Governor George Walker Bush of Texas is the son of President George Herbert Walker Bush, grandson of Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, direct descendant of President Franklin Pierce, and a thirteenth cousin, once removed, of Queen Elizabeth of England. Uncles and great-uncles were or are powers on Wall Street. As a child, he vacationed at a family compound in an enclave north of Palm Beach, Florida, along with families named Mellon, Doubleday, Ford, Roosevelt, Whitney, Vanderbilt, and Harriman.
His family’s seaside estate at Walker’s Point, near Kennebunkport, Maine, tempts the thought that the Bushes, in addition to more traditional properties, own a rather nice piece of the Atlantic Ocean. This pedigree is not mere background information; it is central to Bush’s life and his achievements. On his own, as three of the four recent biographies clearly tell us, he has achieved little. With the help of family and friends and an unparalleled network of loyal financial backers, he has led a prosperous life in the oil business, helped to run a baseball team, won the governorship of Texas, and become the leading contender for the Republican nomination for the presidency, all without much effort.
Bush’s spectacular career rebuts the notion that America has become a meritocracy, in which we are all born equal and then judged upon our intelligence, talent, creativity, or aggressiveness. Bush is an aristocrat. His successes are in one way or another a direct consequence of his name and family, and he has been exempt from the normal competition—academic, financial, professional, political—that confronts most Americans and sorts them on life’s ladder. He comes from that powerful and half-hidden world whose most important question is not “What do you know?” but “Who are your people?” On the basis of his own performance, he is more qualified to be King of England, through his father’s kinship with the Queen, than president.
Bush was a mediocre freshman in high school and yet won admission to Phillips Academy, Andover, one of the country’s most exclusive preparatory schools, because his father had gone there before him. He was a mediocre student at Andover, and yet won admission to his father’s alma mater, Yale, again as a “legacy.” He was a mediocre student at Yale and yet won admission to the Harvard Business School. When he decided to fulfill his military obligation during the Vietnam War by entering the Texas Air National Guard, he was promptly accepted and granted a lieutenant’s commission after a mere five weeks of basic training.
He entered the oil business with between $13,000 and $20,000 of a family trust fund and failed at it—only to be bailed out repeatedly by friendly investors who were willing to lose money in exchange for association with the name Bush. He was invited to join a partnership of investors who needed him as a front man for their purchase of the Texas Rangers baseball team. He had to borrow his own share of the investment, and then watched his $600,000 stake turn into $15 million as the city of Arlington, Texas, built the team a new stadium with public money.
He ran for Congress from a West Texas district in 1978 and lost, despite no lack of funds from family and oil-business cronies. When he ran for the governorship of Texas in 1994, he turned for help to Don Carter, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, who, in a taste of things to come, wrote out a check for $100,000. And when he decided to run for president in 1999, he raised so much money so quickly—more than $60 million—that he was immune to the normal political risk that early defeats in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries might put him out of the race. Bush has enough money to survive right through to the Republican convention in Philadelphia even in the unlikely event that he loses every single primary.
In his own mind, it seems, he is a superachiever. He brags that as governor of Texas, one of the weaker governorships in the country, he presides over the world’s eleventh-largest economy. His autobiography contains no mention of the financial angels who repeatedly bailed out his failing oil ventures. In his version of events, he was the guiding force behind the purchase of the Texas Rangers, rather than the public face of the behind-the-scenes money men who actually put the deal together. He seems to have no sense that others have prepared the way for him, protected him, and picked up the pieces when he failed. As former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower said of Bush père, “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”
Thus we see such incongruities as George W. Bush, the “legacy” admission to Andover and Yale, opposing affirmative action, which would extend preferences similar to those that benefited him to minority students and women. We learn that he regarded price controls on American natural gas as European-style socialism, yet that he was perfectly willing to use the state’s power to seize property below market value in order to build a new stadium for his baseball team. We contrast his demand for high intellectual standards among minority students with his observation after a visit to China: “Every bicycle looked the same.” And we read of his insistence on the importance of individual achievement and personal responsibility—in a ghost-written autobiography.
And yet it is not that simple. George W. Bush is an intelligent man, with a formidable memory, enormous charm, and a sense of humor. His political record as governor on occasion supports his claim to be a “compassionate conservative,” even though he has already authorized more than a hundred executions. Within the Texas Republican Party, especially since it has been seized by Christian conservatives, he is a moderate—and to some of his fellow Texans, a dangerous liberal with suspicious ties, through his father, to the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. Molly Ivins, who can be scathingly critical of him, credits him with caring deeply about the reading scores of minority students. His autobiography records that as governor he worked out new ways to regulate tight-fisted health maintenance organizations.
Ironically, in none of the four books under review is there adequate attention to one of his finest moments, when as governor of Texas he stood up to the national Republican Party and refused to go along with a campaign to bar children of illegal immigrants from the public schools. If he has succeeded because of his aristocratic advantages, he has also on occasion displayed an aristocrat’s sense of noblesse oblige.
George Walker Bush was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on July 6, 1946, while his father was a Yale undergraduate, studying on the GI Bill. His father and mother, Barbara, had been married while barely out of their teens, in January 1945, after the elder Bush returned from service as a navy pilot in the South Pacific. Two years after his son was born, the elder George Bush graduated from Yale and set out for the Texas oil fields in a deliberate effort to avoid his own father’s lifestyle, a 9-to-5 job in the financial district and a commute to the suburbs.
George W. Bush has done just the opposite. He has tried in every way to duplicate his father’s life, following his path to Andover and Yale, becoming a fighter pilot, entering the oil business, and running for public office. Both he and his father are known for remembering names and writing thank-you notes. In an uncharacteristically cruel reference to his looks, Elizabeth Mitchell, in her book W, calls George W. Bush “the monkey version of his father, with no unkindness meant to George W. or simians.” But the same could be said of his life; his résumé tracks his father’s so closely, and is peopled by so many of the same friends and benefactors, that at times it is difficult to keep their intertwined life stories apart. The younger Bush’s life is a slightly distorted, somewhat less attractive copy of his father’s. In one important way are they different: the elder Bush was so intimidated by his mother, Dorothy, against bragging that he famously drops the very word “I” from many of his sentences lest he seem boastful. George W. claims credit for every success he was even remotely near.
Young Bush lived what he regards as a typical middle-class suburban life in Midland, Texas, which is true if you disregard the small point that by the time he was ten, his father was a millionaire (at a time, in the mid-1950s, when being a millionaire meant much more than it does today). At seven, he suffered the traumatic loss of his younger sister, Robin, to leukemia. Although the Bush family have made much of their supposedly idyllic family life, in fact the senior Bush was absent much of the time on his various oil ventures or political explorations. He became a PTA leader, for example, but never showed up at his own son’s Little League games, although Barbara was a regular spectator.
After a year in private high school George W. was shipped off to Andover, where he quickly became a social leader. Unlike his father, who led the Yale team to a regional championship, George W. Bush was not particularly good at sports, and again unlike his father, who won a Phi Beta Kappa key at Yale, he was a slack student. An Andover counselor warned him not to expect admission to Yale, but Bush applied anyway and was accepted—becoming the third generation of his family to attend the university.
In 1964, his father sought a Senate seat from Texas as a Goldwater conservative, but was defeated in the tide that carried Lyndon B. Johnson to victory. In a famous incident, George W. Bush recalls running into the Yale chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, who supposedly told him, “I know your father. Frankly, he was beaten by a better man.” Elizabeth Mitchell reports this story from Bush’s point of view; Bill Minutaglio says Coffin later wrote to Bush saying he could not remember the encounter and could not imagine himself making such a statement. Nevertheless, he asked Bush to forgive the incident, if it had occurred. Bush replied, “I believe my recollection is correct. But I also know time passes and I bear no ill will.”
Both the Mitchell and Minutaglio biographies are filled with tales of Bush’s prep school and college pranks, extracurricular capers, quips, and friendships. There is not much else to write about in those years. At Yale, he was resentful of what appeared to him East Coast arrogance, an odd grievance, perhaps, from one so privileged himself who followed his father and grandfather into the Skull and Bones secret society. He has complained, in later years especially, about the attitudes of his classmates Nelson Strowbridge Talbott III (now Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott) and Gary Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury who so cuttingly questioned his father’s manhood in a series of comic strips. Bush narrowly escaped prosecution for two college pranks and was involved in a scandal over the branding of pledges at his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon (also the fraternity of his father and of former Vice President Dan Quayle). He defended the practice, saying the brands were no worse than a cigarette burn.