By Walt Harrington
Sunday, September 28, 1986
IT'S A 25-MINUTE RIDE AT A GOOD CLIP ON A ROUGH OCEAN TO the Saco River, where George Bush has heard the bluefish are biting. Along the way, he gives the nickel tour -- how to read the wind in the whitecaps, the island where he picnicked as a boy, the boulders hidden beneath the rising tide. Bush knows every rock along this Maine coast. He has come here 61 of his 62 summers. Only getting shot down in the Pacific kept him away in 1944. Soon he is trolling the Saco breakwater, fighting tangled lines and backlashed reels beneath cawing sea gulls swirling against a gunmetal sky. Bush leans comfortably against the captain's chair of his 28-foot Cigarette boat, the Fidelity, one hand on the wheel, the other holding his fishing rod off the starboard side. He wears old blue cotton pants, a ratty navy-blue pullover sweater, a camouflage cap and dirty Reeboks. And he tells his fisherman's tale: He caught three big blues a while back over at Wood Island Light.
GEORGE BUSH IS A POLITICAL PHENOM IN REVERSE.
HE HAS MADE A LIFE of mythic proportions seem somehow trivial, and he cannot understand why. He was the most lovable boy, always. President of his class at prep, president of everything else, too. Never a bad word about him. A war hero -- not like John Kennedy, but an undisputed war hero. Skull and Bones, Phi Beta Kappa at Yale. Cushy job offers up the ying-yang. George said no. He packed his wife and infant son into an old red Studebaker and hit the road for godawful, roughnecking West Texas -- and drilled a fortune in black gold. Then Congress, the U.N., China, the CIA, Saint Reagan's veep. Most Americans view him darn favorably too, according to the pollsters. So why the mean quips? "There's no there there." Why the David Letterman gag lines? Why the "Doonesbury" attack on his manhood?
How did it ever come to this: George Herbert Walker Bush reviled as a whiny, waffling, boot-licking wimp?
What I knew of George Bush a few months ago is what you know of him now -- a grainy blur of telegenic biases: competent but boring, sometimes shrill, sometimes goofy, speaks high when low will do, Eastern scion hiding out in Texas, a moderate doing a Rose Mary Woods stretch to the Right. But this is TV knowledge, something akin to heat rising off a summer highway. The idea was to toss out all these vague impressions and start from scratch. What makes George run? Bush, jealous of his privacy, had his doubts. But his aides saw a chance to humanize his image, and they prevailed on him.
The door swung open for interviews with his brothers and sister, children, wife, mother, boyhood buddies, business partners and political cronies. There was a visit to his Waspy home town of Greenwich, Conn., a tour of the elegant Victorian where Bush grew up, walks along the streets of Midland, Tex., where he got rich. Finally, I was invited to Walker's Point, the Bush family compound in Maine, where Bush, his wife and their children and families were vacationing. They worshiped at St. Ann's Episcopal Church, ate hot dogs on the deck at Walker's Point, sang Happy Birthday to a Bush grandson. But George Bush and I also sat in the old caretaker's cottage and talked about what I had learned of his life and its two recurring themes -- great ability and great privilege. Bush is magical -- smart, funny, charming -- and I found myself wanting him to like me. Intimacy is his gift. But let's face it: Bush was handed opportunity after opportunity because of his family's wealth and influence, making him also a child of a lasting American inequality. As a boy, Bush wanted to be president, and his rare mix of ability and privilege has given him a shot.
Let me tell you, the vice president of the United States is very tired of hearing this. When I return to Walker's Point later that day for a fishing trip, Bush's wife, Barbara, pulls me aside. George had come back from the caretaker's cottage and said Barbara shouldn't be surprised if the boat returned one person lighter. I'm sure he was joking. But imagine his distress. One more story calling him just another rich man's kid. This story doesn't say that, but Bush couldn't have known that then. And as George Bush, his 40-year-old son George Jr. and I bob lazily on the Saco River, the vice president becomes suddenly reflective.
"I think you think 'class' is more important than I do," he says.
I suggest -- I'm smiling when I say this -- that people at the bottom of society often think social class is more important than do people at the top. But Bush will not be deterred. What did I mean when I said he was a product of America's upper class? Bush believes "class" is the snottiness and arrogance found in some rich people, those who think they are "better" than the less well-off. He says he has never felt that way. Exactly what does the word "class" mean to me?
This is an uncomfortable turning of the reportorial tables, and I am less than eloquent. But in fits and starts I say that "social class" is all about family connections and money and expectations and training, and what those can mean. I say the sons of fathers in high-level jobs end up in high-level jobs about half the time, while the sons of manual workers end up in high-level jobs about 20 percent of the time. I say that social class shapes everything from our self-esteem to our child-rearing to our sense of control over our lives. I say that education is the great American leveler -- but that rich kids get more of it. And that families like the Bushes often send their kids to expensive private schools to ensure their leg up.
This sounds, well, un-American to George Jr., and he rages that it is crap from the '60s. Nobody thinks that way anymore! But his father cuts him off. "No, I want to understand what he's saying." He seems genuinely interested -- and relieved that I don't plan to call him snotty. But the amazing thing is that Bush finds these ideas so novel. He seems baffled that I could see America in this way. People who work the hardest -- even though some have a head start -- will usually get ahead, he says. To see it otherwise is divisive.
I confess: I think a lot of Americans see it otherwise.
No matter, the secret to what makes George Bush tick is not philosophical. It is somewhere here at Walker's Point, a boot of rocky land jutting austerely into the Atlantic. The place has been in the family since 1899, and it's home to the Bush family values. The Bushes are big on values. They exude them, impose them on each other and themselves, use them to judge friend and foe. And in his grandfatherly role, George Bush has become the keeper of these values.
A few years ago, for instance, he wrote a letter to his oldest grandson, George Prescott, who was then 6. It is a surprising letter, surprising for its warmth and for its nostalgic recall -- traits not associated with Bush's sometimes graceless persona. Yet the letter also evokes the Bush family expectations for the next generation, the generation in training. The letter consciously binds young George Prescott's very senses to the family, past and present, and to the objects that surround him at Walker's Point, as they did his father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather. It transforms these objects -- a rock, a boat, a great-grandparent -- into talismans for the family values of tradition, empathy and loyalty. It's not a letter meant for a boy, but a letter meant to be read again and again as the boy becomes a man.
"Dear 'P'," the letter begins, to distinguish the child from the vice president and George Jr. (In the Bush family, everyone seems to be named after everyone else in the family.)
"I've been thinking a lot about this summer. I had a very good time. . . . It was fun going out in the Fidelity -- remember the day we caught all those greasy pollock. . . . That was a good day. . . . You and Noelle liked the Beach a lot, but I don't like going there. Now I am too old for that. If I get cold I get all stiff, just like my own Dad used to do. . . . This year for the first time I felt a little that way. . . . Another thing that was fun for me but wasn't too much fun for you and Noelle. It was when we went over to see My Mother -- 'Ganny to your Dad and Mom, Great Ganny to you.' I loved checking up on her -- wasn't she nice? She always cares how the other guy feels.
"But, 'P', I've been thinking about it a lot -- the most fun was the big rock boat, climbing out on it. . . . Watching you and Noelle playing on it. Near the end of the summer when the moon was full the tides were higher, and there was that special day at high tide when it almost seemed like the boat was real. . . .
"No, I think the most fun was that rock boat. . . . Don't ask me why this was the most fun. Maybe it's cause just at that moment I turned a corner in my life. I could see down the road with no fear and I suddenly had great happiness because I felt that in 50 years or so, you'd be there out on that rock boat -- loving the ocean as I do, surrounded by family love -- aching a little bit when it gets cold. I can't wait til next summer -- Love, Gampy."
This is what makes George run. It was bred in his bones. "It was a, uh, very enjoyable, a very unnoteworthy existence. We were very lucky." -- George Bush, on his childhood THE HOUSE ON GROVE LANE HAD NO number when George Bush was a boy. People just called it the Bush house, and everyone in Greenwich knew. The town, about 45 minutes from Manhattan via the New Haven train line, was among the wealthiest communities in America. With its endless miles of stone fences and homes visible from the road only when the leaves were off the trees, Greenwich was the proverbial world apart. Its great summer estates, those of the Rockefellers and the Milbanks, had been subdivided by the '30s, but the bankers, brokers and businessmen who bought Greenwich's new miniature estates assured its affluence. The Great Depression raged, but the children of Greenwich would grow up without even a memory of it.
"Did you talk about the issues of privilege versus underprivilege, the haves and the have-nots?" George Bush's younger brother Jonathan is asked.
"No, no, no," he answers.
George Bush attended the private Greenwich Country Day School in his elementary years. It was the kind of place where students could joke about how their chauffeurs had gotten them to school on time during even the worst of blizzards. The Bush chauffeur, Alec, was among the best. At home, there were maids and a cook, golf and tennis lessons, the whole nine yards. Christmases were spent in South Carolina, where Mrs. Bush's father, George Herbert Walker, owned a plantation named Duncannon. On their visits, the children awoke in the freezing mornings to the sound of the black servants building crackling pine fires in their bedrooms.
With the hot months of summer, the Bushes left Greenwich for Maine, where Grandfather Walker also owned Walker's Point. The Walker family, in the dry goods business in St. Louis, had bought the place to escape the summer polio epidemics of the city. George's father, Prescott Bush, a New York financier, would arrive in Maine by sleeper car on Saturday mornings and return Sunday nights. The children had a small motorboat, and the neighbor kids always marveled that George and his older brother, Pressy, were allowed to take it out alone.
"There wasn't much 'heavy weather' in those days," recalls FitzGerald Bemiss, an old George Bush friend from the years their families summered together in Maine. George and his friends -- the children of other white, rich and successful fathers -- fished and swam and heaved ripe rose hips at each other along the rocky waterfront. And at night, George and Pressy climbed into their bunk beds on the screened-in porch and fell asleep to the sound of the pounding surf.
If all this sounds a little Old Worldly, it was. George's mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, 85 and still living in Greenwich, chuckles self-consciously at the memory, especially the thought of George and Pressy being driven to school by Alec the chauffeur. "It seems unbelievable now," she laughs.
Yet all this gentility harbored a fierce competitiveness. Grandfather Walker, after whom George Bush is named, was a champion polo player and the donor of golf's Walker Cup British-American amateur competition. Grandfather Bush was a fine golfer and George's father was the Yale baseball team captain and Ohio's amateur golf champion. Mrs. Bush's brother, Herbert, called Uncle Herbie in the family, was an avid golfer and a Yale letterman in baseball. Prescott and Herbie, the reigning family patriarchs, were fierce competitors, and a guest on the golf course was once shocked to see a virulent argument break out between them when the guest declared a 10-inch Prescott putt a "gimmie."
"You can't give him that putt!" Herbie fumed. The guest didn't.
George's mother was competitive, too, but delightfully so. A superb golfer and tennis player, she never lost her temper at a bad shot or a muffed putt or criticized poor play in others. Her young sons might be storming around the court, throwing tennis rackets, kicking the net, but she would ignore them, and calmly call out the score. Dorothy Bush was a lithe, beautiful, vivacious woman with a marvelous sense of humor. A devout Episcopalian, she seemed to live by the Bible's pieties effortlessly. "I didn't ever say anything disagreeable about anyone in front of her," recalls FitzGerald Bemiss. Behind her gentleness, though, Mrs. Bush also took her games seriously. Visitors discovered, for instance, that she wouldn't pair them with their spouses at say, tennis, unless the couple was well-matched. Feckless adult athletes found themselves playing children.
The Bushes competed at everything -- golf, tennis, tiddlywinks, backgammon, blackjack, bridge, anagrams. Anything that measured one person against another. When George was a young man, his teen-age brother, nicknamed Bucky, was given a new ball-in-a-labyrinth game and beat George handily. Bucky went to bed proud and awoke to George's casual challenge to a rematch. George won with a perfect score. Family members, in on the joke, howled with laughter: George had stayed up late perfecting his game to ambush Bucky.
Yet the competitiveness remained good-natured. The concept of "family" was so powerful that it sometimes seemed to friends that the Bush children functioned as a single mind rather than as five kids fighting for parental affection. No doubt some of that grew from a unique quirk of Mrs. Bush's, who tempered her children's hell-bent, prideful pursuit of victory with this ironclad rule: No one could brag! "I just couldn't bear braggadocio," she says.
The Bush kids did not automatically get respect; they earned it. George Bush's son Jeb, 33, would later say that he and his siblings believed they "weren't crap" until they'd gone out and proven themselves on their own. Says George Bush: "That's exactly the way I felt 40 years ago." Bush is terrible at recalling childhood stories, but one sticks clearly in his mind. At 8 years old he came home from tennis and told his mom he'd been "off his game." With uncharacteristic anger, she snapped, "You don't have a game! Get out and work harder and maybe someday you will."
"You just didn't talk about yourself," recalls Jonathan Bush. "Bad taste."
Aimed at shaping humility in proud, rich children who could easily come to think they were "better" than others, this attitude kept the Bush kids from acting self-important. Yet there's also a tension between craving recognition and enforced humility. "These people regarded themselves as 'better'," Nicholas King, author of a sympathetic 1980 Bush biography, says of New England's patrician class. "Bush has neutralized this. But at one time he would have had to be this way." Indeed, Bush's inbred reluctance to "blow on" about himself now seems constantly at war with his prideful craving for admiration.
"You could never come home and say you played well in a game," Jonathan Bush says. "I think it was a mistake, frankly. . . . You're really suppressing your joy in achievement." The result: Pressy could brag that George had played well or George could brag that Pressy had played well. A child could bask in success only through the eyes of admirers. At this, George became the master. All the Bushes liked the limelight, says Bush's boyhood friend George de B. Bell, whose family also summered in Maine, but George liked it the most. "He wanted to be the Number 1 guy," Bell says. "It was in his makeup." With George's father around, that was difficult. He was an imposing 6 feet 4, a stiff, stern man, gracious and friendly, but formal even with his children. "At one point I said I never heard him fart," says Jonathan Bush, laughing. You'd never find Prescott on his knees giving horseyback rides or putting together a toy train set. He rarely joined the family games, which seemed to swirl around him. And he was very sparing in his praise.
"You might get a note at school," George Bush recalls.
"And what would he say?"
" 'I was very proud to see that you were elected captain of the team.' "
"How would he sign it?"
Prescott Bush had gone to private high school in Newport, R.I., then to Yale, where he was inducted into the prestigious secret society Skull and Bones, a direct pipeline to America's Eastern Establishment. At Yale, Prescott became friends with E. Roland Harriman. A few years out of college, Prescott married Dorothy Walker, whose father had left his finance firm in St. Louis to head a Wall Street investment firm being started by Roland Harriman's brother, Averell, who eventually became the quintessential member of the Eastern Establishment -- financier, ambassador and adviser to presidents. Prescott Bush followed his father-in-law to the firm that eventually became Brown Brothers Harriman.
Despite these powerful connections, Bush family folklore held that Prescott's own father had given him only $ 300 after college, which meant Prescott was a self-made man. Prescott worked long hours. He was forever taking important calls in his study. He was a Greenwich hospital board member and for 20 years served in the Greenwich government. He was home only a few nights a week. On Saturdays, he played golf.
"We were all terrified of him as boys," says Jonathan Bush.
The kids never knew it, Mrs. Bush says, but Prescott wanted to enter politics as a young man. He didn't enjoy business much and rarely talked about it -- he talked politics. He believed, however, that he first had to put his five children through their de rigueur private educations, elementary through college -- costing literally hundreds of thousands of dollars even then. So he was 57 before he became a U.S. senator; 67 when he retired in failing health. With pride and sadness, Mrs. Bush hints at a failed ambition: "He would have been the president of the United States if he'd gone into politics earlier."
Prescott Bush became the family's idealized image of achievement, propriety and duty. He talked constantly of the need to "give something back" to the society that had treated him so well. And if the Walker side of the family contributed its fun-loving spirit to the family, it was Prescott who contributed its stoic sense of noblesse oblige.
In personality, though, George took after his ebullient and empathetic mother. He liked pleasing people, and it was often said that he'd someday become a minister. "He was the easiest child to bring up, very obedient," says Mrs. Bush. She and George were great friends, sometimes even getting under the skin of the stiff-necked Prescott. George and his mother often broke into giggles at Sunday service, earning Father's glare. She also told the children that when Prescott joined the Elks, he sat naked on a huge cake of ice as his initiation. The idea of Father naked on a cake of ice put them in stitches -- if Father wasn't around. Says Jonathan: "Dad was no laughing matter."
Yet George rarely got in trouble with Dad, skirting the edge of his temper so that Prescott had to chuckle. Even then, George's intuition was sharp, and everyone came to recognize his magic. Young George was like a laboratory clone of his mother's personality and his father's values. He acquired his father's ambition but also his mother's enchantment. He was so kind, always watching out for the fat kid who couldn't keep up. He was the most popular boy with the kids -- and with the grown-ups.
"He was earmarked in the family as a tremendous winner," says Uncle Herbie's son, George Herbert Walker III. Uncle Herbie -- 19 years older and a powerful, successful man himself -- idolized young George. He believed George could do anything, and later would show that confidence in the form of half a million dollars in investor financing for George, the young oil man.
By the time Bush was ready for high school, his father wanted him out of the stilted atmosphere of Greenwich. He picked Phillips Academy, called Andover after the Massachusetts town where it's located. Old and prestigious, Andover emphasized not only social pedigree but merit. Even then, it admitted a handful of blacks and Jews and had a large number of scholarship students. So despite its securely elitist cast, Andover was a place where kids could learn, as Prescott said, "to mix with everybody."
At Andover, George excelled again. His senior yearbook entry lists more activities than any classmate -- student council secretary, senior class president, captain of the soccer and baseball teams, and 20 others. Bush's grades were mediocre, but he was, if not the most popular boy at Andover, certainly among them. And classmate Walter J.P. Curley voices what was by then a refrain: "George was a star." At Andover, classmates also began saying something else about George Bush: They began saying he would be president of the United States someday. ? "I had a very powerful father . . . . Very much of a leader and admired by everybody, and I didn't want to do something on his, I had a kind of a, not a competitive thing with him, but I wanted to go out and do something on my own."
SECRETARY OF WAR HENRY L. STIMSON must have made a lot of parents breathe easier when he told the members of the 1942 Andover graduating class they shouldn't enlist in World War II, but go on to college. Most boys listened. Not George Bush.
"Has this changed your idea?" Mrs. Bush asked George as they walked out of Cochran Chapel after Stimson's speech.
"Not a bit!" George responded.
Mrs. Bush had already tried to talk her son out of enlisting, without luck. His father too had wanted him to stay out of the war until he was drafted, but in his stiff-upper-lip manner had said nothing of his fears to George, who enlisted. He became the war's youngest Navy pilot and flew Avenger bombers in the Pacific. His plane was hit. With smoke and flames pouring from his engine, Bush still dropped his 500-pound bombs on an enemy radio station before bailing out into the ocean. His two-man crew was killed. After hours at sea, Bush, sick and vomiting, was saved from Japanese gunboats by a U.S. submarine. He was a bonafide hero, the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. He would rack up 1,228 hours in the air and 58 combat missions. Yet the question remains: Why did he enlist so soon? Probably because he'd taken to heart the values of loyalty and patriotism taught by his era, his class, his father and Andover. But he also had his own reasons.
George lived in awe of his father and wondered whether he could equal his dad's record at Yale, one of Bush's Andover friends, Ernest D. Obermeyer, told Bush biographer Nicholas King. Obermeyer has since died, but King's notes show that Obermeyer believed Bush wanted "out from under" the shadow of his family. By going to war, Bush found a solution -- and his way in the world. Over and over, Bush would seek his identity in doing what wasn't expected. The road led to the same place -- great success. But it got him "out from under" -- and assured the glory of his youth: Bush was a star. And stars do more. Bush is asked: "Was it a shock to go off to war from your background?"
He answers: "It was the shock."
George Bush still remembers his anxiety as his father put him on the train to war a month after his 18th birthday. He worried about what was by then his psychological signature: "I guess I was thinking, 'Will I be accepted?' " Bush says he was apprehensive because he was younger than most of the men. But it's hard to believe he didn't also wonder about a more ageless gap between men: Bush had never really stepped outside his insular world.
Pilot Jack Guy, for instance, was a country boy from Claxton, Ga. When Bush once mentioned that he'd gone to Andover, Jack Guy's reply was: "Well, I went to Claxton!" As ever, war is the ultimate leveler, a meritocracy where lineage takes a back seat to 20-20 vision. Says Bush, "It was a revelation." Bush was knock-down handsome then -- tall, wiry, athletic -- with a devil-may-care aviator style. Only the white scarf was missing. In photos from those days his angular face, clear eyes, and open smile are like a beacon. "He was a lot of fun, a live wire," recalls Guy. "Everybody wanted to cotton up to him. . . . I don't know anyone who didn't like him for any reason. I don't know how to say it any other way."
Bush was, to use the day's slang, a straight arrow, and engaged to Barbara Pierce, daughter of the Rye, N.Y., chairman of the McCall's publishing empire. "We'd go out partyin' and raise hell," remembers Guy. "But not George. He had Barbara. Pick up gals? Not George." Bush's brother Jonathan once made this joke about why George was so dedicated to Barbara (though its insight into Bush's personality goes beyond light humor): "She was wild about him. And for George, if anyone wants to be wild about him, it's fine with him."
Though Bush was younger, he seemed more mature than the other men. He was relaxed with superior officers in a way his buddies weren't. And he was more serious. When the war ended, and everybody went out to celebrate, George and Barbara were late -- their first VJ Day celebration had been at church.
"If one of us had to be great someday, it would have been George," says Bush war buddy Lou J. Grab. "He had a better education, a little more going for him." And Bush seemed to know clearly what he was fighting for. When the men went home with him on leave, they learned what some of those things were.
"What came across was when I went by his grandfather's or uncle's apartment in Manhattan," recalls Guy. "It was about the grandest thing I'd ever seen." Pilot Milton Moore, Bush's best friend in those days, was invited to Greenwich for George's wedding in '45. "I was very impressed," says Moore, whose father owned a laundry. Everybody was friendly, but Moore noticed that the young people at the wedding seemed more self-assured than those he knew. No one in Moore's family had even gone to college, but everyone there seemed to talk about college constantly. When introduced, people's colleges were added like extra last names. But Moore always felt comfortable with George. He visited Bush after the war at Yale, and he visited him later in Texas.
"Everybody liked him," says Grab. "And those qualities endured over the next 10 or even 20 years. Your attitude might have changed about some people you liked. But George endured." ? "And when we hit that new century, I want the young people just starting out as we did to still have that same kind of opportunity, the same kind of opportunity that Barbara Bush and I had. And we can see that they get it." GEORGE BUSH WILL NOT KEEP THIS promise. He can't. The opportunities that came to him do not come to the average man.
After the war, he whizzed through Yale in 2 1/2 years. He was Phi Beta Kappa, captain of the baseball team, all-around BMOC. But the greatest hint of Bush's future succcess came on Yale's April "tap night," when the school's best and brightest are inducted into Yale's secret societies. Bush was "the last man tapped." In tapdom's neo-Masonic world of mysterious chants and psychosexual confessions, the first are last, making Bush the most desirable man in his class. The selection might not have been a total surprise, since Bush's father and Averell Harriman were Bonesmen. But it was no small honor. Besides Harriman, Bones alums include Stimson, William Howard Taft, Henry Luce and McGeorge Bundy, to name a few.
After Yale, greatness was assumed for Bush. His cousin, George Herbert Walker III, predicted to Barbara Bush that George would be president someday. Jonathan Bush had told his prep school classmates the same thing. By then, even George had succumbed to this acclamation. Yale classmate Ethan Shepley Jr. remembers hearing at Yale that Bush planned to make money in business and then enter politics.
Brown Brothers Harriman, where his father worked, waived its nepotism rule to offer Bush a job, but he said no. He wanted "out from under." But in Bush's world it was hard to escape the womb of privilege. One of his father's closest friends, Neil Henry Mallon, was president of Dresser Industries, an oil conglomerate, and Prescott was on its board. Mallon had no children, and George was like a surrogate son. (Bush would eventually name a son after Mallon.) So when ?continued on page 46 GEORGE BUSH continued from page 21
Mallon offered him a job selling oil rig equipment in Odessa, Tex., Bush took it. Here the official story of Bush's life gets embossed to fit a more Middle American model: The red Studebaker is packed with wife and baby, and off they trek.
The truth is less prosaic, but in its own way uniquely American. Bill Nelson was a hardened Texas oil-field worker, and when Bush walked into the West Texas office of the International Derrick and Equipment Co. in the summer of '48, Nelson took one look and figured he'd last a week. Bush was dressed for West Texas all right -- wool trousers, white shirt, black shoes, no tie. But his manner gave him away. "He was so different from the ordinary man in West Texas," says the 88-year-old Nelson, an Ideco supervisor then. "You'd wonder, 'Why did he come out here?' "
Nelson had already been told that Bush was a Dresser board member's kid. "That meant put him to work and learn him what I could," he says. That turned out to be easy. Bush asked questions until Nelson was tired of answering them, and he worked constantly. Nelson would go home with a list of things to do atop his desk -- and the next day George would already have done them. Over the years Nelson had hundreds of trainees. "George was better than any," he says.
When Bush hit town, West Texas was in the midst of the great Scurry County oil boom. Housing was so scarce in Midland and Odessa, the area's twin towns, that tent cities cropped up. The Bushes lived in Odessa, the blue-collar sister city to the white-collar Midland. Their shotgun apartment on a dirt road shared a bathroom with a whore next door. Their life seemed true-grit American -- another young couple "just starting out." But their mindset was still that of the children of privilege. This foray into the workaday world was, as Barbara Bush said, an adventure. The prostitute might be staying in the shotgun digs in Odessa, but the Bushes would be moving on. It's difficult to overestimate the importance of knowing this: Real power to shape the future breeds optimism, which breeds effort, which breeds success.
"I never thought we'd live on East Seventh Street the rest of our lives," Barbara says. "I mean, trust me. . . . George and I never thought we were poor. We knew we weren't. We knew if something terrible happened to us, we had family. . . . It's a little bit smug to say these things didn't matter."
Bush hadn't set out to make a wildcatter's fortune, but he caught the fever. And he wasn't the only eastern import who did; they were swarming all over the place. Dubbed the "Ivy Leaguers," these migrants became key players in West Texas oil. The imports weren't all Ivy Leaguers, but one quality distinguished many of them: They too were from well-connected families of wealth and privilege. Even wildcatting wasn't an equal opportunity employer.
Bush arrived at just the right time for his rare blend of ability and privilege. Before World War II, wildcatting was a mom-and-pop store. But rising drilling costs had made financing tougher. Bush and the Ivy Leaguers brought what the natives needed: pipelines to money. "Connections were the whole game," says C. Fred Chambers, a Texas oil man who became Bush's best friend.
Independent oil men are oil-deal promoters who convince landowners to sell a portion of their mineral rights to investors. In return, the promoter gets a free share of the deal. Bush did this successfully and then with William C. and J. Hugh Liedtke, who would later form Pennzoil, he created Zapata Petroleum. The Liedtkes, whose father was Gulf Oil's chief legal counsel in Tulsa, had gone to private high school and Amherst College. They tapped their Tulsa connections for about half-a-million dollars and Bush tapped his Eastern connections for the same -- with the help of his admiring Uncle Herbie's investor clients. Zapata scored: 128 wells without a dry hole.
In oil deals over the years, Bush would hit on his Eastern connections again and again. Fred Chambers, whose connections were modest compared with Bush's, recalls with awe a meeting he and Bush had with Eugene Meyer, a founder of Allied Chemical Corp., the principal owner of The Washington Post and a friend of Prescott Bush.
"Well, how'd we do on those other deals, George?" Meyer asked.
Pretty well, Bush said.
With that, Meyer invested $ 50,000. He then offered the young men a ride to the train station, and as they were leaving his limousine, Meyer asked: "Say, do you have any more of that deal?" Bush said yes -- and Meyer invested another $ 25,000. Such was Bush's world. At 30, he already traveled in circles that hard work, charm, brains and empathy alone could never have opened.
In Midland, as usual, Bush was being everything to everybody. His wife recalls that so many people depended on him then that she was jealous. He coached boys' baseball, helped found the YMCA and the community theater, and was a director of a new Midland bank. Again, the two threads: "He did represent some outside financial interests from New York and Tulsa," says Midland oil man Earle M. Craig Jr. "But he wouldn't have been asked if he weren't an outstanding young man."
In '52, Bush got into politics, opposing the old Robert A. Taft Republicans in Texas in favor of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Back in Connecticut, his father was doing the same as part of a group that talked Ike into running for president. Once a staunch Herbert Hoover man, Prescott Bush was at the heart of the Republican Party's shift away from old-line conservatism toward a more non-ideological, pragmatic Republicanism that had made its peace with the New Deal. In '52, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He mixed well with the beer-hall crowds, but wasn't totally at ease.
"I always thought Pres did a very good job of mingling with the ordinary guy, but he really didn't understand them very well," says John Alsop, a Republican mover in Connecticut for the past 40 years. "He'd just never been one."
By the mid-'50s George Bush would tell his closest friend, Fred Chambers, that he hoped to enter politics someday. It was a good choice, a way to earn the prideful affirmation and boundless admiration he craved at the same time he could humbly "give something back." He also pushed ahead in business, moving to Houston and forming Zapata Off-Shore, one of the nation's first offshore oil-drilling companies. It was a tough business. Zapata prospered modestly; Bush got a bleeding ulcer. Meanwhile, Prescott Bush was having the time of his life in the Senate. He loved politics and believed George would too. Harry Hurt III, writing in Texas Monthly magazine, reported this 1961 exchange between Prescott and Houston Republican James A. Bertron:
Prescott: "Jimmy, when are you going to get George involved?"
Bertron: "Senator, I'm trying. We're all trying." ? "What I hope people perceive is reasonableness." GEORGE BUSH FINALLY DID IT IN '64 -- ran for the U.S. Senate in Texas. Most of his business friends were baffled about why he wanted to give up a fortune, sacrifice the privacy, take all the crap.
"You know, I just love it!" Bush told a friend. If Bush had 10 minutes between campaign speeches, he was out shaking hands. On the road, he was up at 6 a.m. delivering coffee to his staffers' rooms. "I think he is very uncomfortable without people around," says Chase Untermeyer, a Bush friend and campaign worker from those days. "He craves people."
Bush's political philosophy through two races for the U.S. Senate and a single contested race for Congress was, like his father's, a pragmatic, eminently reasonable conservatism. He ran as a Goldwater Republican in '64, but by Texas standards he was a moderate. He took way-out liberal positions such as opposing repeal of the federal income tax. Yet he was a hawk on Vietnam and an opponent of civil rights legislation. He called Robert F. Kennedy "a left-wing carpet-bagger" and Medicare "socialized medicine." He lost. In '66, Bush was elected to Congress from a safe, silk-stocking Republican district in Houston and his views became more liberal. He voted for civil rights legislation, the 18-year-old vote, the abolition of the draft. He backed a call for American withdrawal from Vietnam. According to Americans for Constitutional Action, a conservative ratings group, Bush's voting record fell from 83 percent conservative in 1967 to 58 percent conservative in 1970.
"At that time he told me he regretted having gone that far right and that he'd never do it again," recalls The Rev. John F. Stevens, the former secretary of the Executive Council of the U.S. Episcopal Church. "The implication was he had to do it to get elected."
The pragmatic Bush was a hot political property. His ability was respected in Congress, and as a first-term member he was given the rare honor of a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee. But the other great force was also at work. "His father came to me . . . and wanted him on my committee," recalls Wilbur D. Mills, then Democratic chairman of Ways and Means and an old friend of Prescott Bush. "I said, 'I'm a Democrat and I don't think I can do anything.' He said, could I call Jerry Ford? And so I did." Ford was then Republican leader of the House. "He engineered that," Mills says, as a favor to Prescott Bush. Ford recalls helping Bush win the seat, but as a way to give Texas Republicans "a shot in the arm." He says, however, that Bush wouldn't have gotten it if Mills had objected.
But Bush had a higher calling: As a congressman, he told Houston minister Hartsell Gray that after meeting the men who ran Washington, Bush knew he could handle any job in town. "That included the presidency," says Gray.
"It was the same drive to do something on his own that got him down to Texas," Bush friend Ernest Obermeyer told biographer Nicholas King. "A driving sense of accomplishment. Once he has accomplishment, he has a tendency to walk away from it. . . . His attitude was, 'Well, I've done that. And that wasn't so hard. And let's see what I can do next. . . . ' He wasn't willing to wait around. He was after the ultimate challenge -- first the Senate and then the presidency."
In pursuit of his great ambition, Bush ran for the Senate in '70 and lost. He stayed in politics by taking an appointment as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, then as the U.S. liaison in China and then as the director of the CIA. In '80, these jobs would justify Bush's run for the White House. His slogan: "A president we won't have to train." In truth, the years of broad experience were epilogue to a life's ambition.
"When did you decide to run for president?" New Yorker magazine reporter Elizabeth Drew asked Bush in 1980.
"Well," Bush replied. "I started thinking a long time ago -- I mean, like, hasn't everybody thought about being president for years?" ? "It's just plain beautiful. And it's ours. It's our piece of turf."
AFTER FOUR HOURS OF TROLLING THE Saco River, George Bush finally gives up. No vice presidential fish fry tonight. But it has turned out to be a glorious afternoon, the wind about 18 knots, the sky clearing, the sea beautifully rugged. Bush quotes someone who once said that the time a man spends fishing shouldn't count toward the time God allotted that man on earth. He says this several times, so I figure he wants to be quoted. That's okay. It's a good line. Because in all my hours with Bush these are the first I feel relaxed. Private time with him is indeed magical. It's a nice feeling to have about a man who would be president. But does it really matter?
Well, it matters in one way. They say George Bush doesn't know himself, that he has blown with the political winds: Goldwater conservative to Jerry Ford conservative to Ronald Reagan conservative. This is silly. George Bush knows exactly who he is: He is the son of Sen. Prescott Bush, the daughter of Dorothy Walker Bush. He is a Bush, a ragingly proud Bush. He was in a very real sense born to rule. And when you are born to rule, you rule what there is to rule. He didn't come to this ambition by ideology, but by osmosis. Bush wants to be president, always has. And he is a reasonable man. He'll change with the times -- and change back with them again. He opposed civil rights legislation, then favored it. He backed the Vietnam war, but later wanted American soldiers withdrawn. He opposed a constitutional amendment barring most legal abortions, but now favors such an amendment. He opposed Ronald Reaganism, but he now favors it.
Issues don't motivate Bush; people and ambition motivate him. His ardent backers spout not ideology, but faith in his goodness. Wasn't it reasonable to oppose civil rights legislation in '64, reasonable to favor it in '68? Remember, Bush's father was a Hoover man who helped draft Ike. Changing with the times, a guiltless pragmatism, is Bush's trademark. He is a living barometer of the middle course.
Bush's personality -- his reasonableness, his decency, his empathy -- is the glue of his politics. Oddly enough, they also explain how so mythic a life can seem somehow trivial. George Bush has never been immutably tied to the great currents of his time. He's no trailblazer. His political motives aren't as much linked to a special vision of the body politic as they are to his family's dedication to proving itself again and again. The presidency, as Ernest Obermeyer said, is Bush's ultimate challenge, the final affirmation. This isn't a flaw in his character. It is the heart of his character.
A key to understanding Bush is his belief that he can make almost everyone happy. While Bush is on the Fidelity, a man flicks him the bird from shore. Barbara is along, and she teases that George should turn around and go talk to the man, win him over. Husband and wife banter and laugh. But deep down, I bet they believe George could win that man over. It is his gift.
But Bush isn't built for TV. He's hot while the medium is cool. He sometimes seems on fire, out of control on TV, his metallic voice screeching like chalk on a blackboard. In person, the uncertain, melodic quiver, the breaks in pitch, the halting sentences, the fragments of thought, aren't grating. In person, his manner evokes a natural intimacy, like the fumbling, boyish eloquence of Jimmy Stewart. On TV, he can seem weak and confused. The natural tension between Bush's enforced humility and his great pride can, under hostile questioning, also surface in flashes of temper.
"I don't suffer fools in the questioning area gladly," Bush says. Then, as if hearing Mother's admonition, he adds, "I'm doing better now."
Yet another message that Bush sends is subliminal. It's the message he can't help but send, the one in which his lineage traps him, the other edge to the sword of privilege. Nothing irks Bush more than the harping about his "preppy" style. He has abandoned button-down collars, half-rimmed glasses, even his striped watchband -- something he swore he'd never do -- to shed the image. It's all pettiness to him. But there's more going on here. These are totems that remind Americans that Bush is of a world apart. He can preach a renewed American opportunity, equal opportunity, but his life is testament to what can happen when one boy is more equal than others. This doesn't diminish his achievements. God knows there were others who did less with more. Truth is, Bush left the oil business for politics just before oil went gangbusters. He's worth a modest $ 2 million today, and he occasionally wonders about the fortune left behind.
But in politics, Bush's image must filter through a have-not American knowledge that Bush, for all his empathy, can little understand. So many men have worked for the boss' son, competent or not. So many women have watched men climb the males-only ladder. So many blacks, ethnics and blue-collar kids have seen competency include social skills acquired not by hard work or brains but by birth, breeding and education. Why is Bush's ebullient optimism the butt of jokes? Maybe because many people can't share his joy in the American experience.
These aren't hard data. They are biases. To be honest, they are my biases. But am I alone? Is it an accident that Americans have elected only one president born to the upper class since Franklin Roosevelt? And that was John Kennedy -- a rich kid with the instincts of a rogue Irishman. What I wanted from Bush was an admission, some acknowledgment that on the simplest human level the privileges in his life were unfair. Bush simply doesn't agree with this. Or he can't acknowledge it.
"Any society, any capitalistic society, is gonna have some people who are well-to-do and some who are not doing very well, and who are poor. Abjectly poor. . . . What you do is try to strive hard [so] that it's as equal as possible. And you gotta recognize that sometimes there are, even in a system as good as ours, certain inequities. . . . In other words, you're looking at the glass half empty, I'm looking at it half full." Of his background, Bush says, "I view it, as you know, with great pride. And no sense of wanting to cooperate by saying, 'Gosh, isn't it awful that my, you know, family were privileged. . . . ' So I'm not apologetic. So long as I make a contribution and my kids do."
George Bush is without social guilt, which is probably good for his mental health. He struggled admirably to justify his great privilege -- as do many children of successful parents -- and in his mind, he has proven his worth beyond all doubt. "You don't think I could have made it, made something of myself?" he asks wearily. There's a plaintiveness to that question, and, frankly, Bush has earned his identity as a member of the deserving rich. But looking at America from the bottom up, doesn't it also seem naive to believe that Bush, if born to a wholly different world, would be vice president today? Hearing Bush preach the American Gospel -- no matter how much I like him -- is still like listening to a very tall man praise the virtues of being very tall. I think: Yeah, that's easy for you to say.
And I think of what John Alsop said of Bush's father. "I always thought Pres did a very good job of mingling with the ordinary guy, but he really didn't understand them very well. He'd just never been one." THEY SAY GEORGE BUSH IS MOST like himself when he's at Walker's Point. He loves to fish for a while, then roar off with his twin Mercrusiers at full throttle, his boat flying into the air over the mountainous swells as he spins the Fidelity 180 degrees to a quick stop, and then fish some more. In the summers, the Bush children visit Walker's Point with their kids. They're all married, the boys successful businessmen. There has never been a divorce in the Bush family. The kids work in charities. One son mans a soup line at Christmas. Bush's son Marvin, 30, says they are spared the social guilt so many rich kids suffer because they learned to give something back.
"It's a base for family," George Bush says of Walker's Point. "And it's the setting that somehow relieves all tensions and frees you up to think. . . . I love to go out in the sea when it's rough. I like to stay out on the rocks with my grandchildren. . . . It frees up your soul. . . . And a lot of it's 'cause it has memories."
Walker's Point is what it's all about for George Bush. The main house was wiped out in a flood in '78, and Bush had the place rebuilt. He uses Walker's Point as his "anchor to windward." So do his children. So will his grandchildren.
Bush slouches comfortably in a chair on the back deck. It's a sunny day, the waves crash on the rocks a hundred feet away and little George Prescott, now 10, climbs alone on the huge rock boat between Bush and the sea. Today the rock is a toy, tomorrow it will be a symbol.
The idea is that all this will be passed on. Not just the house, the educations, the connections, but the values -- hard work, giving something back, the family as rock in a sand castle world. If everything goes right, little George Prescott won't feel social guilt, he'll give something back, he'll be magical, he'll keep the lineage alive. Because the Bushes are their own kind of American dynasty. And all these things will be bred in his bones.