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  • Post Series: The Making of George W. Bush

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  • Bush's Life-Changing Year

    George W. and Laura Bush
    Many people, including George W. Bush, credit his wife Laura with helping him to stop drinking. (Bill O'Leary The Post)
    By Lois Romano and George Lardner Jr
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, July 25, 1999; Page A1

    First of seven articles
    On July 28, 1986, George W. Bush woke up with a hangover. It had been a loud, liquid night at the venerable Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs as he and friends from Texas celebrated their collective 40th birthdays. Now, as he embarked on his ritual morning run through a spectacular Rockies landscape, Bush felt lousy.

    Forty: A symbolic halfway point, a moment of appraisal. For the eldest son of the then-vice president of the United States, it had been a year of business crises and personal drift. Bush had closely hewed to his father's path through life Andover, Yale, flying warplanes, then into the Texas oil business but so far he had enjoyed very little of his father's success.

    The past six months had been a near-disaster. Oil prices in West Texas, as high as $37 per barrel a few years earlier, had plummeted to $9 by the time of Bush's birthday, tipping his company into a spiral of debt and shaky payrolls, forcing him to enter merger negotiations. And his personal life was clouded by drinking.

    A charismatic partier since his school days, Bush liked to drink what he called the four Bs beer, bourbon and B&B; But he had begun to realize that his drinking was jeopardizing his relationships, his career and his health. Although friends say Bush did not drink daily or during daylight hours, even those closest to him acknowledge privately that if not clinically an alcoholic, Bush sometimes came close to the line. Sometimes he would embarrass himself; more often, he didn't know how to stop.

    "Once he got started, he couldn't, didn't shut it off," said Bush's friend Don Evans. "He didn't have the discipline."

    Bush himself acknowledged in a recent interview: "I realized that alcohol was beginning to crowd out my energies and could crowd, eventually, my affections for other people. . . . When you're drinking, it can be an incredibly selfish act."

    That July day, Bush officially swore off alcohol. But his decision was about more than getting sober. Stirred in part by what he describes as an intense, reawakening Christian faith, Bush sought to seize control of his life. By doing so he would finally begin to close the gap between what was expected of him and what he had achieved.

    Today, as Bush launches his presidential campaign as the anointed Republican front-runner, a sense of inevitability infuses his candidacy. In truth, his sudden rise to political prominence would have been very difficult to predict during much of the first half of his life. He was the swashbuckling fraternity president, raw and fun, who people loved to be around. But unlike almost any other serious presidential candidate in modern memory, no one who knew him envisioned George W. Bush in the White House.

    "If I had to go through my class, and pick five people who were going to run for president, it would never have occurred to me he would ever run," said Robert Birge, who went to Yale with Bush and knew him well when both were members of Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society. "He did not carry himself like a statesman. He had good useful opinions but there were others in the class who came across as born leaders."

    In 1986, however, something began to change. Bush himself marks it as a critical year, and so do dozens of friends, family and business associates interviewed for this series of articles. It was the year Bush started down the road to somewhere, leaving some baggage behind. It was the year he found God and found a future.

    At the crossroads of his 40th birthday are visible the pressures and themes that have shaped all of Bush's life. Many of them involve his complex relationship with his father. Being George Herbert Walker Bush's son meant that outsiders would judge George W. the name he often goes by to distinguish himself from his father by nearly impossible standards of achievement. It meant business executives and others looking for lines to his father would see him as a connection, a middleman. It also meant that when he exceeded expectations or redeemed his family's name, the triumph provided a special resonance.

    A shadow, a competition, an opportunity his relationship with his father has been all those things.

    By choosing to so closely imitate the chapters of his father's life, Bush in some ways has only emphasized the differences between them, and he has struggled to live up to his father's extraordinary record.

    At Andover and Yale, the elite schools where his father was a star athlete and student leader and seemed suffused with special grace, George W.'s academic record was mediocre, his achievements modest. His father rushed to volunteer during World War II and returned a hero; George W. never flew in combat, and his enlistment in the Air National Guard at the height of the Vietnam War raises the question of whether he sought to avoid front-line service.

    His father did well early on in the oil business; George W. worked hard but never made much money, then was offered a new opportunity in baseball, where he finally succeeded on his own. In public life, his father moved seamlessly from one significant job to another, despite early frustrations running for office; George W. lost the only campaign he attempted and then reluctantly concluded he should not try again until his father had retired.

    Yet as his recent success as governor of Texas has made plain, all along George W. harbored qualities that his father could only envy: a visceral and energetic charm, sound political instincts, an easy and convincing sense of humor, a common touch. Among other places, he drew these strengths and skills from his close relationship with his lively and strong-minded mother, Barbara Bush, a relationship forged in Texas during years when his father was absorbed by business demands and the family suffered a shattering tragedy.

    In the end, Bush emerged as the convincing political Texan his father tried and failed to be. While his father was defeated seeking statewide office, George W. won twice the second time attracting support from Democrats and Hispanics whom few Republicans from his father's circle could ever have imagined as allies. And he ran tightly disciplined yet engaging campaigns that revealed George W. as a confident, mature and charismatic politician, qualities his father struggled to project even at the height of his popularity on the national stage.

    When Bush is asked to cite the career accomplishments of which he is most proud, they begin at the age of 42, when he led an investment group that bought the Texas Rangers, followed by his two successful gubernatorial campaigns and his leadership of a state that, were it a country, would have the 11th-largest economy in the world. But for those who doubt his qualifications for the White House, his biography raises the question: Are Bush's achievements and qualities enough to qualify him to be president?

    Those who celebrate his maturity and strengths and those who question his credentials both point to the year of his 40th birthday as evidence for their arguments.

    Midland Life: Debts, Deals
    And a Deep Urge to Move On

    In 1986, when Sen. Al Gore was preparing to run for president for the first time, and Rep. John McCain, a war hero, was running to replace Barry Goldwater in the Senate, and Sen. Bill Bradley was leading an effort to overhaul the tax system, George W. Bush was desperately trying to get out of the oil business and avoid a humiliating failure.

    George W. had been living for 11 years in the dusty, flat plains of Midland, the oil capital of West Texas, where he had grown up before heading east for his education. His father was vice president, but Bush couldn't have been further from the glamour and power of the White House.

    He drove three minutes to work from his light green brick rambler on tree-lined Harvard Street, to the 13th floor of an office tower in downtown Midland. Little plastic red and blue pins attached his twin daughters' artwork to the walls. He spent his days tapping investors, cutting deals and looking to hit the big one that would set him up for life. At the same time, he gave little outward sign that he cared about money for its own sake, eschewing any outward signs of status or wealth, wearing ratty clothes and driving a vintage car. Yet he made clear that he wanted to be a success in the oil business.

    At noon most days, Bush met the same group of middle-aged men at the rundown YMCA, changed into his jogging clothes and thundered through the streets of Midland, swapping leads and anxiously hoping for the return of the boom days.

    He had matured some from his bachelor days of 1975, when he arrived in Midland, restless and rambunctious. He had first lived in Midland as a toddler, staying until junior high school as his father chased his own oil fortune. Then at 29, Midland had beckoned him back. With a business degree from Harvard and the remainder of an education trust fund, he launched himself in a place alive with wildcatters and risk-takers, lots of money and plenty of promise.

    A decade later he was still the same old "Bombastic Bushkin" as he quickly became known and his tight group of friends, some of whom he had known since first grade, were still mesmerized by his bravado and his energy. He was unpredictable and he made their young lives fun.

    Bush had been married by then to Laura Welch, a shy librarian who was the mother of his 4-year-old twins, Jenna and Barbara, named for the couple's mothers. He hadn't known Laura that well when they married three months after meeting in 1977. But they had the same roots and the same friends the Evanses, the O'Neills, the Youngers, the Sawyers and they traveled in a pack.

    There were the potluck cookouts, regular tennis games at the country club, dinner at Dona Anita's on Fridays and Scrabble on Saturday. Laura stopped working when they married, devoting her time to the twins and the Junior League. On Sundays some of the families would head to church together, and pick up fried chicken afterward.

    "They weren't our friends because his dad was the vice president," said Laura Bush. "Our friends had been our friends from first grade."

    Today Bush and his friends look back on their lives more than a decade ago with great fondness the risk, the unfettered optimism, the youthful ambition. But in 1986 it was coming to an end. Many were struggling to stay afloat. The kids were getting older and pulling them in different directions. One of the couples was going through a trying divorce, which cast a pall over the whole group. And Bush was starting to realize that it was time to move on.

    The prospect of going to Washington to help on his father's presidential campaign was a live option for Bush by that spring, but he told only a few close friends. "He was just itching to go," said Joseph O'Neill, a second-generation oilman who has known the younger Bush since grade school. "It was his hole card."

    And he needed one: The oil game was going against him. With oil prices in a steep tumble, Bush's company, Spectrum 7 a firm he had merged with a few years earlier had posted $406,000 in losses by June and was more than $3 million in debt. Bush, his geologist, Paul Rea, and his chief financial officer, Michael Conaway, had been spending much of their time searching for a white knight to bail them out. All 15 employees had taken a pay cut.

    As would happen several times at key junctures of his business career, Bush was bailed out by a corporation interested in his company in part because of his name. The call had first come in February, as Bush was putting out feelers in other directions. Harken Energy Corp. was a big company with a smattering of famous names on its board and a strategy of buying distressed oil companies.

    "One of the reasons Harken was so interested in merging was because of George," said Rea. "Having him with the company would be an asset . . . having George's name there. They wanted him on their board."

    By the time Bush arrived at the Broadmoor in late July for a relaxing weekend of sightseeing and golf, Spectrum and Harken were in negotiations. When the deal eventually came through, Harken would take on all $3 million of Spectrum's crushing debt, absorb its operations, and provide Bush with a valuable infusion of Harken stock and a generous consulting contract. In return, Harken would receive the untapped oil reserves he had failed to profit from, and have Bush on its board at a time when his father was preparing to run for president.

    But if the talks with Harken offered George W. the promise of a fresh start in business by the time of his 40th birthday, there was still a remaining issue that troubled some of those around him: his drinking.

    By Bush's own admission, he was drinking too much. By the accounts of those who were around him, he sometimes drank to the point where he would behave offensively.

    In early April 1986, Bush ran into Al Hunt, then the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau chief, at a Mexican restaurant in Dallas, where Hunt was dining with his wife, Judy Woodruff, and their 4-year-old son. The April edition of Washingtonian magazine had come out featuring 16 pundits predicting who would lead the 1988 GOP ticket. Hunt had predicted Jack Kemp over Vice President Bush. (Only half the group said Bush would be the nominee.)

    Hunt said Bush approached the table and began cursing at him in front of his child. Hunt said there was no doubt that Bush had been drinking heavily.

    "You[expletive] son of a bitch," Hunt quotes Bush as saying. "I saw what you wrote. We're not going to forget this."

    Hunt said he never gave the incident much more thought until he was asked about it last spring by Bill Minutaglio, a Dallas Morning News reporter who was writing a book about Bush.

    Two weeks later, Hunt unexpectedly received a gracious call from Bush, who apologized.

    When asked about it in an interview, Bush at first referred the reporter back to Hunt, who he said would have a better recollection. When told that the reporter had spoken to Hunt, Bush said he could not remember "what was said" in 1986 and could not recall whether he was drinking. He did acknowledged that his behavior was inappropriate.

    "There's no excuse for me offending him in front of his child . . . I regret that," Bush said.

    Asked why he apologized more than a decade later, he said, "I heard he was angry about it, and it began to weigh heavy on my mind. I would have done it earlier had I realized I had offended him."

    It was a sign that drinking was getting him into trouble, and by the time Bush sat down to dinner with his friends at the Broadmoor in July, he had been trying to quit for a year.

    Dinner and a Drinking Pledge:
    'It Was a Big Turning Point'

    The weekend dinner was an extravagant evening among close friends, complete with a multi-course dinner, ample bottles of $60 Silver Oak cabernet and endless toasts to one another. There was Don Evans, now Bush's finance chairman, and his wife, Susie, who went to grade school with Bush; Joe and Jan O'Neill, who had introduced the Bushes; Penny Royall, a good friend who had just separated from her husband; and Bush's brother, Neil. Everyone but Neil Bush spoke to The Post.

    No one recalls anything outrageous about Bush's behavior that evening that might have led him to a sudden epiphany. Nor do they recall any major proclamation. In fact, the consumption was such that evening that more than one person recalls making the predictable "never again" vow. Bush, they say, just stopped drinking.

    "I didn't get the sense at all that it was anything momentous at the time," recalled Jan O'Neill. "I think it was a big turning point in his own mind, but these things never take on momentous meaning until you follow through."

    Numerous friends and business associates from Yale through graduate school to his Midland oil days have described Bush's drinking as more in the nature of a fraternity house binger than evidencing the persistent signs of addiction. Bush himself insisted in the interview that his drinking was "occasional." His friends confirm this, and refer to him as a spree or binge drinker.

    Charles Younger, a close friend and a Midland orthopedic surgeon, said that when Bush drank, he "could say some things that were not reflective of how he really felt when he was not drinking."

    Paul Rea had seen alcoholism up close. His younger son had struggled for years, and when he traveled with Bush he didn't like the signs. "George was not an alcoholic," said Rea, "but there's a fine line between heavy social drinking and alcoholism. . . . I raised it with George."

    There was at least one incident that his parents witnessed. When he was 26, he returned home inebriated one night to his parents' home in Washington with his then-teenage brother Marvin in tow and plowed his car into a neighbor's garbage can, dragging it down the street. When his father asked to see him, George W. challenged him to go "mano a mano" outside. The senior Bush promptly got his son a job at a social service program in Houston, helping underprivileged kids.

    "My dad was not happy," recalled his sister, Dorothy Bush Koch, who witnessed the episode. "My dad did not think that was attractive or funny or nice."

    "We did not know that he had an alcohol problem and we saw him a lot," said Barbara Bush. "That is not to say that we never maybe saw him when he'd had a little bit too much to drink. But nothing, nothing bad and he certainly never did anything bad to our knowledge. So we were sort of surprised when he gave up drinking and very pleased for him, because he seemed to feel he had a problem."

    Many people, including Bush himself, credit Laura Bush for helping him to stop drinking. "She is just a very calm and loving person who reminded me in a mature and sobering way that going to a party and deciding to, you know, I'd be on four bourbons on the rocks, which is not all that smart," Bush said.

    "He had been working toward it for a long time," said Laura Bush. "I think for a year at least he'd been thinking, 'I really need to slow down or quit.' Most people who try to quit drinking first think, 'Well, I'm just going to only have one drink.' And I think in his mind he thought, 'Well, that's what I'll do.' And then, of course, it didn't really work. Like for everybody, just about, who tries, it doesn't really work."

    In the end, Bush said, the key to giving up alcohol was the new spirituality he had begun to embrace the year before. Bush is not a particularly introspective man, but whatever soul-searching there was to do, he had started doing in the summer of 1985, after a conversation at the family summer retreat in Kennebunkport with the Rev. Billy Graham, a longtime family friend and spiritual adviser.

    Graham, he said, "planted a seed in my heart and I began to change."

    As a boy, Bush worshiped in both Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches. After he married, he switched to the Methodist church of his wife. He had attended a men's Bible study group a few years earlier, but he began to take the Scriptures more seriously, reading the Bible cover to cover more than once.

    As his faith began to take root, Bush found he could be exuberant without the aid of alcohol. The very aspects of his personality that made George W. Bush the guy everyone wanted to sit next to at dinner the nervous energy, the sharp wit, the impulsiveness and lack of structure were also the parts of himself that Bush wanted to seize control of but not lose.

    "I think if . . . you become more spiritual, you begin to realize the effect of alcohol over-consuming because it begins to drown the spirit," he said.

    Bush takes pride in saying that he never went into a substance abuse program such as Alcoholics Anonymous, but indicated that he was guided by the broader AA philosophy of placing one's faith in God.

    "If you change your heart, you can change your behavior," Bush said.

    Bush said that he does not believe that he was "clinically an alcoholic."

    "Well, I don't think I had [an addiction]. You know, it's hard for me to say," he said. "I've had friends who were, you know, very addicted . . . and they required hitting bottom [to start] going to AA. I don't think that was my case."

    Bush said that he hasn't had a "drop of alcohol . . . not one drop," since 1986.

    Asked what would happen if he took a drink today, he said: "I'd probably say foolish things."

    'I Made Mistakes . . . And I'm
    Going to Leave It at That'

    It was during his 1994 gubernatorial campaign that Bush first referred to his "irresponsible" youth, a move that seemed designed to send a message that he had changed and to cover him in case anything was revealed by the media or his opponents that might seem embarrassing. The hope was also that, if something did turn up, it would seem anticlimactic or, as Bush said, "irrelevant."

    But Bush seems to realize that he has created something of a political monster through this approach, spawning countless rumors that have him doing everything from dancing naked on a bar to copping cocaine on a Washington street. "I'm amazed at how one simple statement has set off a swirl that I'm the wildest man that ever lived," Bush said.

    Barbara Bush said in an interview that her son brought all the scrutiny on himself and said there was nothing there. "He wanted to just say, 'Look, you know I wasn't perfect,'" she said.

    "Oh, he knows what's going to happen to him. And he just thought, 'Oh, I'll just get it over with," she added. "It never occurred to me it would boomerang so. I know George has been shocked by the reaction of the media."

    "I think he overstated it," said Laura Bush. "But I also think people who drank a lot for some period in their life think, 'Oh, gosh, I probably did some you know, I probably embarrassed myself so many times."

    Those closest to Bush say there is nothing in his background that would disqualify him from becoming president. He has stated that he has been faithful to his wife of 22 years. But he has been less unequivocal on the subject of illegal drug use, refusing to itemize any past transgressions.

    Asked in an interview about cocaine use, he said, "I'm not going to talk about what I did years ago.

    "This is a game where they float rumors, force a person to fight off a rumor, then they'll float another rumor. And I'm not going to participate. I saw what happened to my dad with rumors in Washington, and I'm not going to participate in that type of game. I made mistakes. I've asked people to not let the rumors get in the way of the facts. I've told people I've learned from my mistakes and I have. And I'm going to leave it at that."

    He was reminded that he chose to publicly deny rumors in 1987 of his father's infidelity and that non-denials can be misinterpreted and keep a rumor alive.

    "If it's not this, there'll be some other rumor," he said. "I'm saying I'm not going to talk about what I did in the past. What I did 20 to 30 years ago, in my judgment, is irrelevant. What matters is who I am today. The politics of personal destruction is about floating rumors so that you then chase them and cause you to ask questions. I'm not going to participate in that."

    Whether Bush can hold that line through a presidential campaign is, at best, uncertain. But whatever role his past plays in the campaign, few involved with him worry about his outlook and personal habits in the present.

    Bush's staff, his friends, his family, his wife, all describe Bush today as an intensely disciplined and focused individual. He goes to bed early, rises early, clocks a brisk 7- to 8-minute mile in his daily runs and puts a premium on punctuality. Laura Bush said that she believed her husband has always had discipline he just didn't know it until he quit drinking.

    He also found a new serenity, those close to him say. "It was a transformation," recalled his youngest sibling, Dorothy Bush Koch. "It was not an overnight transformation, but it was when he became, when he found happiness in his life and himself we knew it right away. You could see a confidence. He's always had that bravado, but [this was] real confidence."

    Bush, for his part, looks to the future with equanimity. "I feel like saying, 'God's will be done,'" he said in an interview. "That if I win . . . I know what to do. If I don't win, so be it. So be it. . . . I've got this sense of come what may. I work hard, hopefully I'll be able to survive all the gossip and slings and arrows and all the scrutiny and the discussions and the questions.

    "And if it works, great. And I believe I can do the job. And if it doesn't work, that's just the way it goes, and I'll come back home and my wife'll love me, the dog'll love me, the cats will play like they don't but they really will."

    At 53, Bush crisscrosses America projecting a relaxed sense of who he is and why he wants to reach the White House. In personal as well as political terms, he has covered a great distance since he woke up muddy-headed on that July morning in Colorado. However easy it now looks, those close to him know that it has been a difficult journey.

    It has also been a journey propelled at key moments by the power, connections and good fortune of his family.

    By October 1986, newly sober and increasingly focused, Bush had received his share of the Harken deal in stock, at the time worth a little more than $312,000. The stock would ultimately become the collateral he used to purchase the Texas Rangers, a deal that last year landed him $14.9 million, providing him with the financial security to pursue the presidency. After Bush closed the Harken deal, he stayed in Midland and tried to help find jobs for all his employees. He then started commuting to Dallas, where he was a consultant to Harken, and began preparing to join his father's campaign for president.

    Finally on his way at 40, Bush headed back toward where he had begun as the scion of a political family, one infused with the possibilities of dynasty.

    Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.


    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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