem," a poem in which Emerson expressed his doubt about the clergy and his preference for a more naturalistic faith. James recognized Emerson's sentiments as his own, and this set him in tension with his orthodox Episcopal vows.
Rev. Bush wrestled with his conscience for years until even a friend could note, "He was by nature and constitution a Liberal, but did not know it, until his own moral nature had grown strong enough to break the shell of automatic habit." When the shell finally broke, James resigned his post and moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived the life of a latter-day Thoreau, delighting in nature and beloved by his neighbors, until his death in 1889.
There were also in the Bush line men of industry and civic vision. Of James' four surviving children, one seemed to have been possessed of that amazing combination of giftedness and grace that has a way of surfacing in some families. His name was Samuel, and he lived an astonishing life. He was a baseball and tennis star, sang with the finest of baritones, and was the vice president of the student body at Stevens College, where he majored in mechanical engineering. After graduation, he married a descendant of Robert R. Livingston, the Puritan dissenter who came to America in 1673.
Samuel became a leader in Ohio politics, ran a railroad, organized the first War Chest drive during World War I at the request of the famed financier Bernard Baruch, and founded the golf course that would become the training ground for Jack Nicklaus. He believed in civic duty, in giving back to the country that gave him a chance to succeed. The description we have of Samuel from William Barrett might well describe many of the men in the Bush line: "Mr. Bush was above the average, about six feet, rather slender in build, of graceful carriage. He had a fine, strong, handsome face, with a kindly smile and charming grace of manner. His chief characteristics, it seems to me, were a nature free from guile, and a gentle cordiality of manner refreshing to see. Pure and unspotted from the world, he was in the truest sense a spiritually minded man. Possessing strong opinions, he never was offensive or aggressive in asserting them."
Clearly, Samuel Bush was an exceptional man of personal virtue and civic mission, son of a broadly spiritual man of literary and philosophical depth, who was in turn son of a boisterous adventurer and warrior. These are the men who bring us more directly to our story, for Samuel's son was Prescott Bush. We have already met him. He was the large man at the airstrip in Corpus Christi, Texas, the one who gave his twenty-year-old pilot-son the cuff links. He is the father of the first President Bush, the grandfather of George W. Bush, and he is the moral fire of the twentieth-century Bush family.
Prescott Bush was born on May 15, 1895, and in many ways he continued the pattern of the Bush men. He attended Yale like James Bush, could sing like Samuel Bush, and, when World War I began, he rushed off to serve in the Europe of General Pershing with a hunger for adventure that would have made old Obediah proud. After the war, he married a feisty beauty by the name of Dorothy at St. Anne's by the Sea, a small church in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Prescott went into business, prospered, and quickly earned a lifelong reputation for high character when he exposed a profit-skimming scheme that was draining his father-in-law's rubber company. His gifts landed him on Wall Street, where his success was legendary, and when World War II began, he was a powerful enough figure to be entrusted with the chairmanship of the USO (United Service Organizations). He gained nationwide recognition as he traveled the country raising millions for the National War Fund.
During his rise to fame, Prescott and Dorothy had four children. The first, Prescott Jr., was born in 1922. The second was George. He came into the world in 1924 in a Victorian house the Bushes owned on Adams Street in Milton, Massachusetts.
Excerpted from The Faith of George W. Bush by Joel Kilpatrick Copyright © 2004 by Joel Kilpatrick. Excerpted by permission.
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