Bush: So-So Student but a Campus Mover
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 27, 1999; Page A1
Third of seven articles
Eventually George Walker Bush came to love Andover, the New England prep school where he was sent by his parents in 1961, but that wasn't the way he felt when he arrived there as a 15-year-old who had never lived away from home. Rigorous, competitive and elite, Andover was an abrupt and scary change for a freewheeling young man raised in Texas.
"I was going from one world to another," Bush says now.
And the world he was entering was his father's.
Andover had marked the beginning of George Herbert Walker Bush's illustrious career. President of his senior class and captain of the baseball team, Poppy Bush cemented his place in Andover lore by ignoring the advice of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, the school's 1942 commencement speaker, that he and his classmates finish their education before thinking of military service. He enlisted instead, postponing college to become the youngest commissioned Navy pilot in World War II.
Nineteen years after his father's graduation from Andover, Bush was following in his footsteps, setting a pattern for much of his adult life. He would go on to Yale, like his father, and join Skull and Bones, his father's secret society. He would enlist in the military to become a pilot, go to Midland to seek his fortune in the oil business, run for Congress. He would even become engaged to be married at 20, the same age his father was when he married.
George W. would also anoint himself keeper of his father's honor in politics – or as he put it, his "loyalty enforcer." During the 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns, "Junior" – as he was sometimes called, inaccurately – made sure that everyone understood what he referred to as his "grenade" rule: If there was a grenade heading toward his father, their job was to jump on it.
Today, of course, Bush has embarked on trying to duplicate his father's greatest accomplishment – becoming president of the United States. Relationships between fathers and sons are never simple, but the close parallels between their two careers, Bush's fierce loyalty to his father and his thin skin whenever his father is criticized suggest something particularly complex.
"He had a huge influence on my life," Bush said in an interview. "And so does my mother and I presume that's part of what you're trying to figure out. ... I'm trying to figure it out, I guess."
In an interview in 1986, Bush more directly addressed the question of his relationship with his father, insisting that he had gotten over any sense of competition with him. "I worked it out because of my own strength but also because of him," Bush told Walt Harrington, a writer for the Washington Post magazine. "He never tried to mold me."
And, he added, he had gotten over his "self-pity" about "being George Bush's son."
In going east for his education, in following his father to Andover and Yale, Bush was following what seemed a simple road. But he would discover that his father's traditional formula for success did not necessarily fit him or the dramatically changing times in which he and his generation lived.
"You have to understand that Big George was the sun around which all the family galaxies rotated," said Elsie Walker, the former president's first cousin but a contemporary of George W.'s. "There was a lot of pressure on George to ... develop himself within that family context. That's why it took George a longer time to decide where he was going ... why he had to color himself in and figure out who he was for himself."
His years in prep school and college, from 1961 to 1968, were the first part of that process, but the process would be a long one.
"You get closer to your dad as you get older because you become more accomplished and cease putting your dad on a pedestal," says Joe O'Neill, one of Bush's closest friends. "But as George got older, his father kept getting higher in stature. The pedestal kept getting taller."
An Inauspicious Start
at School in Andover
Bush did not get off to an auspicious start when he arrived as at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., as a sophomore or "lower middler" in the school's vernacular. His first English grade – for an essay on emotions – was zero.
"As I remember, the impression of the red marker was so intense that it stuck out of the back side of the blue book," recalls Bush. With the help of a thesaurus his mother had given him, Bush had erroneously written about "lacerates" running down his cheek – instead of tears.
"And my math grades weren't all that good either to begin with. So I was struggling," said Bush.
Bush kept up with the work but was an average student who never made the honor roll, according to his year book. He was considered a solid athlete – he played varsity basketball and baseball his senior year – but he was never among the class stars.
"George and I were both witness to the fact that Andover has such an excellent academic system and even people at bottom tier – where I was and George was – can be okay and go to good colleges," said Don Vermeil, a classmate friend who went to Stanford.
Bush would later tell friends he was terrified of flunking out of Andover, afraid that he would embarrass himself and his family. Despite Bush's private fears and struggles, his classmates – all boys back then – saw him as a larger-than-life Texan – cocky and irrepressible. Within months of his arrival, Bush was seen as a campus mover, not on the strength his intellect or his athletic achievements, but by sheer force of personality. Bush was nicknamed "Lip" because he had an opinion on everything – and sometimes a tongue sharper than necessary.
Bush almost instinctively managed to always be in the center of the action, an ubiquitous, noisy presence at school events. He was the head football cheerleader his senior year, a member of his class rock-and-roll band, the Torqueys – not singing or playing an instrument but clapping – and organizer of the school's stickball league.
Stickball had always been played at Andover as a casual after-dinner pickup game, but Bush institutionalized it, his title duly noted in the school yearbook: "High Commissioner of Stickball." He organized campus teams into a league that included every last uncoordinated soul who wanted to play. For this, many a former nerd is still grateful.
One day, Alan Wofsey, a classmate who described himself as more bookish than athletic, unexpectedly caught a fly ball. Bush stopped the game and insisted everyone applaud for Wofsey.
"He was kind to the athletically challenged," said Wofsey, now a Pennsylvania psychiatrist.
No one thought of him as a class leader in the traditional sense or had any inkling of the career he would ultimately choose.
"I would never have guessed he would go into public service. He never showed the slightest inclination toward it," said Dan Cooper, the class president. "I would have bet money that he would have turned out to be an investment banker living in Greenwich and happily belonging to the country club."
Cooper, now head of a Boston multimedia company, was voted Most Respected and Done Most for Andover. Bush came in second for Big Man on Campus.
In his senior year, Bush applied to only two colleges, the University of Texas and Yale. Barbara Bush said in an interview that her son was determined to go to his father's alma mater, but knew it was not a sure thing that he would be admitted.
"George started hyping up the University of Texas, how he was going to love being a Longhorn," said Doug Hannah, a Houston friend who talked to Bush over Christmas holidays of his senior year. "My recollection was that he was shocked that he got into Yale."
Parties and Protests
at Yale University
When George W. Bush arrived in New Haven in the fall of 1964, his father was in the closing days of his first political race. Running against Sen. Ralph Yarborough, a liberal Democrat, he was the beneficiary of the largest Republican turnout in Texas history that November, but it was not enough. Riding the coattails of his fellow Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson, Yarborough defeated his Republican challenger by 300,000 votes.
Not long afterward, Bush decided to look up someone has father had told him he should go see, one of his contemporaries, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain later famous for his anti-war activities.
The greeting he received was hardly what he expected. "I knew your father," Bush remembers Coffin saying, "and your father lost to a better man."
Coffin says he has no recollection of his conversation with Bush and says if it happened, he was making a joke. But for Bush it was a jarring signal that Yale was going to be different, a place where he might not effortlessly fit in, where his father's values were not universally admired.
"You talk about a shattering blow," said Barbara Bush in a recent interview. "Not only to George, but shattering to us. And it was a very awful thing for a chaplain to say to a freshman at college, particularly if he might have wanted to have seen him in church. I'm not sure that George W. ever put his foot again [in the school chapel]."
There would be more adjustments for Bush. He entered his freshman class as a "legacy," the son of an alumnus and the scion of a long line of Yale men, not just his father but his grandfather and uncles. By the time he graduated in 1968, the Yale that Bush entered that fall would be transformed, caught up in the cultural upheaval and national tumult caused by the Vietnam War and the 1960s.
It was a confusing time even for the most directed and driven, and Bush was neither. As Yale changed around him, Bush clung to the traditions of an earlier era, boozy fraternity parties, secret societies and football weekends, while other classmates protested the war and challenged the political establishment that was waging it.
After freshman year, he gathered up his Andover pals and lived with the same group in Davenport College for three years. A mediocre student, Bush majored in history, with grades that were apparently not good enough for admission to the University of Texas law school, which turned him down as an in-state applicant two years after he graduated. Bush has not given permission to either Andover or Yale to release his grades.
Bush seems to have made little impression on his teachers. One of his former Yale professors, James Hutson, now chief of the Library of Congress's manuscript division, said he was "dumbfounded" that a transcript found in Bush's National Guard records, with grades deleted, showed that Bush had taken his seminar on 18th century American history, which had no more than 15 students.
Bush played intramural sports with gusto and was elected president of his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, which was known as the hardest drinking jock house on campus. Bush was an enthusiastic participant in the partying, according to sources, but none of the several dozen Yale contemporaries interviewed could recall him doing anything that would embarrass him today – or disqualify him from being president.
"George was a fraternity guy, but he wasn't Belushi in 'Animal House,' " recalled Calvin Hill, who was in DKE with Bush and went on to play professional football. "He went through that stage in his life with a lot of joy, but I don't remember George as a chronic drunk. He was a good-time guy. But he wasn't the guy hugging the commode at the end of the day."
Russ Walker, a former Yale classmate and friend from Oklahoma City, recalls returning from a party with Bush one night in college when the inebriated Bush dropped to the ground and started rolling in the middle of the street. "He literally rolled back to the dorm," recalled Walker. "It was raucous, teenage stuff that he perhaps grew out of later rather than sooner."
Several times Bush got into minor trouble. Once it was for pulling down a goal post at Princeton with a bunch of friends while celebrating a Yale football victory.
"The game ended and we all poured out and George was on the goal post. I remember it like it was yesterday," recalled his friend Clay Johnson. "We tore that sucker down and the campus police said, 'You all are coming with us.' So we went marching over to the campus police station and they said, 'You've got 10 minutes to get out of town.' "
On another occasion, Bush got caught with some friends "borrowing" a Christmas wreath from a store door in New Haven. He was arrested for disorderly conduct, but the charges were dropped.
Yale was still a men's school in Bush's day and friends do not recall Bush having a particularly exceptional personal life. "He was not a wild rapscallion when it came to girls and getting dates," said Terry Johnson, who lived with Bush for three years at Yale. "He was probably less successful than most actually."
In fact, his roommates were somewhat surprised when he came back from Christmas break junior year and announced he was engaged to Cathryn Wolfman, a student at Rice in her home town of Houston. Plans were made for a summer wedding, and like his parents had done 20 years earlier, the couple planned to live in New Haven during Bush's senior year. But the wedding was delayed and then called off. Wolfman, who eventually married and divorced, recently indicated that the relationship ended amicably but would not say who ended it.
Bush said the parting was mutual, and Barbara Bush said the couple "sort of panicked." But at least one friend of Bush's who was around him at the time says it was Wolfman who prolonged the engagement and then found someone else. "I assure you if she had stayed ... George would have married her," said Douglas Hannah, a Houston friend.
In the years since, Hannah said he could not help reflecting that Bush had gotten engaged at the same young age – 20 – at which his father had married. "The timing was almost identical," said Hannah.
Like his father, Bush could display good breeding along with his rough Texas edges. Several former classmates recall him going door to door with a sympathy card for a classmate from the West Indies – one of the few blacks on campus – who had lost his mother. Another classmate who hailed from a public school said he was struck by Bush's efforts to reach out beyond his social circle.
"George moved seamlessly among all the different groups," recalled Ken Cohen, today a dentist in Georgia. At the same time, Cohen noted, "he was a Bush and he had a sense of who he was ... his family tradition. He was not a rebel."
Lanny Davis, a Washington lawyer who was one of President Clinton's most visible defenders throughout various White House scandals, was a fraternity brother of Bush's and also lived in Davenport. During the height of the Clinton scandal last year, he suggested on national television that Bush might have some skeletons in his college closet, then quickly retracted the comment.
Davis says today he has only fond memories of Bush during those years and praised what he calls Bush's "analytical people skills."
"He could capture somebody's essence very quickly. What I remember is sitting around with George [and] listening to his analysis of people. He was extremely witty, which is something I don't see in his public persona today," said Davis.
"Was he a spoiled, wealthy kid? Absolutely not. And I say this as a Democrat who hopes he does not get elected. The one thing he conveyed was a lack of pretense. You never would have known who his father was, what kind family he came from. There was nothing hierarchical about him."
Still, at Yale as on other campuses around the country, an era was ending and fun-loving preppies were falling out of step. In the fall of 1967, when huge numbers of college students were marching on Washington to protest the Vietnam War, Bush was quoted in the New York Times defending the branding of fraternity pledges with a hot coat hanger, saying the resulting wounds resembled "only a cigarette burn."
In a recent interview, Bush said he has no recollection of any anti-war activity on campus during his undergraduate years – an extraordinary statement considering that Coffin was by then a leader of the national anti-war movement and was arrested for aiding and abetting draft resistance during Bush's senior year. Teach-ins about the war were popping up all over campus, anti-war petitions were circulating and first lady Lady Bird Johnson was greeted by a silent vigil of protesters when she came to Yale.
at Skull and Bones
By his senior year, Bush had found a port of refuge, a place where at least some of the outside world could be shut out. Skull and Bones was Yale's most elite secret society, priding itself on tapping 15 of the college's best and brightest in everything from academics to sports to music. Bush, by all accounts, was one of the "legacy" slots, a recruit whose father had been a Bonesman.
In his Bones class was the head of the Whiffenpoofs, Yale's noted choral group; a Rhodes scholar; an Olympic gold medal swimmer; the black captain of the soccer team; and a Jordanian and an Orthodox Jew who would generate lively discussions about the Mideast just months after the Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbors.
During his father's day, being tapped for Bones was considered one of the highest honors for a junior. By the late '60s, the clubs were held in disdain by many students. But for young Bush, it was the only place on campus where he could be free to speak his mind because every man who joined took a vow of secrecy not to disclose what was said behind the society's closed doors.
At Skull and Bones, each young man was required to present his "PH" or personal history for the group as well as his sexual history ("SH"). Twenty years before, his father had dramatically told of being shot down from a fighter plane during World War II and his anguish over his inability to save a crew member. According to members of Bones, the younger Bush's "PH" was less compelling, although all steadfastly refused to discuss its contents.
One source revealed that Bush was given the name "Temporary" as the secret name he was obligated to have for himself because he couldn't think of anything else. He never changed it.
In the windowless building on High Street that was the Bones clubhouse, the 15 seniors would gather every Thursday and Sunday night for dinner to discuss their love lives, chew over their hopes for the future, and more often than not, explore their tortured views about Vietnam and what they would do when they graduated and faced the draft.
One of the things that Bush often talked about was his family, especially his father. Several of the Bonesmen said Bush described him in "almost God-like" terms.
"I can remember one instance of him using his Dad as an example of resilience, saying my father had a great disappointment in not winning the Senate seat, but this is what you do, you bounce back. So you're down, you just get back up. His attitude was you gave it your best shot. And he used his dad to show this," recalled Robert McCallum, now an Atlanta lawyer.
Friends and family say that George W.'s views on the war must be looked at in the context of his relationship with his father, who was by then a Republican congressman who had publicly stated his support for U.S. war policy. In fact, George W. kept his own views and plans pertaining to the war close to the vest because of his father's political position.
Yale friends say Bush made it clear that he respected his father for standing up for what he believed, despite the anti-war movement.
"He believed that his father's position was correct – we're involved, so we should support the national effort rather than protest it," recalled Robert J. Dieter, a Yale roommate for four years who is now a clinical professor of law at the University of Colorado.
"I told him I was thinking about going to Canada and he said, 'That's [expletive], that's irresponsible,' " recalled Robert Birge, a fellow Bonesman.
"George was definitely not on the popular side of the war issue but he stood his ground," said Dieter. "Saying someone was conservative back then almost had a moral sting. I remember him coming back to the room and telling me that someone had been in his face about his father's position. There was a certain arrogance that the left conveyed back then. It was hurtful."
And the hurt did not heal. A few years back, when Bush's 25th reunion was coming up, his close friend Clay Johnson was fund-raising for the school and hit up his former roommate for a contribution. "I called him and said, 'How much do you want to give?' " recalled Johnson. "He said: 'I want to give nothing.' "
"The governor and Yale," said Johnson, "have been at odds."
Bush has never attended a Yale reunion in the 31 years since he graduated and has done little to foster any continuing relationship with the school, even rejecting entreaties to write personal essays to update the class book.
He has told friends that he could not wait to leave the place because of the "intellectual snobbery." But in recent years, his disaffection with the school could be traced to the way Yale had treated his father.
Bush said in an interview that he was "irritated" that Yale didn't acknowledge his father's achievements with an honorary degree until 1991 – after its famous alumnus had served as vice president for eight years and as president for three. But under prodding, Bush eventually gave some money to the school, not because of his affection for Yale but because of the friends he made there, many of whom are now supporting his presidential effort.
As his senior year wound down during the spring of 1968, evidence of change at Yale was everywhere. So few tickets to the senior prom were sold that the high-priced band had to be canceled. Dick Gregory showed up, unshaven, as the speaker for the senior dinner, and spoke of class inequality. Some students walked out.
When graduation and its accompanying festivities finally came, Bush was disappointed that his busy father could attend for only an hour or two.
"He hung out with my family for most of the two days," Johnson recalls. "I remember as his dad left, he made some comment about [wishing his] dad didn't have these other obligations. 'I wish, it would have been great if my dad could have been here during the whole time.'
"It wasn't said in passing," said Johnson. "Everybody wants their family there sharing with them. ... He's very aware of the toll that public service takes on the family members."
Bush said he doesn't recall the incident.
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Margot Williams contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company