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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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 t...
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