Tragedy Created Bush Mother-Son Bond
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 26, 1999; Page A1
Second of seven articles
On a fall day in 1953, George and Barbara Bush drove their green Oldsmobile up the gravel driveway at Sam Houston Elementary School in Midland, Tex., looking for their oldest child. George W. Bush and a friend from second grade were lugging a Victrola from their classroom to the principal's office when he spotted his parents' car. He was sure his little sister was in the back seat.
"He went running back to the teacher and said, 'I've got to go. My mother and father and Robin are here,' " Barbara Bush, the former first lady, recalled in a recent interview.
"I run over to the car," said George W., remembering the same moment, "and there's no Robin."
"That's when we told him," his mother said. "In the car."
Two days earlier, Pauline Robinson Bush – "Robin" – had died in New York of leukemia, two months shy of her fourth birthday. Her big brother had known she was sick but never dreamed she was dying. "Why didn't you tell me?" Bush repeatedly asked his parents, and for years the question would resonate in the Bush family.
At age 7, Bush found himself surrounded by bewildering grief. His parents were not even 30 years old, trying to move past a devastating loss while raising George W. and his baby brother Jeb.
The death left indelible scars on the Bushes. Barbara Bush still has trouble talking about her daughter's death. Her husband would cite the experience when he ran for president and was asked if he had ever known hardship. George W.'s eyes welled with tears when discussing his sister in an interview in May.
A child's death reverberates in a family in unexpected ways. For the Bushes, among other consequences, the loss of Robin helped to establish and deepen an enduring and powerful link between Barbara Bush and her oldest son. It was during his childhood in Midland and Houston, the years he spent at home before going to boarding school at age 15, that George W. in many ways became his mother's son.
When Robin had become sick, it was Bush's father who wore his anguish openly, who had to leave the room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering cancer center each time Robin had another transfusion. And it was Barbara Bush who stayed resolutely at their daughter's side in New York, her strength belied only by her hair, which at age 28 began to turn white.
After the couple returned to Midland, Barbara plunged into despair. Her husband tried his best to cheer her up. But he was pulled away by the demands of building an oil business, working long days and traveling frequently. That left Barbara alone with her two children for long stretches. Of the two boys, only George understood what had happened.
As the gloom began to lift from the Bushes' three-bedroom frame house on West Ohio Street, it was their ebullient cutup of a son who, despite his own pain, helped drive it away – joking, playing, working hard to make his mother smile again. Time helped salve Barbara Bush's pain, but so did "Georgie."
Barbara Bush once said it didn't dawn on her what was happening until one day when she heard her son tell a friend that he couldn't come out because he had to play with his mother, who was lonely. "I was thinking, 'Well, I'm being there for him,' " she recalled. "But the truth was he was being there for me."
Elsie Walker, a Bush cousin who lost one of her own sisters, put it this way: "You look around and see your parents suffering so deeply and try to be cheerful and funny, and you end up becoming a bit of a clown."
As part of a family famously allergic to engaging in public introspection, Bush is reluctant to talk about the forces that shaped him. He acknowledges, of course, that his sister's death was profoundly sad for him and his parents, but he also sees the sources of his personality as "more complex than one or two events." Few would argue with that assessment.
Yet some close to the Bushes do see the death of his sister as a singular event in George W.'s childhood, helping to define him and how he would deal with the world. Life would be full of humor and driven by chance. And it would be something approached with a certain fatalism. Even as an adolescent, Bush would tell his friends, "You think your life is so good and everything is perfect; then something like this happens and nothing is the same," recalls John Kidde, a high school classmate.
This attitude would ultimately liberate Bush to live his life in the present, "in chapters" as his brother Marvin would say, seizing opportunities as they came without fretting about what tomorrow might bring.
From his mother he would pick up a verve that echoes in the traits that have made Bush a more lively and comfortable politician than his father. His large-sized personality, his blunt outspokenness, his irreverence and readiness with a joke drew friends and allies to him long before he sought office, then became an important source of success once he entered politics.
From the time he was a boy, the intuitive, spontaneous son seemed very different from his guarded, dignified, overachieving father. When members of the extended Bush family gathered in Maine in the summers of George W.'s youth, the physical resemblance they noticed was to George, but the spirit was all Bar, headstrong and quick-witted. Mother and son, as one relative put it, were "always in your face."
"I don't think George W. would ever be sassy or sarcastic with his father and if he was, it would be within the foul lines," said cousin John Ellis. "But Bar will say to George W. something like, 'Oh, don't be ridiculous,' and they're off to the races."
Nor have George W. and his mother ever gotten out of each other's faces. Even when her son was married and in his forties and on the cusp of his political career, Barbara did not hesitate to let him know what she thought.
Bush spent hours thinking and talking about running for governor of Texas in 1990, encouraged by the enthusiasm of his friends. Barbara Bush thought he should stick to running the Texas Rangers, the baseball team he had just bought with a group of other investors. "When you make a major commitment like that, I think maybe you won't be running for governor," she told a group of reporters at the White House in 1989, who lost no time relaying her remarks to her son.
As he fielded calls from the reporters, Bush tried to make light of his mother's remarks. But he was privately irked, according to a source who saw him that day. As it happened, it would be four years before he ran for governor.
A relationship of affectionate tension and banter, it has its origins in the Texas of the 1950s, when George W. was a boy coming of age and Barbara a young mother coping with the unexpected trials of early adulthood.
A Young Couple Makes a New Beginning in Oil Country
For George and Barbara Bush, moving to Texas in 1948 was an adventure – a new start in a place far different than the affluent New York suburbs where they had grown up. It was a chance, as Barbara once put it, to get out from under the "parental gaze."
She the daughter of a New York publishing executive, he the son of a Wall Street investment banker, the Bushes had met in 1941 at a country club dance in Greenwich, Conn., became engaged in the summer of 1943 and were married in 1945. Their first son, George Walker Bush, was born in New Haven on July 6, 1946, as his father was finishing up at Yale.
Two years later, mother and son would make a 12-hour cross-country flight together to meet George W.'s father in Odessa, where the family took an apartment in a shotgun house with a bathroom shared with two prostitutes next door. The senior Bush had just started as a $375-a-month oil drilling equipment clerk for a company owned by the father of a Yale classmate. After a brief transfer to California, where Robin was born, the family settled in the more white-collar town of Midland.
An oil boom was underway in West Texas, drawing the bold and adventuresome. In late 1950, Bush's father became an independent oil man, joining up with a neighbor to scout out land that had potential and negotiate deals with the owners for shares of the mineral rights. Then in 1953, with new partners, Bush started Zapata Petroleum Corp., named somewhat incongruously after the Mexican revolutionary played by Marlon Brando in a popular movie of the time.
The Bush family's first real home was a tiny, matchbox-shaped house in a low-income section of town called "Easter Egg Row" – so named because the structures were identical except for their bright Easter colors. George W.'s father bought their bright blue, two-bedroom edition for $7,500 with an FHA mortgage. Two moves later, as Zapata succeeded, they settled in a sprawling rambler with a pool.
"Moved from the shotgun to a duplex apartment to a house and lived the dream," Bush's father would recount in accepting his party's presidential nomination at the 1988 Republican convention. "High school football on Friday night, Little League, neighborhood barbecue."
George W. was the only one of the living Bush children not born in Texas, but the one who would become the truest Texan, who had memories of the oil business, of sleeping in the back seat of the station wagon while his father waited for a well to come in.
For George W., life in Midland was something of an idyll, attending Sam Houston Elementary School, riding his bike, playing baseball and engaging in perilous acrobatics beneath the high school stadium. He is remembered as a hyper, precocious youngster, always on stage, always the center of attention.
As one family member recalled: "My memories of George are of his performing and his parents laughing."
Friends recall a pint-size pied piper they called "Bushtail," always leading his gang on adventures.
"We'd crawl underneath the stadium and get up on the cross bars," Bill Sallee, a boyhood friend, remembered. "We used to swing up there like a couple of monkeys. If anybody had ever slipped, they'd have killed themselves. Hell, you were a story and a half up. There were light poles that go around the stadium. We climbed all over those things, too."
"We were always playing – after school, during recess," recalled another childhood pal, Mike Proctor. "We'd head for the appropriate ball field ... pick teams and play. He'd jump out there to be captain."
Bush was raised in an upper-middle-class home, but the Bush kids never considered themselves wealthy. His father sold his shares of Zapata for $1 million in 1966, but that year, at 42, he embarked on a career in public service. The children were told bluntly that they should expect to eventually earn their own way. Barbara Bush said in an interview that she did persuade her husband to set up education trusts for the children at the time, fearing that with his move into politics, they would "never be able to do anything for our children."
It was just a few weeks after Jeb was born in February 1953 that the Bushes began to realize something was wrong with Robin. She had been strangely exhausted, telling her mother one morning she couldn't decide what to do that day – lie down and read or lie down and watch cars go by outside. Blood tests showed she had advanced leukemia – a disease that today might well be curable.
Leaving their sons with friends, the Bushes immediately took Robin to New York, where an uncle, John Walker, was a renowned surgeon and president of Memorial Sloan-Ketteringcancer hospital.
The ensuing months were a blur of cross-country trips and sadness. George W.'s father flew back and forth to New York on weekends while working long hours at Zapata. Barbara Bush remained in New York.
By October, Robin was dead.
Even after all these years, Barbara Bush still questions the decision not to tell her son that Robin was dying. "I don't know if that was right or wrong. I mean, I really don't, but I know he said to me several times, 'You know, why didn't you tell me?' " she said. "Well, it wouldn't have made a difference."
She and her husband feared that the young boy might inadvertently let Robin know she was gravely ill, but mostly, she said, they didn't want to burden him. "We thought he was too young to cope with it," she said.
After Robin's death, the pain that hung over the house was often unspoken, according to Randall Roden, a childhood friend of George W. Once, while Roden was spending the night, Bush had a bad dream and his mother rushed in to comfort him.
"I knew what it was about – he had nightmares for some period of time," said Roden. "It was one of the most realistic experiences I have ever had about death and I am certain it had a profound effect on him because it had a profound effect on me."
It bothered Barbara Bush that friends never mentioned Robin, no doubt because they wanted to spare her and her husband's feelings. But the silence rankled. Finally, as she tells the story, George W. helped break the ice, when one day at a football game he told his father that he wished he were Robin.
Friends who were sitting with Bush and his father froze in embarrassment, and his father asked him why he said it. "I bet she can see the game better from up there than we can here," his son replied.
Mother Sets the Rules,
Makes Way in the World
Even as a young man, George W.'s father had an exalted place in his family. Graced with good looks, athletic ability and proper ambition, "Poppy" Bush – a nickname bestowed because his grandfather George Herbert Walker was called "Pop" – was held up as a role model. Barbara Bush treated her husband with similar deference, insulating the first man she had ever kissed from the nagging and tiresome issues that naturally consume a growing family. Two more sons were born – Neil in 1955 and Marvin in 1956 – and finally, in 1959, Dorothy, filling a void left by the daughter her husband so deeply missed.
It was Barbara Bush who set the rules and became the authority figure, while her husband was held up as a much-revered statesman-like figure among the children. It was Barbara who drove the car pools, supervised the homework and piled five kids in a car with a housekeeper for the grueling cross-country trips to Kennebunkport for summer vacation.
It was a time when fathers had relatively little to do with raising their children, so George W.'s father was hardly conspicuous among the other Midland oilmen by his frequent travel and hard work. Joe O'Neill, a boyhood friend, recalls that some weekends George W.'s father, the former Yale baseball captain, would help coach the neighborhood boys, impressing them mightily by leaning forward to catch fly balls with his glove behind his back.
But, said Mike Proctor, another childhood friend, "The one who was always there was Barbara Bush."
Much later, Barbara Bush made clear the experience was not always a happy one. "This was a period, for me," she said, "of long days and short years; of diapers, runny noses, earaches, more Little League games than you could believe possible, tonsils, and those unscheduled races to the hospital emergency room, Sunday school and church, of hours of urging homework, short chubby arms around your neck and sticky kisses; and experiencing bumpy moments – not many, but a few – of feeling that I'd never, ever be able to have fun again; and coping with the feeling that George Bush, in his excitement of starting a small company and traveling around the world, was having a lot of fun."
In 1959, the Bushes finally pulled up stakes from Midland and moved to Houston. George W. had just finished the seventh grade at San Jacinto Junior High, where he played quarterback, ran for class president – and won. Bush has often invoked the school as proof of his Texas pedigree, compared to that of his father. "He went to Greenwich Country Day and I went to San Jacinto Junior High," Bush likes to say. What he doesn't say is that he spent just one year at the school – his last year in public education.
The Bushes enrolled their oldest son at the Kinkaid School, a private academy in one of the nation's wealthiest suburbs, an exclusive Houston enclave called Piney Point Village. The newly arrived eighth-grader made an easy transition. He was quickly elected a class officer and made the school football team. One classmate remembers him as a "classic good old boy type" – easygoing and swaggering, with a gift for making friends.
Even though Bush would live in Houston full time for only two years, he managed to amass a large group of friends who would carry him through holidays and summers. Sundays were the big socializing day, when the Bushes would open their home to neighborhood families for hamburgers and hot dogs and endless backyard softball games.
Barbara Bush always had a jigsaw puzzle going at the end of the living room, which she brilliantly used to rope her children – and the children of others – into conversation. "Come on down here, and help work on this," she would say to an awkward teenager who stumbled into the house.
"Before you knew it," a family friend recalled, "you were working on the puzzle, then talking about the puzzle and then telling her all your problems."
But she was also "the enforcer," as her children described it, the parent most concerned with discipline and rules. Barbara Bush never subscribed to the "wait till your father gets home" school. "I don't think that's any good," she said. "I don't think your husband comes home, exhausted from work, and you say, 'Well, go sock Marvin.' "
More often than not it was her oldest son who was the offender. "I think one of the things I'm most grateful to George for is that he certainly blazed the path for those of us who followed," said his brother Marvin.
Obnoxious behavior on Bush's part drew swift retribution, according to Douglas Hannah, an old friend. When the three of them played a round of golf one summer in high school, Barbara Bush admonished her son to stop swearing – and then banished him from the game after he ignored her warnings. Hannah and Barbara Bush played out 16 holes while Bush cooled his heels in the car.
Bush's friends recall his father being present mostly on weekends, frequently running the grill. But as his father's career became all-consuming, the oldest son – only 20 years younger than his parents – came to function as a third adult in the household, and something of a young uncle to the other children.
Once, in the mid-1960s in Houston, when his father was out of town, he drove his mother to the hospital when she was having a miscarriage.
Halfway there, Barbara Bush told her son, "I don't think I'll be able to get out of the car."
"I'll take you to the emergency room, don't worry," her son assured her.
"He picked me up the next day. ... He talked to me in the car and he said, 'Don't you think we ought to talk about this before you have more children?' " his mother recalled.
To his much younger brothers and sisters Bush seemed his own force of nature, an exciting, unpredictable hurricane who could make any family gathering an event. "We all idolized him," said sister Doro Bush Koch. "He was always such fun and wild, you always wanted to be with him because he was always daring. ... He was on the edge."
"We'd go out in the boat at night [in Kennebunkport] and that was always an adventure. Now, if we went out in the boat at night with Neil, you know that was fine because he's a boatsman, my brother Neil, and he knew everything about it – and still does. George, on the other hand, it was more of a kind of a wild risky thing because we're not sure that he, you know, could manage the boat as well."
As the handsome son of a rising business and civic figure in Houston, George W. was always on the list for holiday balls and the social rituals of what was essentially a traditional southern town. But those who remember him from his early teen years recall a young man devoid of polish and pretense, spurning "snobs," sneering at anything that resembled ostentation.
"It was almost a reverse snobbery," recalled Lacey Neuhaus Dorn, Bush's neighbor in the early '60s. "He just hated the glitz. ... If someone had a fancy car, he'd make a comment that it was too fancy for his blood."
But as George Herbert Walker Bush's first-born, there were some privileges that he could not turn down. Ninth grade would be his last year at Kinkaid. His parents decided that in the fall of 1961 he should continue his education at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., one of the nation's most exclusive and rigorous prep schools and his father's alma mater.
For the first time, Bush would feel the full weight of his father's illustrious past.
"I remember ... walking up the driveway at our old house in Houston," Bush recalled, "and my mother said, 'Congratulations, son, you got into Andover.' "
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Margot Williams contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company