W: Revenge of the Bush Dynastyby Elizabeth Mitchell
In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that George W. Bush - the eldest son of former president George Herbert Walker Bush - would be heir apparent to the Republican presidential nomination, if not to the presidency itself.
In this highly readable, superbly reported first book by journalist Elizabeth Mitchell, the author makes the case that George W. learned well… See more details below
In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that George W. Bush - the eldest son of former president George Herbert Walker Bush - would be heir apparent to the Republican presidential nomination, if not to the presidency itself.
In this highly readable, superbly reported first book by journalist Elizabeth Mitchell, the author makes the case that George W. learned well from watching his father, that from the beginning he had personal characteristics - including an easy and convivial way with people - that his father did not have in the same measure, and that, perhaps most importantly, in George W.'s quest to become president, he is fueled not only by his own ambition and grooming, but also by his desire to avenge his father's painful loss to Bill Clinton in 1992.
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Read an Excerpt
SON OF SUPERMAN
If we are to imagine what it is to be George W. Bush--and it is important to cast our thoughts to such speculation so we can predict how he might behave if he were to become our next president--we must first imagine what it would be like to live with the k-constant of George W.'s life, to labor under the assumption that one's father is a bona fide hero.
George W.'s father is not just a decent man, not just a single-threat talent. He is not merely a former college baseball star, the type who could, if he chose, pain his listeners over cordon bleu at the country club with old stories of triple plays. He is not just a wily entrepreneur, not simply a good-looking guy who still charms the gray-haired ladies. You must imagine this: Although George W. Bush was born to his parents when his father was just a college sophomore, George Herbert Walker Bush already had a whole litany of achievements behind him by then. In 1944, only two years before George W. entered the world, his handsome six-foot-two father, George Herbert Walker Bush, stood at attention while the Distinguished Flying Cross was pinned to his lapel. The 20-year-old had won the honor by destroying radio transmitters on the island of Chichi Jima, after being shot down, lost at sea, and rescued within an inch of his life.
The very fact that he had been a U.S. airman in the Pacific at such a tender age was itself a great indicator of his extraordinary New England mettle. Of course, so many American men had made the exact same decision George Bush had onDecember 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. After that attack, the war no longer just rumbling on the dark side of the globe; hostilities were exploding on American seas. The next day, across the country, long lines of volunteers snaked from recruiting stations and wrapped around city blocks. Most Americans feared that more Asian weapons were on the way, targeting everything from the commuter tunnels of New York City to the spans of the Golden Gate Bridge.
With the U.S. at war, it was only a question of when, not if, George Bush would be called to serve. He no longer wanted to continue on directly to Yale, where he had been accepted during his junior year at Andover. Instead he chose battle. Given his character, it was not surprising that he chose action over academics. The war "was against imperialism and against fascism, and I wanted to be on the cutting edge," he has said. He hoped that if he enlisted early, the officers would be happy to train him as a pilot no matter his young age.
But for a boy of his social class, his decision was hasty. The secretary of war, Henry Stimson, in his commencement oration exhorted Bush's graduating Andover class not to jump right into the services. Even Bush's steely New England father, Prescott, had urged his son to change his mind (although he himself had enlisted in World War I directly upon graduation from Yale). Despite the uncommon sight of his father in tears, George Bush went into the trade of kings, becoming at age 18 the Navy's youngest aviator.
George Bush's entry into war tested not just his strength, but also the resolve of young Barbara Pierce, the 16-year-old girl who would be his wife. They met only weeks after Pearl Harbor, at a country club dance in Greenwich, Connecticut. Barbara was back home for the holidays in nearby Rye, New York, on leave from Ashley Hall, the girls' school she attended in Charleston, South Carolina. There she was a good student with a taste for acting. George Bush, from nearby Greenwich, was attending the dance with some friends. Almost immediately, his eye was caught by the tall, auburn-haired girl in the off-the-shoulder dress of holiday red and green. She was bouncing along to the Glenn Miller-style band with his friend Jack Wozencraft. George asked Jack to introduce them. Alas, as George and Barbara prepared for their first dance, the band dropped the tempo to a waltz, and the Andover senior, a rotten hoofer, had to ask her to sit out the song and just talk.
George Bush would later explain the immediacy of their courtship by "the heightened awareness, on-the-edge" quality of the time. After all, the debris in Pearl Harbor was still washing ashore, and most people worried that whatever happiness they were able to find might be the fleeting last rays before more death and destruction. But he was impressed by her exuberance, her lack of self-consciousness.
For her part, Barbara's "heightened awareness" was not induced by wartime fears. She has said that the bombing of Pearl Harbor barely registered with her. Instead, the fever of love she felt was triggered entirely by George Bush, or "Poppy," as he was then nicknamed, "I could hardly breathe when he was in the room," she has said. He asked her what she was doing the following night, and she told him that she would be attending a dance in Rye. He showed up at that event too.
By that time, all of Barbara's family was well aware of her new suitor. She had cooed about him to her mother when she returned home that night from the Greenwich dance. Her mother infuriated her by burning up the phone lines asking around about his background. Luckily, he and his family fared well. At the dance in Rye, her brother James--who had never shown much brotherly affection--cut in on them so that he could send George and Barbara to the sidelines. He wanted to ask Poppy if he would join his private-school basketball team for a showdown against the town kids a few nights later. George Bush agreed but reserved Barbara for a date after the game. He insisted to his parents that he take the car with a radio for that evening in case there was a lull in the conversation. As it turned out, the distraction wasn't necessary. Barbara talked animatedly the whole night; later they would joke that she hasn't stopped talking since.
After the holidays George and Barbara went back to their respective private schools, where they carried on their courtship by mail. She was particularly excited when he invited her to the prom at Andover, which involved a weekend campus stay at a housemaster's home. That night he bestowed a first kiss on her cheek.
He graduated from Andover soon after that in 1942, and went into pilot training, first in North Carolina. A year later, he received his wings in Corpus Christi, Texas, just as Barbara graduated from Ashley Hall. That summer, she was invited to spend over two weeks at the Bush vacation compound of Walker's Point, in Kennebunkport, Maine, to meet the clan and walk the rocks with George in the moonlight. Without his ever asking for her hand, they became secretly engaged.
By the fall, Barbara was attending Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts; George Bush was in final training before shipping out to the Pacific; and the engagement announcement ran in the New York Herald Tribune. Over Christmas of 1943, just before he left for combat, George bestowed the ring.
For the next semester and through summer school, Barbara lolled around Smith, dreaming of her intended and nearly failing all of her classes. Some days she would receive several heavily censored letters from him, mailed from his aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. San Jacinto. Often she would go for a month or so without hearing a word. Still she was planning their wedding for Christmastime.
In September 1944, she dropped out of school, right about the same time that, unbeknownst to her, George Bush was being shot down in the Pacific.
She learned of the incident just three days before George Bush sent word through the Navy, assuring her that he was fine, so her anxiety at least was short-lived. The Navy offered him a leave after he had briefly recuperated in Hawaii, but he decided to rejoin his squadron since they had recently lost four pilots. That decision made him late for his wedding. Bar scratched the December 17 date off the invitations and penned in January 6, 1945, as the day that she would marry the first man she had ever kissed. He arrived in New York City on Christmas Eve for the kind of welcome home that would have made even Frank Capra swoon.
He wore his dress blues to their wedding at the First Presbyterian Church in Rye, New York. That night, they went into New York City, where they found time to take in the musical Meet Me in St. Louis at Radio City Music Hall. The next morning they boarded a train for the Cloister on Sea Island, Georgia, for their honeymoon.
They spent the next eight months sometimes together and sometimes apart, while he fulfilled his postings at bases in Florida, Michigan, Maine, and Virginia. By 1945, George Bush was assigned to a torpedo bomber unit planned for use in the imminent invasion of Japan. He feared going on the mission, but was saved when Japan sued for peace in August 1945, after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The next month, he was ready for Yale, and he and Bar moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to begin his studies with the class of 1948.
To accommodate the returning veterans who were eager to get on with their adult lives, Yale offered an abbreviated and intensified version of its usual four-year curriculum. George Bush signed up for the two-and-a-half year program. On the same humid, 'overcast day that the Yale students enrolled for the first summer session nearly a year after V-J day, George Bush's mother, Dotty Walker, sat with Barbara in the modest apartment on Edwards Street and administered the castor oil that would urge George W.'S birth along. The first son of George Bush was born on July 6, 1946.
In all likelihood, George W. knew his father was a war hero almost from the first pulse of his narrative consciousness. More than 60 percent of his father's class of over 8,000 students were World War II veterans, paying their tuition with the G.I. Bill, as even wealthy George Bush had. During his toddler years, George W. lived at Yale in housing specially built for the former soldiers and their families. Later, his childhood friends would say they were aware of the older George's hero status because of the photographs of him as a U.S. Navy pilot they had seen at his house.
But George Bush did not just rest on his laurels after the war. He went on to excel at collegiate-type activities. He would serve as captain of his Yale baseball team at the NCAA College World Series. He would be Phi Beta Kappa, president of his fraternity, and a member of the secret society Skull and Bones. And that is not to mention the history book's worth of accomplishments awaiting this American political apostle at regular intervals throughout his life, like stations of the cross. "What you'll find about George Bush is that his life is almost too good to be true," George W. has said.
From the first, George W.'s father adored his son and always stood by him. He would say later, after he had been elected to the vice presidency of the United States, that his greatest accomplishment was the fact that his kids still enjoyed coming home. Nonetheless, George W. had to handle the fact that his father would later refer in his autobiography to his first son's birth as a side reference between two emdashes. ("For one thing, Barbara, young George--he was born in July 1946--and I lived off campus, in a sprawling old house that had been divided into small apartments," he wrote.) His son wasn't and wouldn't be--no matter the heights of George W.'s future accomplishments--the most amazing thing that ever happened in his father's life.
Throughout all of his days, George W. would be trailed by the halo and the shadow of his father. Some of the twinning of mannerisms could be downright spooky to friends. Of course, they shared the same first and last names. Always people would be doing somersaults to distinguish between the two of them. George and Georgie. George Senior and Junior. Big George and Little George. George and George W. His son would frequently have to interject, even into his middle years, that he was not in fact a junior. That he had one fewer name. That he was missing the Herbert. There was one difference. In fact there were many.
* * *
George W. would publicly define his understanding of that shading later in his political life. Then he would repeat the mantra many times, so that every voter would have the exact same insight into him: "The biggest difference between me and my father," he often said, "is that he went to Greenwich Country Day and I went to San Jacinto Junior High."
To comprehend the meaning of this declaration required that every voter be a bit of a Bush trivia buff. George W. was suggesting that he and his father might be similar men in almost every way, but that they had been profoundly differentiated by their preadolescent schooling, not to mention their upbringing until age 13 in geographically disparate locales. His father had attended a private academy for boys in Greenwich, Connecticut, a wealthy New York suburb, while George W. studied at a public junior high school in the outpost town of Midland, Texas.
Although George W. attended San Jacinto for only one year, his point was valid. While his father had worn a uniform of sweater and knickers to memorize Latin at an institution created by monied parents in the leafy enclave of Greenwich, George W. had gone to a one-story school the color of Pecan Sandies, where they taught Texas history for a year in fourth grade before they taught American history in fifth. George W. wasn't escorted to school by a chauffeur named Alec, as his father had been; he walked or rode his bike or was dropped off by his mother. In other words, until he left San Jacinto and Midland for the eighth grade at the fancy Kinkaid School in Houston in 1959, he lived like most middle-class Americans. He understood people.
And it was exactly George W.'s ability to connect to people--not just to be friendly or polite like his father, but to be, for that one split-second handshake or quip, one of them--that would spell the difference for him on the campaign trails. It wasn't just pundits who would say that George W. was better "with people" than his father. Everyone who knew both of them made the same remark. Friends and colleagues found his father kind and funny, meticulous in his manners, but there was a certain reserve in him, a faint aloofness, like a good old boy under glass.
If geography is destiny, then the most important moment of George W.'s life was the day after his father's commencement from Yale in 1948. His father gunned the engine of the crimson two-door Studebaker streamlined coupe that his father, Prescott, had given him for graduation, peered out the wraparound windows and pointed the nose west toward Odessa, Texas. Both of George W.'s parents had been ripe for this adventure, not least because of a desire to get out from under the thumbs of their respective parents. Bar's mother, Pauline Pierce, was beautiful, fabulous, critical, and meddling. Her father, Marvin Pierce, was witty, frank, and overloaded with work as president of the McCall publishing company. George's mother was kind, athletic, and rigorous; his father dignified, austere, and eager to see his son follow in his path to the doors of Brown Brothers Harriman & Company, where he had made partner and his wife's father had been president. Barbara adored her funny, lighthearted father, but she tangled with her domineering mother and three siblings. "George's mother was a formidable and strong woman, and so was my mother," Barbara told speechwriter Peggy Noonan, "and we wanted to get out from under the parental gaze, be on our own!"
George Bush had grown up in wealth, but of a typically New England variety. The riches protected but did not coddle him; they eliminated all fear for survival but instilled an anxiety of expectation. The family lived in the kind of tony suburb that can boast woods without the wild animals, in a house that was spacious and comfortable but not a rambling estate like those of the Bush's neighbors. His father would be driven to and from the train station each day by Alec, but in a car, not a limousine. The Bushes only retained a cook and a maid, which, some family members liked to point out, was nearly roughing it in that town. Jackets and ties were required at dinner, and Prescott Bush insisted that none of the five children leave the premises on Sunday. He was a stern presence. "The boys were more scared of Dad than I was," George Bush's only sister, Nancy Ellis, told his biographer Herbert Parmet. George's mother demanded high achievement in all of her children, while critiquing them for taking any pride in their accomplishments.
Through the extended clan, the Bushes owned various vacation retreats should they ever feel the need to "recreate." But the places instilled a bracing quality to days of leisure. The hunting lodge owned by Dorothy Bush's father as part of the Duncannon resort in South Carolina, was a particular favorite in the colder months. Nancy Ellis recalled how, as the preamble to a day of quail and dove hunting, they would be awakened "by the most wonderful black servants who could come into the bedrooms early in the morning and light those crackling pinewood fires."
Every summer was spent at the compound of Dorothy's mother, on Walker's Point in Kennebunkport, Maine. While not quite as high end as Bar Harbor to the north, Kennebunkport was, by its very distance from the larger cities of New England, a hub for the wealthy. No one would travel that far north for a week's holiday; the vacationers who chose Kennebunkport were the types who could afford to take a month or even the whole summer for their pleasures. While the days were filled with tennis, golf, baseball, and fishing, the town was no Palm Beach. The icy ocean waters chilled the ankles to aching, the nights cooled to a temperature necessitating windbreakers and sweaters, and the coastline followed small patches of beach to smooth spans of surf-pounded rock, then jagged cliffs that sent the white foam spewing skyward.
Barbara's family was not quite as well off, but they were still upper-class. Her father, Marvin, was a descendent of President Franklin Pierce, and his family had been extremely wealthy until Marvin's birth in the 1890s. At that point, a depression hit their iron foundry, and they lost everything, Barbara's father ending up working to support his parents until their deaths. He also labored to sustain a luxurious life for Bar's mother, Pauline, a former beauty from Ohio with extravagant tastes. Added on to life's bill was the expense of treating the youngest of the Pierce's four children, Scotty, who was found to have a bone cyst in his shoulder when he was only two. After five years of treatment, he was finally cured. Still, they had servants and lived in the better part of Rye in a five-bedroom house.
As a young couple, George and Barbara also would have been expected to settle in the New York suburbs; he could commute to his Wall Street job, while she waved the children off to their private grade schools. But the war had changed George and Bar and their dreams for the early years of their marriage. In war, George found that achievement could be melded to emotion. For a man brought up to win tennis matches and swat homers, battle was the ultimate competition--between the Allies and the enemy, between those who would live and those who would die. In such a clean conflict, he had no reason to doubt the good of the American forces or the evil of the Nazis and Japanese; the moral drama was blessedly simple.
In this global competition, George Bush's side won, and better still, he survived. In fact, through his very survival, leaping from his burning plane into the ocean swells of the Pacific, he became a hero. His two squadron buddies in that maneuver died. That moment of chance introduced George to the mysterious and invigorating experience of defying the odds.
War had also given him time to think. The Prescott Bushes were a frenetic family of sporting and scholastic achievement, which had always been just fine with George. He hated to be alone. In fact, he and his brother Prescott once made a single request on their Christmas wish lists: to be able to share a room again. But in battle, from midnight to 4 A.M., George stood on the deck of the Finback, gazing out at the inky night, the brilliant speckling of stars, the wash of sea over the submarine deck and pondered life's trickery. It was perhaps one of the few silences of his life--"God's therapy," he called it in his autobiography. He determined that he would work only with a product that he could see and feel. He could not, he decided, simply shuffle stock slips all day, and then settle onto the 5:15 from Grand Central each evening. He told Fortune magazine in the late 1950s that he had decided he wasn't interested in "cut-and-dried jobs, with everybody just like everybody else, getting a job with Dad's help and through Dad's friends."
Bar would trail him on any course he chose. The war had provided her with confirmation that she had found her superman, a husband romantic enough to paint her name on his plane, brave enough to win the Distinguished Flying Cross, and lucky enough to come home intact. If she had been tormented throughout her girlhood by her mother's constant admonitions about her weight and comparisons to her sister's covergirl beauty, here was proof enough that she was a star. George Herbert Walker Bush had chosen her, and now she would follow him anywhere. Her unofficial motto, according to friends, was "Don't mess with George." And he was reciprocally respectful. George W. would later say he "never heard George and Barbara Bush utter a harsh or ugly word to each other, never heard either of them characterize each other in an ugly way."
George Bush's stern Aunt Mary related an incident to Esther H. Smith for the Greenwich Public Library Oral History Project that demonstrated how much Bar adored her husband. One day, soon after George and Bar were married, several women were sitting around Walker's Point and began speculating what it would be like to be First Lady. "I'd like it," Bar said, "because, you know, I'm going to be the First Lady some time." Mary told Smith: "It was because she felt very secure. She felt that there wasn't anybody in the world like George, whom she worshiped."
At first, as George and Bar thought about their plans after graduation, they considered gentleman's farming. A reading of Louis Bromfield's The Farm sobered them up with its descriptions of the expense of life in the pastures. While they knew that their families would never fully subsidize them in life, they also understood that their parents would be perfectly happy to invest in any serious endeavor undertaken by their children. To the Pierces and the Bushes, farming would not qualify.
Then Neil Mallon, Prescott's best friend from Yale, offered an acceptable compromise that would provide white-collar adventure. He suggested to George Bush that he try the new frontier for the young: the oil fields of Texas. George Bush had only been to the state briefly when he trained on the limited confines of the navy base in Corpus Christi, so this indeed could be called a daring enterprise.
Back in 1929, Prescott had urged Uncle Nell, as the Bush kids called him, to take over the start-up Dresser Industries, a holding company with a few oil business subsidiaries. Nell thanked Prescott for the good advice by appointing him in 1930 to the board of directors. Now, 18 years later--with the company racking up a small fortune annually--Uncle Neil could look out for Prescott's son too. One of Dresser's subsidiaries, International Derrick & Equipment Company (Ideco), was looking for an equipment clerk in Odessa, Texas. George Bush's job would be to work the counter at the store, sweep out warehouses, and slap rustproof paint on oil drilling rigs heated to over 100 degrees by the unrelenting West Texas sun. The job paid a respectable $375 a month.
Despite the fact that the position sounded modest, Prescott Bush could not complain. He knew the company was sound, since his best friend ran the operation, he served on the board, and had owned 1,900 shares of Dresser for almost a decade. With the war over and fuel rationing ended with it, the oil business was beginning a time of steady growth, and young men with great ambitions for their bank accounts were headed to the oil fields. George Bush was Dresser's only trainee, and with Uncle Neil Mallon as president of the company, there was room eventually to move up--maybe, Mallon implied, to the very top.
So Bar and George W. headed from New Haven to Walker's Point in Kennebunkport for one last draught of the bracing coastal air while they waited for George to find them a house in West Texas. Within a week, the phone rang and he told them that he had found just the place. Bar wasted no time packing up their son and flying down to Dallas, then boarding the single propeller plane--a total of 12 hours of engine roar and airsickness--on their way to their new home.
The family settled in a true outpost of the oil business. Odessa was founded in 1881 as a depot on the Texas and Pacific railroad line. Not long after, a town promoter tried to boost the population by pitching the place as a health resort and education center. That was then. By the time the Bushes arrived, Odessa reeked of oil and gas fumes. As George W. would later say, "It's not exactly a paradise."
George escorted his wife and toddler down the dirt road of East Seventh Street to their shotgun house two doors from a yard full of livestock. The Bush house was split down the middle by a makeshift wall, with a mother-daughter hooker team occupying the other side. The shared bathroom (a luxury given that most of the homes relied on outhouses) was frequently used by the neighbors' overnight guests.
In summer, the place was steamy. Only a screeching window air-conditioning unit cut the Texas heat. The prairie winds blew through the uninsulated walls in winter. But the Bushes did have a refrigerator (a rarity), and soon made friends with their neighbors in the house next door, Jack and Valta Ree Casselman from Oklahoma, and Otis "Ahtis" Miller from across the street. While George was off at work, Bar was left alone in a strange town with no other focus but Georgie, who became in her words a "slightly spoiled little boy."
Their only friends from back home were Bill and Sally Reeder from Yale who had lived upstairs from them in the New Haven veteran housing and now resided in nearby Midland, the white-collar rival town, with their twin boys. For Bar, it must have felt like traveling from the tundra to the tennis court to visit them, since Midland was noticeably more upper-middle-class.
That first year of roughing it was lonely for Bar. She wrote what she described as boring letters home and was answered with care packages of cold cream and Tide, sent by her worried mother who thought such staples must be rare in that strange frontier. Despite her solitude, Bar and George decided to assert their independence that first Christmas by staying put in Texas for the holidays. On Christmas Eve, she and George W. were waiting to decorate the tree with George, when she heard the sound of a truck engine idling out front. She peered into the gloaming and saw her husband sprawled on the lawn. The Ideco store manager Leo Thomas had unceremoniously dumped him off after he had, as they say in West Texas, "swallowed the crow's beak" after the store's open house--he was flatout drunk. For Bar, Odessa got a little lonelier that night.
In the spring of 1949, after less than a year in Odessa, Dresser assigned George to some of its outfits in California, to help him learn more of the business. The young family lived in a motel in Whittier, the Pierpont Inn in Ventura, a rented house in Bakersfield, and finally an apartment in Compton. George worked first as an assemblyman at Pacific Pumps on eight-hour shifts, seven days a week; then peddled drill bits for Security Engineers Company, both Dresser subsidiaries. By springtime of 1949, Bar was pregnant with their second child.
One day in October, when they were living in Compton, George arrived home early from work. He had horrible news. Bar's mother and father had gotten into a terrible car wreck.
It was a freak accident. Her mother had brought a cup of coffee with her for the drive that autumn day in Rye. She had set it on the seat beside her, but as they drove, the cup started to slide. Marvin reached out, worried the coffee might scald her. The car kept going though, careening right into a stone wall. Pauline Pierce died instantly; Marvin broke several ribs and bruised his face. It was so strange. Bar had just flown back home for her brother Jimmy's wedding a week or so before. She had had a wonderful time. But that trip had been kept' short since she was late into her pregnancy.
Now, her father advised her not to travel to the funeral. She was devastated. George's bosses had been so kind, she would later say, in that they allowed him to stay home with her the day after the tragedy; the Bushes knew that job responsibilities often came first. George called their friends in L.A. and they tried to console Bar as best they could.
Two months later, on December 20, the peripatetic Barbara looked into the eyes of a doctor she had only met that day and gave birth to a little girl named after her late mother, Pauline Robinson Pierce. They called their daughter Robin for short.
In the frantic last weeks before giving birth, Bar had arranged to leave George W. with the family down the hall when delivery time came. But the Bushes had been startled one night by pounding at their door. "Call the police," cried the neighbor's children. "Dad is killing Mother!" The Bushes let them in and called the authorities. Needless to say other arrangements were made for George W.
Now everything was fine. George Bush brought Bar and Robin home on Christmas Day. The whole family was safe.
* * *
In the late spring of 1950, after the Bushes had spent a year in California, Dresser transferred George back to its Odessa warehouse. The family now knew that Midland was more their kind of town--filled as it was with the white-collar geologists, engineers, lawyers, and company presidents, as opposed to the blue-collar workers, who labored on the rigs and in the fields, living in Odessa. The Bushes decided to make their home in Midland.
The road from Midland International Airport cleaves the desert plains in a straight line to the city of the same name. There are no gentle curves in Highway 20, no hills that require the driver to gun the gas pedal. The asphalt runs exactly as the crow flies, directly from the airport to Wall Street in Midland, an absolute line from Point A to Point B.
The land is so flat it almost leaves a visitor breathless, the peripheral vision unfettered for miles by anything except a Vaseline smear of heat waves. Many of George W.'s friends remember the first time they arrived in Midland to seek their fortunes. They recall a uniform vision: After driving for most of a day across miles of yellow sand, suddenly they spotted a small crop of buildings, like an abandoned metropolis, sprouting up out of the oil fields. The oasis was the Tall City of the Plains.
Nowadays, about 10 miles from the center of town, the first street sign appears, hanging above the road like the mark of a marathon finish line: It says Eisenhower. And as one's car roars past, time and culture seem to rocket back too. Arriving in Midland feels like revisiting an era when Ike was king and Lucille Ball was queen--which is exactly when the Bushes flourished there.
For $7,500, the Bushes bought an 847-square-foot two-bedroom house in the town's first residential development. All the homes were identical, but in a nod to the Texan spirit of individuality, painted different bright hues and canted at varied angles on their lots. Lining the block, the houses looked like dyed eggs in a carton, which earned the neighborhood the nickname "Easter Egg Row." The Bushes' home at 405 East Maple was light blue, and George W. quickly made friends with the boy in the colored egg next door: Randy Roden.
The arrival of the East Coast Bushes in town was not a unique event but part of a postwar trend. "All the Yankees are moving in," the 25,000 locals chuckled to each other. And the Easterners showed up in droves. Dottie and Earle Craig Jr. hailed from Yale and arrived in August, just months after the Bushes. The Liedtke brothers, Bill and Hugh, had both earned degrees from Amherst College and the University of Texas Law School. There were John Ashmun, Toby Hilliard, Hopie and Jimmy Ritchie, among others.
The Texans too were young and ready to work hard to make their fortunes: John Overbey lived across the street. C. Fred Chambers, Steve and Anne Farish, Liz and Tom Fowler, and Betty and Murphy Baxter all became great friends.
So what could have been a lost, slightly lonely adventure of daring (like life in blue-collar Odessa) was transformed into Ivy League on the Prairie, like campus life with kids. If the landscape seemed a little bleak at times, the Easterners could plant trees and grass. They would name their streets after their Ivy League alma maters--Harvard and Princeton. They would raise money for the Midland Community Theater, where folks with a dramatic bent performed. They would upgrade the YMCA from an old grocery store so that all of the kids could race their electric trains there. And just like at school, they would have cliques, because there were so many friends to choose from.
And for a kid, Midland was like an oversized playground. During the Bushes' stint there, the population increased rapidly, yet everybody kept their doors unlocked and their bicycles on the front walk. Unlike other suburban kids in America, George W. never had to see town sprawl as the death of beauty. In Midland, no prized tree would fall victim to the developer's zeal, no lovely wheat field would be mowed to make way for a residential cul de sac. As George W. grew, Midland spread further on all sides, not like a steamroller, but like a gentleman laying down his coat for a lady, the carpet of turf set out over the prairie sand step by step. The paved roads just grew longer as tracks for bike races. At the modern high school stadium, the braver kids could hang by their knees from the highest support beams like bats, and three movie theaters opened downtown that would often show Buck Rogers for nine cents.
George W. would spend his formative years surrounded by prosperity, but to a certain extent, Midland wealth was hidden. Since building a home over one-story makes little sense in a land of heat and sandstorms, the mansions hid their extravagances under their petticoats--squash courts were constructed below ground, swimming pools tucked behind high fences. Since there was no significant body of water nearby, riches couldn't be displayed in schooners and cigarette boats.
Every morning, at the crack of dawn in those early days in Midland, George W.'s dad, still just a salaried employee, would head out the door in his high-water khakis, short sleeve button-down shirt, and madras belt with matching watchband to sell a Reed-Roller bit to a tool pusher out in the Odessa oil fields. That oil field worker would have every reason to buy a Hughes bit instead--after all, it was the industry favorite. But more often than not Bush would take another dollar out of Howard Hughes's tiny pockets, because the driller, who had never left the oil field in his life, would be so charmed by George Bush, he'd spit his tobacco juice onto the rig floor and call it a deal. And that was because George W.'s father could communicate.
All the kids in the neighborhood were crazy about Bar, who had a quick wit and knew how to keep score in baseball. She was easy to approach. Many of George W.'s friends remember her out in the park or yard, surrounded by youngsters. "If I had to go talk to somebody about my troubles, it would have been her," said one of George W.'s childhood friends, Terry Throckmorton.
Every Sunday, the Bushes attended church led by Dr. R. Matthew Lynn, a minister who was a recent transplant from Houston. George W.'s father would head over to the First Presbyterian church to teach the junior high kids. Although he had been raised an Episcopalian, he and Bar would worship with different Protestant denominations depending on what town they were in. At First Presbyterian, George was the only man offering instruction at the time, but he would make catechism extremely masculine by illustrating religious principles in that Yankee accent with stories of his time in World War II, all the while looking so clean and cool, as if he had just stepped out of the shower.
They would drive over for "coffee and" at the Craigs', then have hamburger cookouts in the evening, with the kids racing around, dogs barking, and the men (all in their mid-20s) scuffling in touch football scrimmages in the dirt lot near Midland High School. George Bush would always be quarterback. His son would arrive at the games with Bar and then stand there watching, hanging on to Robin's carriage.
Like all slightly idyllic moments in life, those early days in Midland didn't come about completely by chance. The Bushes built their own happiness; they organized their joy. And they were helped by the blessed isolation they found in the oasis in West Texas where global cares never intruded. The town was filled with Texas-style optimists and the Bushes fit right in. Bar's mother had always pined for what she did not have, waited for the moment her ship would come in, and ignored the pleasures of her adoring husband and fine home. Bar learned from that negative example. "You have two choices in life," she would write in her memoir. "You can like what you do, or you can dislike it. I have chosen to like it." Through force of will she had been able to collect a lifetime of "wonderful" moments and "precious" friends.
George Bush, at the time, was still controlled by his desire to win at whatever undertaking he chose. "All my life, I'd worked at channeling my emotions, trying not to let anger or frustration influence my thinking," he explained in his autobiography. His children would rarely see either emotion in him.
George W. too seemed to share his parents' optimistic view from a young age. "Whenever I came home [George W.] greets me and talks a blue streak, sentences disjointed of course but enthusiasm and spirit boundless," George Bush wrote about his son in a letter to a friend when the family was still living in Odessa. "The great thing is that he seems to be very happy wherever he is and he is very good about amusing himself in the small yard we have here ..."
George took the helm of the first fund-raising drive for the Midland Community Theater when they broke ground on the new stage across from Dennis the Menace Park. In late April 1951, the Midland dads organized and played the First Annual Martini Bowl at the junior high football field complete with mimeographed programs. The Midland Misfits took on the Lubbock Leftovers, and in the karmic conclusion that seemed the essence of West Texas at the time, the game ended in a tie. When a baseball field was needed for Little League, George Bush grabbed a shovel and dug a diamond with the other fathers.
Global concerns did not greatly intrude on this population, most of which had already completed their service during World War II. The summer that the Bushes first moved into their light blue Easter Egg, more than 60,000 North Korean troops marched into South Korea. The only signs of trouble out in Midland were the roar of the B-36 Intercontinental bombers flying overhead.
But underscoring the melody of suburban bliss was the hum of anxiety among the men who worried that their success was just one dry well or government regulation away from bankruptcy. The men had uprooted their loved ones and brought them to this bleak desert outpost for one reason: to make millions of dollars. No one could claim that silver pot, however, without a gamble.
When the Bushes arrived in Midland, prospects were good because of the untapped oil-rich land and demand for fuel during the postwar growth. Still, the competition was fierce. A seven-year drought had sent area farmers scrambling from the cantaloupe fields to the oil business. That meant almost everyone in town was in the same industry--whether as an operator, a leaser, a manager of a pulling unit, or a field supplier. Every Midlander's hide was riding on whether or not they would hit a gusher. Most people knew what it was to have a sudden rush of cash, but they also knew that the unpredictability of the business guaranteed hard times. That was when government stepped in and regulated the industry, such as closing down wells for natural gas emissions.
In late 1950, George Bush too "caught the fever," as he called it, and entered the high-stakes oil game. He resigned from his salaried work with Neil Mallon to start his own company with his neighbor from across the street, John Overbey. That's when he learned the real lessons of West Texas business relations.
If the Bushes had a nickel for every time they said throughout their political lives, "Midland was the kind of place where a handshake was your contract," they could have financed another offshore drilling expedition in Dubai. That statement said a man's word is his word. It evoked down-home trust. But the handshake wasn't just sealing the deal on a milk tab at the corner grocery store or ensuring that the lawnmower a person had his eye on would still be at the yard sale when he got back with his cash. These handshakes had fortunes riding on them. It was as odd as if Wall Street were run on high fives.
Let's say George Bush had sent a landman to the Ector County courthouse for Bush-Overbey to check who owned the mineral rights to a section and dispatched him all the way out to the rancher's place to ask if the family might be willing to sell or farm out that land. If the rancher shook hands on that agreement, it would mean that he wasn't going to just swing his screen door open for Gulf Oil 20 minutes later. The handshake said finder's keepers. It said the one who hustles first wins. It said timing was everything.
Not that George Bush didn't get burned from time to time. His partner, John Overbey, wrote him a letter in 1986 reminiscing about their early days in the business. He recalled one deal in which George Bush haggled with a rancher by phone to buy a piece of land for $150 an acre, and then suggested he and the rancher telegram their agreements to each other. The rancher said no. "My word is my bond," he assured George Bush.
"You, having been indoctrinated in the oil patch myth that a handshake was all the contract you needed," wrote Overbey, "agreed to forgo the exchange of telegrams." Within days, the rancher sold the land to another buyer for $1.50 more per acre. So much for the bond of the man's word.
But the fact that the Bushes would forever repeat as certainty that in Midland, "Your handshake was your contract," was to say that they, the eternal optimists, liked the myth that West Texas offered. They would tell all of their friends and constituents about that utopia of trust for as long as they lived. From time to time, the town lived up to their dreams.
* * *
To the kids in the neighborhood, George W.'s father was fun and extremely likeable. While he worked long hours, he was home slightly more often than the other dads. He and Barbara always tried to show the kids some new skill, guide them to some new interest. They seemed to feel that a kid had to do more than just be strong and healthy.
When George Bush began prospecting on wells with John Overbey, he would take George W. and his friend, Randy Roden, out to the fields to watch the drilling. The boys slept in the back of the station wagon, waking up every once in a while to see the big blackened machinery against the long horizon of the Texas fields. It was called sitting on a well. The boys were thrilled.
Some time after George W.'s grandfather was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1952, George Bush took the boys on a field trip to Washington, D.C., to see the heart of government. He took them to the statue of Nathan Hale and the Iwo Jima monuments, regaling them with patriotic talks about the meaning of both places. His misty-eyed love for the principles of the nation was evident. They went to Prescott and Dotty's elegant town house in Georgetown for lunch. Randy had never seen finger bowls before. George W.'s grandfather was grand; he didn't roughhouse with the boys. At the end of the day, they took in a Washington Senators baseball game; that team would later move to Arlington, Texas, and become the Texas Rangers. George W. would become one of the investors.
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