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George Herbert Walker Bush
By Tom Wicker
Thorndike PressCopyright © 2004 Tom Wicker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH based his presidential campaigns on his extensive risumi as a leader of experience and character. Like Dwight D. Eisenhower before him, Bush, as was pointed out by the historian Michael Beschloss, did not offer himself as a proponent of certain issues or of a definite ideology or of any particular policy-such as, say, helping most Americans achieve affordable health care.
In a long prepresidential political career, Bush often used family and political connections to accumulate the experience that supposedly qualified him for the White House. Despite an almost sacrificial devotion to the Republican Party, he sometimes exhibited chameleonlike changes of coloration within its spectrum of opinion, and never overcame the suspicions of its most conservative elements. Throughout Bush's political life, however, his willingness to take on even thankless jobs and his ability to do them well, together with his gift for friendship and his loyalty to the countless friends he had made and kept-sometimes to the point of political risk-lay at the core of his achievement. George Bush, the public man, was preeminently the product of family, friendship, his sense of loyalty, his capacity for service-and the patronage of three presidents.
Bush's patrician background, combinedwith his propensity for verbal stumbles (once, when recalling being shot down over the Pacific during World War II, he concluded: "Lemme tell ya, that'll make you start to think about the separation of church and state"), earned him from Governor Ann Richards of Texas in 1992 the stinging remark that he had been born with "a silver foot in his mouth." Four years later Bush got revenge of a sort when his son George W. Bush defeated Richards's reelection attempt. But the foot was silver indeed; Bush's father was Senator Prescott Bush, Republican of Connecticut, formerly president of Buckeye Steel Castings Co. in Ohio, later a vice president of the New York brokerage firm Brown Brothers Harriman, a founder of the USO during World War II, a president of the U.S. Golf Association, and a frequent golfing companion of President Eisenhower.
In 1921 Prescott Bush married Dorothy Walker, the daughter of George H. Walker, a wealthy businessman, sports enthusiast, and founder of the Walker Cup for golfers. Dorothy was a tennis champion herself and the favored daughter in a highly competitive family. As Mrs. Prescott Bush, she became the mother of five children, the second and favorite of whom, born January 12, 1924, was George Herbert Walker Bush (named for "Dottie's" hard-charging father). George Bush grew up steeped in sports in Greenwich, Connecticut, and spent most summers even more deeply immersed in sports (land and water) at grandfather George H. Walker's 176-acre estate on the seashore at Kennebunkport, Maine.
Not unnaturally, therefore, grandson George H. W. Bush "prepped" at Andover, intending to follow his father to Yale. But after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 ("a date that will live in infamy," President Franklin Roosevelt intoned when asking Congress for a declaration of war), seventeen-year-old George ignored whatever family tradition and connections might have done for him. On his eighteenth birthday, January 12, 1942, he was sworn into the U.S. Navy, in a speedup program to train flyers. After earning his wings in less than a year, he became the youngest aviator in the navy.
More than two years later, on September 7, 1944, after Bush had flown numerous missions off the baby flattop San Jacinto, his torpedo bomber took a solid hit while flying through heavy flak to attack the island of Chichi Jima. Bush dropped his bomb load to complete the mission, then kept the clumsy old Avenger briefly aloft-long enough to give the crew a chance to bail out. But one of them was trapped aboard; another's chute failed to open; and in the end, like Ishmael, Bush "escaped alone to tell thee." Two hours later his raft was fished out of the water by the submarine Finback; typically, he reports in a campaign biography, even aboard the Finback, "I made friendships that have lasted a lifetime."
Bush's war was not yet over. He rejoined his squadron in the Philippines for three more months of combat missions (he logged a total of fifty-eight for the war), and finally, in December 1944-three years after Pearl Harbor-was sent home wearing the Distinguished Flying Cross. A few months later, soon after American A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war in the summer of 1945, he was a civilian again.
Demobilization meant much the same to George Bush as to millions of other young Americans who had fought and survived the "good war"-college on the GI Bill (in his case, Yale in September 1945), enjoying civilian life, and marriage. Two weeks after his return to the States, Bush married an old girlfriend, Barbara Pierce (his downed plane had been named "Barbara") in Rye, New York. Their union has lasted for fifty-seven years and produced six children (including two sons who became state governors: George junior of Texas, sworn in as the forty-third president of the United States in 2001, and Jeb of Florida).
After getting his "ruptured duck" (a pin signifying a discharged veteran) in the summer of 1945, Bush finally matriculated at Yale. As might have been expected from his family heritage, he excelled in athletics (as captain and first baseman of the college baseball team that played for but lost the national title in 1947 and 1948) and was chosen for the exclusive social society Skull and Bones; he also did well in his studies, being elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He and Barbara could celebrate the birth of George junior, their first child, in July 1946; they "made some close and lasting friendships" while living off campus in New Haven; and they seem to have avoided the liberal activism that so frustrated George's fellow student William F. Buckley Jr.
Bush then joined many another young World War II veteran as part of a significant postwar migration out of the cities into the suburbs, and from the old northern industrial belt into the South and West. At much the same time, thousands of blacks-superseded by the mechanical cotton-picking machine-were moving in the other direction: out of the sharecrop South into old industrial cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Baltimore. The major long-term results of these contramigrations included changes in the nature of such cities, including the growth of black ghettos, and the gradual transformation of the old "Solid South," a Democratic stronghold since Reconstruction following the Civil War, into first a two-party and ultimately a new Republican "Solid South."
After graduation from Yale, Bush decided not to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship on the strange grounds that his small family could not afford to live in England (although he had three thousand dollars in savings from the navy, a not inconsiderable sum in the forties). If this meant that he did not want to call on Bush or Walker family wealth, neither did he turn easily to family business connections. After Procter & Gamble, the big soap company, turned him down, he declined an opportunity to work with his father (and the prominent Democrat Averell Harriman) at Brown Brothers Harriman, and he also rejected an offer from G. H. Walker and Company, his grandfather's private Wall Street banking firm. But enough was enough; Prescott Bush, a member of the board of directors of Dressen Industries, a Texas oil-drilling supply company, then intervened.
Prescott's old friend Henry Neil Mallon, Dressen's president (for whom George and Barbara later named their youngest son), was a sort of "surrogate and father confessor" to Prescott's children. Mallon offered the well-bred young Yalie a lowly clerkship at Ideco, a Dressen subsidiary, in Odessa, Texas (somewhere, as most easterners might have thought, between Kennebunkport and the moon). The booming oil industry looked good, however, and-like millions of other veterans who were pulling up their roots-George H. W. Bush seized the opportunity to begin a new life. Save for a brief transfer to California, the patrician New Englander was to make the rest of his business career-and the beginnings of his political life-in flourishing, boastful Texas.
Bravely, optimistically, he drove south in the new Studebaker his father had given him as a graduation gift, to a new and promising life. "Bar," as Bush always called his wife, and George junior waited at the Walker's Point estate in Kennebunkport until George found a house for them in Odessa-half of a divided "shotgun" structure, with a shared bathroom, on East Seventh Street. They flew to Texas, not only to a different life but to a strange land-drilling rigs, the smell of oil everywhere, and a culture of young would-be entrepreneurs, among whom there was a kind of classless, fences-down comradeship not common among wealthier, more privileged families in the East, even Bushes and Walkers. Above all, however, postwar Texas was perfumed with the sweet scent of opportunity.
George Bush, though he took to his Ideco duties readily enough, was not long in following that scent. Why not, with his connections? At first he had little status-as a rich-kid hired hand from the East, not yet in the promising lease-and-drill business. But, as always, he made friends quickly, and lots of them-with one of whom, a more experienced neighbor named John Overbey, he soon formed Bush-Overbey Oil Development Company. The new firm was partially financed by Brown Brothers, and old George H. Walker himself put in five hundred thousand dollars; other investors, reassured by Prescott Bush's senatorial stature, included Eugene Meyer, publisher of the Washington Post. Prescott's son was on his way-no longer a mere wage worker but part owner of a new player in the sky's-the-limit Texas oil game.
Bush-Overbey did well, and things were beginning to look up for the transplanted Bushes in their intriguing new world, when three-year-old Robin Bush, the little family's secondborn, was diagnosed in 1953 with incurable leukemia. Barbara Bush and the distraught father-probably never before, or at least since his two hours on a raft in the Pacific, faced with a situation about which he could do nothing-still tried to do what they could. They provided Robin with the best medical care in Texas and New York; they tried experimental drugs; they authorized a last-hope surgery-but none of it worked. Robin died a few weeks short of her fourth birthday.
At first it seemed that Barbara Bush could not survive the blow. Though she had suffered Robin's illness in stoic silence, her daughter's death seemed, finally, too much. So lost was she in her grief that she appeared not to want to go on. In later years she often said that, in those terrible times, George Bush saved her-with his never-ending faith and optimism, his assurances that life had to go on, his ability to keep moving, go ahead. Life was still good, he believed, and it was certainly for the living.
Typically, when they came back from the East and Robin's death to Midland, Texas (where, after their brief side assignment to California, they'd moved, into a boxlike house in a tract called Easter Egg Row), George Bush took his wife first to their friends' houses, scattered around town, to thank them for their help and concern during Robin's illness.
* * *
It's impossible for parents completely to get over the death of a child. But recovering from Robin's death was easier (though never easy) for George Bush than for his wife, because at about that time he was moving beyond Bush-Overbey. He'd been making friends with one of the boldest and brightest wannabe entrepreneurs in the Texas oil patch-Hugh Lietke Jr.-a Harvard Business School graduate and the son of a well-connected oil-company lawyer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Lietke saw in Bush, if not a lot of business experience, the great virtue of access to eastern money. And both were willing to take risks-at that time the name of the game in the Texas oil business.
Lietke raised half a million dollars, Bush-Overbey put in the same, and they merged into a single company called Zapata Petroleum-after the Mexican revolutionary portrayed by Marlon Brando in a movie then being shown in Midland. Bush was Zapata's vice president, and half the money had come from his and his family's connections, but contemporary observers in Texas never doubted that Hugh Lietke, with his brains and experience, made most of the decisions.
Whoever deserves the credit, one of those decisions led to a ten-strike. Zapata laid out $850,000-close to its total capital-to lease a huge stretch of land in Coke County, to the east of which Sun Oil had producing wells. If the oil pool Sun was tapping extended to the west, Zapata might have a winner. If it didn't-well, risk was the name of the game. But betting nearly everything in one plunge, as Zapata had done, was unusual even in those days in Texas. The partners, moreover, had to put down at least another hundred thousand dollars to drill their first well. If it didn't come in ... but it did.
So did the next well they drilled. And the next. They drilled seventy-one holes in the Coke County lease-and every one poured black gold out of the Texas earth. By the end of 1953 Zapata was pumping more than a thousand barrels of oil a day, worth at the time more than a million dollars a year. Later even more wells produced even more oil, and the Zapata partners became the first Midland independents to reach a net worth of one million dollars apiece.
John Overbey was not one of them. Hardly a corporate type, he had dropped out of Zapata before the Coke County wells brought in their gushers of wealth (but of course he and George Bush-ever loyal to an old friend-remained close). Newly flush, Bush expanded, investing some of his Zapata gains in a partnership that opened a new business, the Commercial Bank and Trust Company. For his family, money meant a succession of new and bigger houses and what was probably the first backyard swimming pool anybody in the Midland crowd ever had built-a great place for George Bush's many friends to gather at the end of a hot and profitable Texas day.
Bush's career as an entrepreneur continued to flourish with Zapata Petroleum during the 1950s-but underneath financial success he was suffering the gnawing feeling, perhaps bred of Prescott Bush's teachings and example, that he should be giving something back, doing something for the community that was so richly rewarding him.
Excerpted from George Herbert Walker Bush by Tom Wicker Copyright © 2004 by Tom Wicker. Excerpted by permission.
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