The judicious statesman who won victories abroad but suffered defeat at home, whose wisdom and demeanor served America well at a critical time
George Bush was a throwback to a different era. A patrician figure not known for eloquence, Bush dismissed ideology as "the vision thing." Yet, as Timothy Naftali argues, no one of his generation was better prepared for the challenges facing the United States as the Cold War ended. Bush wisely encouraged the liberalization of the Soviet system and skillfully orchestrated the reunification of Germany. And following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he united the global community to defeat Saddam Hussein. At home, Bush reasserted fiscal discipline after the excesses of the Reagan years.
It was ultimately his political awkwardness that cost Bush a second term. His toughest decisions widened fractures in the Republican Party, and with his party divided, Bush lost his bid for reelection in 1992. In a final irony, the conservatives who scorned him would return to power eight years later, under his son and namesake, with the result that the elder George Bush would see his reputation soar.
About the Author
Timothy Naftali is the director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, having previously served as director of the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia. He is the coauthor of Khrushchev's Cold War and One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964, and the author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism. He lives in Los Angeles.
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George H. W. Bush
The American Presidents
By Timothy Naftali, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2007 Timothy Naftali
All rights reserved.
On June 12, 1924, a second son was born to Prescott and Dorothy Walker Bush of Milton, Massachusetts. Named after his fabulously wealthy and entrepreneurial maternal grandfather, George Herbert Walker (the namesake of golf's Walker Cup), little George Herbert Walker Bush was soon called "Poppy" to distinguish him from his grandfather, who was "Pop" to his extended family. Less than two years later, Prescott Bush took an executive position with U.S. Rubber in New York City, and the young family moved to Greenwich, Connecticut. Prescott was on a corporate fast track, helped in part by friendships he had formed and family connections. His first job came as the result of an offer from a fellow member of Skull and Bones, Yale College's oldest and most legendary secret society. Not long after reaching New York City, Prescott left U.S. Rubber to begin a long and distinguished career with the international investment house W. A. Harriman and Company, owned by the family of his Yale classmate Roland "Bunny" Harriman and managed by his father-in-law, Bert Walker.
The Bushes were High Church Episcopalians. They went to church regularly, but they considered a person's relationship to God, as indeed one's own emotions, to be a private matter. Pres and Dottie were strict and formal and expected the same from their children. Self-discipline, however, was not synonymous with lacking a sense of fun. Their home was full of music; Pres loved to sing. And from the moment he could walk Poppy Bush was encouraged to play games and to have a passion for competition. Both of his parents were good athletes and always played to win. Pres and Dottie enjoyed tennis together and Pres, like his father-in-law, was an accomplished golfer, and in 1926 he became chairman of the United States Golf Association's Championship Committee.
In the family, which ultimately grew to four boys and one girl — Prescott Jr., George, William, Jonathan, and Nancy — the children were taught early on to take responsibility for themselves. It was up to each one to decide where he or she would go to prep school. Since his adored older brother, Prescott Jr., had chosen Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, George followed in 1937. He excelled at baseball and soccer and became the captain of both teams. He was also a leader off the field, eventually becoming the president of his senior class and a member of the editorial board of the student newspaper, the Phillipian, and — a mark of one of his interests to come — chairman of the annual charity drive on campus. As a senior he nearly died from a staph infection in his right arm. Surviving this ordeal, which required a lengthy stay in the hospital, may have given him a sense of mission, if not destiny.
Even as a young man, Poppy had a strong sense of self, and more than any of his siblings he internalized the family's culture of competition. (When Prescott Bush was a Republican senator from Connecticut in the 1950s, he became notorious for never allowing President Dwight Eisenhower to win at golf.) Yet as success brought yet more success for Poppy, his mother would remind him not to be self-centered, whenever possible not to use the pronoun I, and to avoid, at all costs, patrician pretension, which she colorfully termed the La-Dee-Dahs. Years later, when Bush was president, his aides would explain his peculiar speaking style as the effect of a lifetime of motherly admonitions not to claim credit for himself alone.
To an even greater extent George Bush drew upon his father, whom he idolized, for life lessons. Most significantly, George embraced Prescott's strong sense of service. Prescott Bush had signed up for the Yale battalion in the U.S. Army in 1917 and saw action with the American Expeditionary Force in France in 1918. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, his senior year at Andover, Poppy hungered to follow in his father's footsteps and enlist as soon as he could in the great war of his generation. Even an admonition from Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Andover's graduation speaker in 1942, who advised the young men to stay in school, did not deter George from joining the military as soon as he turned eighteen in June. Nor did similar advice from his father. George Bush chose to become a naval aviator, earning his wings in June 1943 and becoming the youngest pilot in the entire U.S. Navy.
On a Christmas break his last year at Andover, Bush had met Barbara Pierce at a country club dance. Pierce, who was home from a girls' school in Charleston, South Carolina, was the daughter of Marvin and Pauline Pierce. Marvin was a director of McCall's Publishing Company, which produced mass-market women's magazines. After a brief courtship, Barbara would become the "girl back home" that George Bush would write to from his bunk and after whom he would name his airplane, for good luck. Before he left for the Pacific in 1943, he asked her to marry him
The U.S. Navy trained Bush in photographic intelligence, and it also matured him. "Coming out of a privileged background," Bush wrote forty years later, "I had had little exposure to the real world — to people from very different backgrounds. I went into the service as a gung ho kid, scared at times, becoming a Naval Aviator." He would fly a torpedo bomber that was also equipped with cameras. In early 1944 Bush reached Pearl Harbor onboard the San Jacinto, a converted light carrier. His first bombing run came in May against the Japanese positions on Wake Island. These bombing runs were extremely dangerous, and before long Bush would lose two of his close friends in action.
With the capture of Guam in August 1944, the U.S. military turned to the island barriers of Japan. Bush's squadron was given the responsibility for knocking out the radio transmission center on Chichi Jima, to blind Japanese intelligence to the steady forward movement of U.S. forces. On September 2, Bush flew his Avenger with its four 500-pound bombs into Japanese antiaircraft fire as he had done by now dozens of times. This time, however, some flak hit his plane. "There was a jolt," Bush later recalled, "as if a massive fist had crunched into the belly of the plane." Despite a cockpit that was filling with smoke, Bush steadied his throttle and continued aiming for the target. Dropping his bomb load, Bush then headed out to sea. He radioed to his two crewmen, John Delaney and Ted White, to get out of the plane and use their parachutes. Without hearing anything in response from the other side of the armor plate at the back of the cockpit, Bush unstrapped himself and climbed onto the wing. Failing to make a clean jump, Bush hit his head on the back of the plane and ripped his chute. Tumbling 2,000 feet into the water — moving faster because of the hole in his chute — Bush nevertheless escaped major injury. He deployed a small life raft and began paddling. A pilot seeing him in distress strafed Japanese ships on their way to capture Bush. A few hours later a U.S. submarine fished the young lieutenant out of the water. Bush was the only man of his plane to survive. Overcome by the experience and the loss of his crew, Bush cried in his raft as he awaited rescue. "I'm afraid I was pretty much of a sissy about it," he apologized to his parents in a letter sent the next day. He blamed himself for the deaths of Delaney and White. "I did tell them and when I bailed out I felt that they must have gone, and yet now I feel so terribly responsible for their fate, Oh so much right now."
Although he could have gone stateside after being shot down, Bush returned to his ship and flew another eight missions over the Japanese-occupied Philippines. In November he went home with 58 missions and 126 carrier landings to his credit. On January 6, 1945, he married Barbara and was stationed in Virginia until he was mustered out after Japan surrendered in August. Only twenty-one years old, Bush was now a married man, with a distinguished flying cross, two gold stars, and the ghosts of the friends he had lost in war.
After experiencing combat, "going to Yale was like going to Kennebunkport in the summer," one of Bush's brothers later told biographers, referring to the family's vacation compound in Maine. Bush joined the swollen class of 1949 as a freshman in the fall of 1945. The fourth generation of the Bush family to attend Yale, George made a conscious effort to emulate his father's collegiate achievements and succeeded for largely the same reasons. His winning personality, good looks, and leadership qualities naturally drew people. Like Prescott, he was chosen captain of the Yale varsity baseball team more for the qualities he displayed in the clubhouse than for any prowess that he had on the field. Pro scouts who briefly cast an eye on the lanky, six-foot-two-inch, left-handed first baseman concluded he was a strong fielder who couldn't hit. George followed his father in doing work for the United Negro College Fund, and when he was inevitably tapped for Skull and Bones, his father's secret society, George lived up to the Bush family's progressivism in civil rights by being out-front in promoting the breaking of the society's color barrier.
George Bush's Yale experience was not exactly the carbon copy of his father's. Like most of the veterans flooding into college in 1945, he was older than the traditional freshman and was soon providing for a family. Although he joined a fraternity, the focus of his social life was the cramped apartment on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, where he lived with Barbara and their first child, George Walker Bush, who was born on July 6, 1946. There the Bushes did not always get favorable attention. Barbara would hang their son's diapers on a clothesline outside their apartment, and the Yale president, who lived a few doors down, would notice and others would complain.
After Yale, from which he graduated in three years, Bush remained true to family tradition by not following in his father's footsteps. Bush sons were expected to prove themselves to their fathers by making it on their own. Prescott Bush had refused to take a cent from his father, S. P. Bush, a sign of their troubled relationship, but it was also a source of virtue in his own mind. When his father died, Prescott passed his entire inheritance on to his sisters. As George Bush later admitted to a reporter, even after proving himself in World War II, he believed he had to get out from under the "shadow" of his father. George chose not to join W. A. Harriman in New York, which would have ensured him an excellent lifestyle, and he refused to take any seed money from his father. Instead he moved to Odessa, Texas, and took a job with Dresser Industries, an oil-field supply company owned by a family friend, Neil Mallon. Bush had some of the risk-taking panache of his grandfather Bert Walker in him, but he was also pleased to have the security of working for a man he knew. George and Barbara Bush found that they liked West Texas and the challenge that the oil business provided. In 1950 George raised $350,000 to go into business for himself with John Overbey, an independent oil operator in Midland, Texas. His father contributed $50,000, but most came from his uncle George Herbert Walker Jr. and from various family friends, including Eugene Meyer, the publisher of the Washington Post. He and his partner formed the Bush-Overbey Oil Development Company to trade in drilling rights. In 1953 the partners joined with William and Hugh Liedtke, two brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to create Zapata Petroleum, named after the Marlon Brando movie Viva Zapata!, to begin drilling for oil.
Tragedy struck after the Bushes moved to Midland, Texas, in 1950. Their daughter, Robin, age three, contracted incurable leukemia. Her death in 1953 hit the couple very hard. As so often happens when a couple loses a child, the marriage suffered. Barbara fell into a depression and George became more distant. As George tried to mask his own pain, Barbara focused more attention on their two remaining children, seven-year-old George W. and eight-month-old John Ellis Bush, nicknamed Jeb. Little George received the brunt of it. "She kind of smothered me," he would later say of his mother. By the end of the 1950s three more children were to join the family, Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy.
* * *
Prescott Bush was a trendsetter in yet another way for his son, by introducing the entire Bush family to politics. In 1950 he ran as a Republican for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut but lost in a very close election to William Benton. What had made the difference was some negative campaigning that implied that Bush was in favor of legalized abortion, not a popular stand in Connecticut, a heavily Catholic state. Two years later Prescott beat Abe Ribicoff in a special election following the death of Connecticut's senior senator, Brien McMahon. Prescott campaigned as an economic conservative but refused to identify with the right wing of his party. At an event with the famously anti-Communist senator Joseph McCarthy, he told the audience that though he shared the Wisconsin senator's concerns about communism, he did not like his methods.
In the Senate, Prescott Bush became one of the first Republicans to denounce McCarthy in that body. "Either you must follow Senator McCarthy blindly, not daring to express any doubts or disagreements about any of his actions, or, in his eyes, you must be a communist, a communist sympathizer, or a fool who has been duped by the communist line." Bush suffered no political damage from his courageous stand. Indeed, he became a favorite with the elite of his party. He was a solid Eisenhower Republican — pragmatic, pro-business, but also pro–civil rights and socially liberal. He playedsome golf with the new vice president, Richard Nixon, and the two men developed some respect for each other. Senator Bush, however, did not much like Nixon. "He's not much fun," he confessed to his family.
Prescott Bush had explained that a man should seek political office only after securing his family's finances. An amicable split among the Zapata partners in the late 1950s earned George Bush (with the help of his uncle) his first million. The Liedtkes took over Zapata's drilling operations on land, and Bush acquired full ownership of Zapata's offshore oil rig operations. (The Liedtkes would later transform their company, through a merger, into Pennzoil.) Now well off, though not wealthy by Texas standards, George moved his family to Houston, where he, too, turned his attention to politics.
Although he had attended Yale at a time when fellow students Brent Bozell and William F. Buckley Jr. were launching a new conservative movement, Bush had stayed out of political discussions as a young man. "Labels are for cans," he had told Barbara, who believed her husband's political views were much like Prescott's, social liberalism mixed with economic conservatism and marked by a preference, above all, for moderation. In 1963 the leaders of Houston's small Republican Party enlisted Bush to run for the party's county chairmanship. They wanted him to fend off a challenge from the far-right John Birch Society, which was becoming a political force in the South, spreading paranoid fantasies of international conspiracies of bankers and Masons who were driving the world toward collectivism. Birchers, as they called themselves, alleged that Dwight Eisenhower and most members of the Council on Foreign Relations were communist and that the United Nations was the first step toward an insidious world government. What helped them in the South, however, was their rigid opposition to civil rights legislation, which Birchers claimed was the product of communist influence.
Bush won the chairmanship of the Harris County Republican Party and then surprised some of his backers by seeking some accommodation with the Birchers as a way to expand the party's memberships. "He didn't understand," recalled Roy Goodearle, a local Republican fund-raiser, who had recruited Bush to run as county chairman and then found his approach to the Birchers naive. Bush, however, was laying the groundwork to run for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and believed he needed to unite all Texas conservatives to have a chance. What in retrospect seems an audacious leap by a neophyte made more sense in the dynamic political environment gripping Texas in the early 1960s. After Lyndon Johnson became vice president in 1961, the Democratic Party fell into a vicious internal struggle between conservatives and liberals. This split allowed a conservative Republican professor named John Tower to win the special election to fill Johnson's U.S. Senate seat. Suddenly Texas, long a bastion of the Democratic "Solid South," seemed to have a two-party system. In 1960 Houston was the largest metropolitan area in the nation to have voted for Nixon and appeared to hold promise as the core of a Republican Texas.
Excerpted from George H. W. Bush by Timothy Naftali, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz. Copyright © 2007 Timothy Naftali. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
2. The Understudy,
3. Cleaning Up Reagan's Mess,
4. Unexpected Greatness,
5. Commander in Chief,
6. The Collapse,