George Herbert Walker Bush: A Penguin Lifeby Tom Wicker
No one is more qualified to give a fully rounded, objective portrait of our forty-first president than Tom Wicker. A political correspondent for The New York Times for more than thirty years, Wicker was a first-hand witness to and reporter of George H. W. Bush’s political rise and presidential reign. In George Herbert Walker Bush, Wicker provides a richly drawn and succinct overview of Bush from his New England roots, his decorated service in World War II, and his successful oil businesses to his shift to politics and rapid rise within the Republican party. As he describes changes within the Republican party in recent decades, Wicker charts Bush’s career, including in-depth analysis of his campaign tactics and his gift for creating friendships and inspiring loyalty which, Wicker argues, has been the key to Bush’s success. The result is a fascinating, timely glimpse into one of the most powerful families in America today, complete with insights into the current reign of George W. Bush, the continued legacy of the Bush family, and contemporary American politics.
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Read an Excerpt
NOT LONG AFTER George Herbert Walker Bush, the forty-first president of the United States, left office in 1993 and returned to Texas, an old acquaintance found himself at loose ends in Houston. Out of courtesy and curiosity, he called on the former president at his retirement office in the cityÆs federal building.
Cordially and immediately, as befitted long association, the old acquaintance was ushered into a replica of the presidentÆs Oval Office in the White House. George Bush, known to family and friends as ôPoppy,ö sat smiling behind a huge executive desk on which there was not a scrap of paperùnot a note, a letter, or even a message slip.
While the two men chatted inconsequentially, the former president with his usual grace and friendliness, the phone never rang; no buzzer disturbed the conversation; no secretary or clerk opened the door; no request or notice of any kind was placed on the empty desktop. Their talk of old times was interrupted only when Bush escorted his visitor to a window and pointed out a house he and the former first lady were building in a nearby Houston neighborhood.
ôWell, Mister President,ö BushÆs friend finally thought it proper to say, ôI just wanted to say hello, but now IÆm afraid IÆm taking too much of your time.ö
ôNo, no!ö his host exclaimed. ôYouÆre not taking too much time at all. IÆm really enjoying our conversation.ö
Whereupon the old acquaintance stayed for another session of pleasant small talk, during whichù againùno sign of any other activity appeared in the ersatz Oval Office. It finally dawned on the visitor that the former president of the United States could take so much time with him becauseùlike thousands of former executives who had retired full of years and honorùhe had nothing else to do. But surely a man who had spent most of his life in high government office, including a term in the White Houseùwho had in fact presided over the end of the Cold Warùmust have many ideas and plans, now that his time was his own?
Many years before, the old friend remembered, he and George H. W. Bush had served together on the board of trustees of Phillips Andover Academy, of which they were alumni. During their long joint tenure, the man who would later be president was popular, a helpful figure to his colleagues, supportive of their ideas, willing to take on any task asked of him, doing such jobs wellùbut he had put forth not a single serious proposal of his own, or any weighty opinion, or even a significant statement. On the Andover board Bush had not seemed to want or need to do anything in particular for the school; he had offered no plans to improve its performance or the lives of its studentsùjust as now, in the Houston Oval Office, behind the clean desk, the former president seemed to have nothing urgent on his mind.
As the visitor finally departed, despite hearty exhortations to stay and talk some more, he could not help wondering if that pleasant hour and his memories from Andover suggested a sort of caretaker mentalityùif during George H. W. BushÆs life and presidency he had seldom had stronger purposes than he had disclosed on the Andover board, or revealed needs more pressing than maintaining gracious relations with his friendsùexcept, of course, what must have been a burning desire to become president of the United States.
GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH* based his presidential campaigns on his extensive rTsumT 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 policyùsuch as, say, helping most Americans achieve affordable health care.1
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 BushÆs 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 keptù sometimes to the point of political riskùlay 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 serviceùand the patronage of three presidents.
BushÆs patrician background, combined with his propensity for verbal stumbles (once, when recalling being shot down over the Pacific during World War II, he concluded: ôLemme tell ya, thatÆll make you start to think about the separation of church and stateö2), earned him from Governor Ann Richards of Texas in 1992 the stinging remark that he had been born with ôa silver foot in his mouth.ö Four years later Bush got revenge of a sort when his son George W. Bush defeated RichardsÆs reelection attempt. But the foot was silver indeed; BushÆs 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 ôDottieÆsö 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. WalkerÆs 176-acre estate on the seashore at Kennebunkport, Maine.
Not unnaturally, therefore, grandson George H. W. Bush ôpreppedö at Andover, intending to follow his father to Yale. But after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (ôa date that will live in infamy,ö 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 aloftùlong enough to give the crew a chance to bail out. But one of them was trapped aboard; anotherÆs chute failed to open; and in the end, like Ishmael, Bush ôescaped alone to tell thee.ö 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, ôI made friendships that have lasted a lifetime.ö3
BushÆs 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 1944ùthree years after Pearl Harborùwas 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 ôgood waröùcollege 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 ôBarbaraö) 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 ôruptured duckö (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 ômade some close and lasting friendshipsö while living off campus in New Haven;4 and they seem to have avoided the liberal activism that so frustrated GeorgeÆs fellow student William F. Buckley Jr.å
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 blacksùsuperseded by the mechanical cotton-picking machineùwere 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 ôSolid South,ö a Democratic stronghold since Reconstruction following the Civil War, into first a two-party and ultimately a new Republican ôSolid South.ö
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 dollars5 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 grandfatherÆs 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.
PrescottÆs old friend Henry Neil Mallon, DressenÆs president (for whom George and Barbara later named their youngest son), was a sort of ôsurrogate and father confessorö to PrescottÆs children.6 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, andùlike millions of other veterans who were pulling up their rootsù 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 careerùand the beginnings of his political lifeùin 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. ôBar,ö as Bush always called his wife, and George junior waited at the WalkerÆs Point estate in Kennebunkport until George found a house for them in Odessaùhalf of a divided ôshotgunö structure, with a shared bathroom, on East Seventh Street. They flew to Texas, not only to a different life but to a strange landùdrilling 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 statusùas 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 themùwith 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 BushÆs senatorial stature, included Eugene Meyer, publisher of the Washington Post. PrescottÆs son was on his wayùno longer a mere wage worker but part owner of a new player in the skyÆs-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 familyÆs secondborn, was diagnosed in 1953 with incurable leukemia. Barbara Bush and the distraught fatherùprobably never before, or at least since his two hours on a raft in the Pacific, faced with a situation about which he could do nothingùstill 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 surgeryùbut 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 RobinÆs illness in stoic silence, her daughterÆs 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 herùwith 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 RobinÆs death to Midland, Texas (where, after their brief side assignment to California, theyÆd moved, into a boxlike house in a tract called Easter Egg Row), George Bush took his wife first to their friendsÆ houses, scattered around town, to thank them for their help and concern during RobinÆs illness.7
B ItÆs impossible for parents completely to get over the death of a child. But recovering from RobinÆs death was easier (though never easy) for George Bush than for his wife, because at about that time he was moving beyond Bush-Overbey. HeÆd been making friends with one of the boldest and brightest wannabe entrepreneurs in the Texas oil patchùHugh Lietke Jr.ùa 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 risksùat 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 Petroleumùafter the Mexican revolutionary portrayed by Marlon Brando in a movie then being shown in Midland. Bush was ZapataÆs vice president, and half the money had come from his and his familyÆs 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 $850,000ùclose to its total capitalùto 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 didnÆtùwell, 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 didnÆt come in...but it did.
So did the next well they drilled. And the next. They drilled seventy-one holes in the Coke County leaseùand 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 Bushùever loyal to an old friendùremained 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 builtùa great place for George BushÆs many friends to gather at the end of a hot and profitable Texas day.8
BushÆs career as an entrepreneur continued to flourish with Zapata Petroleum during the 1950sùbut underneath financial success he was suffering the gnawing feeling, perhaps bred of Prescott BushÆs teachings and example, that he should be giving something back, doing something for the community that was so richly rewarding him.
That attitude had little to do with the division of Zapata in 1958; the problem, if there was one, was more nearly that Hugh Lietke was interested in production and corporate acquisitions while Bush preferred the more adventurous, risk-taking aspects of the oil business. So the 1958 split was a natural. They spun off a second company, called Zapata Offshore, to dig wells in the ocean floor; and George Bushùwho believed that undersea drilling was where the future layùbought the new firm from his partners, became its president, and moved to Houston.
The remains of the original Zapata Petroleum continued to prosper mightily; Hugh Lietke eventually controlled Pennzoil. But most of the eastern money and influence Bush had brought to Texas went with him to Zapata Offshore. G. H. Walker&Company underwrote most of OffshoreÆs public offerings. Its legal work was done by Endicott Davison, a Skull and Bonesman with George Bush at Yale in 1948. Even the Texas company that underwrote the initial stock issue, Underwood, Neuhaus, had an old Andover classmate, Robert Parish, on its staff. And when a Gulf hurricane blew away one of OffshoreÆs three- million-dollar oil rigs,* G. H. Walker and Company quietly handled the financial side of the matter back east. On the scene in Houston, George Bush proved a competent managerùand, in his usual pattern, made lots of new friends, some of them influential.
On its fifth anniversary, Offshore was listed on the American Stock Exchange and had attracted twenty- two hundred stockholders. The company occupied offices in the Houston Club building, had a fleet of four monster drilling rigs, employed 195 people, carried an impressive load of debt, and enjoyed plenty of business either under way or pending9ùincluding operations on Cay Sal Bank in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, once leased by Howard Hughes. Meanwhile, not least as a result of the huge social and political migrations in which George Bush had participated, Texas was metamorphosing from safely Democratic into something approaching a two-party state.*
Governor Allan Shivers had led a ôDemocrats for Eisenhowerö movement in 1952, and Texas was one of five southern states Ike carried that year. The growth of the Texas GOPùfueled by oil wealth, the influx of outsiders, and the stateÆs basically conservative electorateùcontinued in the fifties. By 1961, when Lyndon Johnson abandoned his Senate seat to become vice president of the United States, Texas elected John Tower as his replacementùthe stateÆs first Republican senator since Reconstruction.
In that special election Tower had benefited from being the only Republican in the field with seventy- five Democrats, including Bing CrosbyÆs father-in-law. Texas Democrats also were somewhat complacent, sure they could defeat Tower one-on-one in the regular election of 1962 if he managed to win in 1961. As things turned out, he survived both elections and went on to win three more terms, and to be nominated for secretary of defense by President George H. W. Bush in 1989.
A signal part of the Texas partyÆs growth, however, was an archconservative sector in the image of, and deeply devoted to, Barry Goldwater, the guru of the swiftly emerging national conservative movement. When the Harris County (Houston) Republican chairman moved to Florida in 1962, the right-wing John Birch Society was strong enough to threaten a takeover of the county Republican committee. ThatÆs when leading Harris County Republicans asked the prosperous businessman and popular Houston resident George Bush to run for the chairmanship; and thatÆs when Prescott BushÆs restless son saw the opportunity for community service that heÆd been seekingùnever mind that Zapata Offshore required of him as much management effort as one man could reasonably handle.
Bush proved a roaring success, the hardest-working chairman Harris County Republicans ever had seen. He was enthusiastic and optimistic, raised money, organized precincts, brought in recruits, found volunteers, computerized the voter rolls, moved the committee to better quarters, and stayed right on top of the paperwork. In his new role he again made lots of new friends; women Republicans especially liked his good looks, his unfailing courtesy. Under BushÆs committee leadership, the party even elected HoustonÆs first Republican city councilman.
Everything Chairman Bush touched seemed to succeedùexcept that he could never win the BirchersÆ friendship, hard as he tried, not even when he named some of them to leadership positions in the county. He was too eastern, too Yale, too moderate, the epitome of everything Barry Goldwater was notùor so the Birchers were convinced. In 1963, nevertheless, Bush saw the kind of tempting opportunity that might offer him a political success similar to OffshoreÆs in business; he determined to seek the Republican nomination to run in 1964 against TexasÆs senior senatorùthe old populist liberal Ralph Yarborough.
Bush believed that Yarborough was out of touch with a Texas grown more conservative since the senatorÆs last election. Owing to BushÆs own labors among Republicans, he also believed that the state was tired of the old man. Even Lyndon Johnson was believed to have little use for Yarborough. And with Goldwater given a good chance to be nominated for president and to carry Texas for the Republicans, he might well bring in an attractive Republican senate candidate on his coattails. All in all a race against Ralph Yarborough looked like a pretty good bet for a young manùBush would be only forty in 1964ùwho was obviously going places.
He threw himself without stint into a four-candidate Republican primary, helped by the zealous work of his wife and eldest son, George W.ùeighteen years old in 1964ùand by all those Houston volunteers he had organized and led so enthusiastically. Bush was a poor speaker with a tinny voiceùbut he was a splendid handshaker, backslapper, and fresh face, a man never too busy or too tired, moreover, to dash off dozens of thank-you notes daily (probably thousands by the end of the campaign) to anyone whoÆd helped him in even the smallest way. He was piling up new friendships almost faster than they could be recorded in the card file Barbara Bush relentlessly kept up to date.
Even as a relative newcomer to Texasùnaturally Yarborough and Republican primary opponents called him a carpetbaggerùBush led the primary with a plurality, then defeated his main rival in a runoff in which he took more than 60 percent of the vote. That, of course, was only among registered Republicans, of whom there were not yet too many in Texas. Bush not only had still to take on Yarborough himself; he had to confront the uncomfortable fact that Goldwater probably couldnÆt win Texas after allùbecause Lyndon Johnson had become president, succeeding the murdered John F. Kennedy, and there was no doubt that LBJ, the master of Texas politics, would be at the top of the Democratic ticket in 1964.
Back in Connecticut, Prescott Bushùretired from the Senate since 1962ùwas one of those Eisenhower Republicans itching to knock Goldwater out of the Republican running and rescue their party from its fire- breathing right wing. Prescott Bush and other Eisenhower Republicans first favored Nelson Rockefeller of New York, then William Scranton of Pennsylvaniaùanyone, in fact, but AUH2O (as GoldwaterÆs bumper stickers proclaimed him). Down in Texas, however, George Bushùthe Republican Senate nominee but also a relative newcomer from the East, a Yalie, and maybe even an internationalistùrealized that if his own father came out publicly against Goldwater, all those Texas right-wingers never reconciled to the son would be newly angered and aroused.
So Prescott Bush received an anguished phone call from George Bushùand thereafter Prescott remained loyally silent, doing nothing throughout 1964 to stop his party from nominating Barry Goldwater for president (to be fair, Dwight Eisenhower himself did little more). In Texas, Bush had recognized that he would sink or swim with Goldwater at the top of the national Republican ticketùand he was neither willing to sink nor at a loss about how to swim. He moved almost as far to the right as was Goldwater himself, then staged another fighting, handshaking, note-writing campaign, visiting more than half of TexasÆs 254 counties (in most of which no Republican organization existed). The supposed eastern moderate one-worlder opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just passed by Congress under LBJÆs unique pressures; he denounced the United Nations, deplored what he called the ôsoftö Democratic policy on the war in Vietnam, and argued against a nuclear test-ban treaty. Three years after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he even proposed arming Cuban exiles for another go at Fidel Castro.
With a patrician sense of propriety, however, that might seem odd to those of a different background, Bush refused all suggestions that he talk about his wartime heroism. That would be bad form, contrary to the code of sportsmanship that Bush had learned from his grandfather, his mother, and his father, and at Andover: One did not boast about oneÆs accomplishments.
Though Bush was still not much of a stump speaker and had no identifying ômessageö except the claim, endlessly repeated, that Yarborough was a proven giveaway artist, a liberal out of step with Texas, his campaignùfeaturing country music, barbecue, a determinedly folksy candidate, and stump speeches from Goldwater and Richard Nixonùclearly was not hopeless, not at first, anyway. Then President Lyndon Johnson, who had little love for Ralph Yarborough but even less for John Tower, and who was determined that his home state would not have two Republican senators, swept into Texas, rolled out the political power he had been stockpiling for thirty years, and gathered even Yarborough into his fulsome embrace. In the end, on his way to a national landslide, LBJ took 63 percent of the Texas presidential vote and easily carried Ralph Yarborough back to the Senate. George Bush could take comfort only from the fact that his creditable 44 percent, though swamped by JohnsonÆs huge majority, represented the most votes any Republican had ever won in Texas.
In his book Looking Forward Bush does not even mention his right-wing, Goldwaterish performance in 1964, remarking only that his ôwas the kind of campaign not generally identified with Republican candidates, a leaf taken from the old Texas populist book.ö10 In the days following his defeat, however, Bush told his minister in Houston, ôI took some far-right positions to get elected. I hope I never do it again. I regret it.ö11 The sincerity of this resolve was to be tested again and again in the years to comeùyears that found George Bush, the successful oilman, devoting himself almost fully to politics and government.
The greatest irony of 1964 may have been that even his taking those ôfar-right positionsö didnÆt win the John Birchers over to George Bush, any more than his Reaganesque attitudes during his presidency, 1989û 93, were to convince conservatives of that later era that he was one of them. In 1964, the Birchers thought they knew a ômoderateö when they saw one, no matter what he might be saying to win votes. So they sat on their hands during BushÆs campaign and took a walk on election day. Better even Ralph Yarborough than an easternerùprobably a closet internationalist to boot.
If luck seemed to have deserted George Bush when Johnson was sworn in as president within an hour of KennedyÆs death, BushÆs political fortunes were quickly reversed after 1964. As Harris County Republican chairman in 1963, he had filed suit for a redrawing of the countyÆs congressional districts, basing the case on the Supreme CourtÆs one-man, one-vote decision. National population shifts also had enlarged the Texas congressional entitlement. So a new Houston district was created for 1966ùwhite, wealthy, with few Hispanic or black voters but including a lot of newcomers to Texas. Reflecting his changed personal prioritiesùpolitics over businessùBush sold his share of Zapata Offshore for more than one million dollars and filed for the seat.
As the Republican candidate who had done well in the losing cause against LBJ and Ralph Yarborough, Bush had good ôname recognitionö and rather easily won the House seat in a contest with HoustonÆs Democratic district attorney, Frank Briscoeùwho made the mistake of calling his opponent a carpetbagger in a district full of carpetbaggers. But even with BushÆs gifts for friendship, his indexed filing cases of friends, and the advantages of the new constituency, the new congressman was not solely responsible for his victory. In 1966 a new tide was running, led nationally by Richard Nixon. Republicans rebounded from the Goldwater debacle of two years earlier, taking sixty-six House seatsùincluding the new Houston Seventh. There, both Nixon and House Republican leader Gerald Ford had campaigned personally for that promising newcomerùPrescott BushÆs son George.
(The 1966 results, not incidentally, paved the way for NixonÆs nomination and comeback presidential campaign in 1968, and thus indirectlyùas will be seenùfor George BushÆs own national political career.) Rather inexplicably Bush recorded in Looking Forward that ôa disappointing aspectö of the 1966 vote was ômy being swamped in the black precincts, despite...an all-out effort to attract black voters.ö12 Can he have forgotten that he had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in his right-wing campaign against Ralph Yarborough? Or did he believe that blacks should know that a Yale-educated candidate of good family could not be racially biased and was for them in his heart, no matter how political circumstances might have forced him to vote?
In other ways the Seventh District campaign yielded political connections to match the family position Bush already had. As one of forty-seven freshman Republicans in the House, he managed a coupù membership on the important Ways and Means Committee, an impossible feat for most rookies and unknowns without a father whoÆd served in the Senate. Otherwise his first term was undistinguished except for his typically hard work for his constituents and his assiduous courting of even the least among them (the name cards kept piling up in BarbaraÆs files).
In 1968 he scored a politicianÆs dreamùreelection unopposed, in some ways a reward for his good record. Almost as important, NixonùBushÆs benefactor in 1964 and 1966ùmoved into the White House in early 1969. BushÆs name even turned up on a leaked shortlist of those Nixon supposedly was considering as his vice presidential choice (which doesnÆt necessarily mean that Bush was actually a serious contender, or a contender at all; but the mere report helped along his embryonic political career). Nixon later told him, ôI really couldnÆt pick a one-term congressman.ö13
Bush had, however, near the end of his first term, when he knew he would have no opponent for 1968, cast one controversial voteùin favor of one of the last gasps of Lyndon JohnsonÆs Great Society, an open- housing bill.* Though heÆd expected criticism, the uproar of surprise and anger in his wealthy white district surprised him. The backlash couldnÆt hurt him in 1968, since he was running unopposedùbut that vote would not be forgotten in Houston and Texas.
In 1970 it was one of the reasons BushÆs luck turned bad again. That year, he was pondering whether to give up his safe House seat and take on Senator Yarborough a second time. A foolish move? Actually there seemed little risk. Bush was popular, a leader of the emerging Texas Republican Party; Yarborough really had outstayed his Texas welcome by 1970; and, anyway, Richard Nixon told Bush in urging him to run that heÆd be considered for a high-level administration job in the unlikely event he should lose.
Even former President Johnson, his old antipathy to Ralph Yarborough apparently aroused again, gave Bush veiled encouragement. The congressman had had the good senseùand political perspicacityùto go to Andrews Air Force Base to see Johnson off to Texas when LBJ left the presidency in 1969. Now Bush called at the LBJ Ranch and asked Johnson, not if heÆd support him, but if he thought Bush should give up the House seat for a Senate run.
LBJ replied that heÆd served in the House and the Senate, that he wouldnÆt advise Bush what to do, but he would say that ôthe difference between being a member of the Senate and a member of the House is the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit.ö After this typically Johnsonian, only slightly Delphic remark, he asked: ôDo I make my point?ö14
With everything looking so promising, Bush not unnaturally opted for chicken salad and filed for the Senate race. But he was to be handed, in LBJÆs graphic description, a plate of chicken shit. Old Senator Yarborough lost his partyÆs primary to a more conservative Democrat, a former congressman named Lloyd Bentsenùa protTgT of Governor John Connally (who was still a Democrat in 1970) and a man Lyndon Johnson could and did openly support. Suddenly, his bridges burned, George Bush no longer had an elderly, worn-out opponent, a ôliberal giveaway artist.ö Instead he faced a tough, vigorous, conservative Democrat in what was still mostly a conservative Democratic state. He was no longer likely to go to the Senate his father once had graced, and he had given up even the prospect of going back to the House.
Nevertheless, with his usual zeal and enthusiasm, Bush pitched headlong into the race against Bentsenùthis time positioning himself to the left of his opponent (despite his earlier pledge to that minister not to take positions again just to get votes). He ran as the more liberal of the two candidates, even reaching out to blacks and Hispanics, building on the open-housing vote.
He may have had little choice, but the tactic was questionable anyway. Bush was no longer running in his familiar Houston district but statewideùin a state in which more whites were opposed to or suspicious of open housing and liberalism than minorities were for them. Those whoÆd voted for Ralph Yarborough in the primary remembered how Bush had savaged the old man in 1964, and most stayed with Bentsen. Nixon came to Texas in full cry and skewered the Democratsùdooming any Bush hope for a crossover vote. Bentsen tabbed him repeatedly as ôa liberal Ivy League carpetbagger,ö and this time the charge struck a damaging note in Texasùand stuck to Bush for years. Representative Jim Wright, Democrat of Texas and Speaker of the House, once mocked Bush at a Gridiron Club dinner as ôthe only Texan...who eats lobster with his chiliö and ôhad a downhome quiche cook-off.ö15
Even so Bush went down fighting, bettering his 1964 vote percentage; but 46 percent was still not good enough. Bentsen went to the Senate, ultimately to a vice presidential candidacy and to become secretary of the treasury under President Bill Clinton. George Bush was not to win an election on his own for another eighteen years. Barbara Bush and the family wept; but George went right back to work, phoning and writing to those who had helped him.
There were a lot of people to be thanked, a lot of new friends, a good sign for the future if you were as optimistic as George Bush usually was. But on the sad night when the votes were counted in 1970, even he must have realized that little remained of what had been a surging political careerùexcept Richard NixonÆs pledge of a job in the national administration.
*To avoid confusion, all references to ôBushö or ôGeorge Bushö in this book will be to George H. W. Bush, the forty-first president. His son, the forty-third president, will be referred to as ôGeorge W. Bush,ö ôGeorge junior,ö or, occasionally, ôJunior.ö
*One of whom, daughter Robin, died in 1953 at the age of three.
åAs recounted in BuckleyÆs God and Man at Yale (Chicago: Regnery, 1951).
*Three-legged, weighing nine million pounds each, and built by R. G. LeTourneau of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Bush, Looking Forward, pp. 70û71.
*Cay Sal Bank was reportedly sometimes used as a base for CIA raids into CastroÆs Cuba. In 1981, when Bush became vice president of the United States, all Securities and Exchange Commission filings for Zapata Offshore, 1960û 66, were destroyed.
*To prevent housing discrimination against blacks and others by real estate agents and landlords
Meet the Author
Tom Wicker covered American politics at The New York Times from 1960 to the early 1990s, when he succeeded Arthur Krock as writer of the “In the Nation” column. He is the author of several books of nonfiction, including One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream, and JFK and LBJ, as well as several novels.
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