George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine

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.

DKE was a booze and party fraternity, and Bush was a heavy drinker, an addiction he maintained until he turned forty. At one point, after driving home drunk with his younger brother Marvin, then fifteen, his father remonstrated with him. Bush challenged his father, “I hear you’re looking for me. You want to go mano a mano right here?” Although he has endured much speculation about whether he ever used drugs, there is no evidence in any of these four books that he ever did. There is no evidence, further, that he was ever in a time, place, or situation where drug use would have been more plausible than not. J.N. Hatfield, a freelance writer, published a sensational charge late last year that Bush had smoked marijuana and snorted cocaine while in Texas in the early 1970s. But he offered no evidence to back up the assertion (and some of his checkable “facts” proved to be false). Hatfield’s book, Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President, was swiftly withdrawn by St. Martin’s Press.

There are more serious controversies in George W. Bush’s life than drug use, none of them remotely criminal but all of them illuminating. The first centers upon his service in the Texas Air National Guard. Though the Vietnam War was raging while Bush was at Yale, he took no part in protests or even discussions. In his autobiography Bush gives the classic “hawk” explanation used by conservatives who managed to avoid fighting in the war: “We could not explain the mission, had no exit strategy, and did not seem to be fighting to win.” If those three missing conditions had been met, we may presume that Bush would have been trudging through the boonies along with Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Phil Gramm, Dan Quayle, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest of that blowhard army that shunned service in Vietnam because the war was not being fought hard enough.

But Bush was not without political passion during the turbulent Vietnam years. Minutaglio reports the following account from one of Bush’s fraternity brothers: “As he was standing shoulder to shoulder with him at the bar, Bush began railing about how the nation’s oil men were being strangled by some suggested tax-break variances in the oil-depletion allowance. The college fraternity brother remembers him growing heated as he built his argument in defense of the oilmen in Texas.”

Elizabeth Mitchell, whose book seems the most illuminating of the four under review, gives the fullest account of Bush’s acceptance into the National Guard, at a time when, according to some of its veterans, there was a long waiting list. By the time Bush graduated from Yale in 1968, his father was a congressman from Texas. A longtime family friend, Sidney Adger, called Ben Barnes, then the Democratic lieutenant governor of Texas. In a 1999 deposition Barnes testified that Adger asked him to intercede for young Bush. Barnes duly called the head of the guard, Brigadier General James M. Rose.

Bush and his father have seized upon this testimony as evidence that the elder Bush himself never interceded to get his son a coveted slot in the Guard. But in his interview with Lieutenant Colonel Walter B. Staudt, the young Bush said he wanted to fly “just like his daddy,” which surely would have invited the question, if Staudt had not already known the answer, “Just who is your daddy?” The story does not end there. Bush was commissioned as a second lieutenant in September 1968 after just five weeks of basic training, without even going through officer candidate school, and immediately embarked on pilot training. Curiously, in his autobiography, Bush fudges this extraordinarily swift promotion. “I spent 55 weeks on active duty, learning to fly, and graduated in December 1969. My dad pinned on my second lieutenant wings, a proud moment for both of us.” However, there is no such thing as “second lieutenant wings” in the US military. Second lieutenants receive gold bars; pilots get wings. Bush has somehow conflated the two. We know he did not actually write this book; it also appears he may not have read it.

He proved to be a competent pilot, and Mitchell informs us with a straight face that he flew patrols from Ellington Field, “scanning the Gulf Coast borders for enemy attacks and soaring over the oil fields of Texas to protect the refineries.”

Bush’s oil career similarly paralleled his father’s. His expertise was in raising money rather than in drilling for oil. Like his father, who was backed by his uncle Herbert Walker, the young George W. Bush used an uncle, Jonathan Bush, to assemble investors for his first ventures. Unlike his father, however, George W. Bush never found much oil. No matter; the domestic oil industry of the 1970s made much of its money by drilling holes in the tax code rather than in the ground. His first company, called Arbusto (Spanish for “bush”), was, in Minutaglio’s words, “a possible win-win company; even if no oil gurgled up, it could always take big tax write-offs.”

His uncle Jonathan agreed that actually finding oil was not all that important. “In those days, it behooved you to drill,” Jonathan Bush told Minutaglio. “You didn’t have to do terribly well in order to do well because you got so many write-offs. So it was an attractive way to invest money and save taxes.” Arbusto’s secretary recalled, “I really don’t recall us ever drilling a well and making anything all that great.”

Nevertheless, Arbusto did poorly. Then an angel appeared. Philip Uzielli, a friend of James A. Baker III (who had managed George Bush’s unsuccessful 1980 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination), bought 10 percent of Arbusto for $1 million. At the time, the entire company had a book value of only $382,376, both Mitchell and Molly Ivins relate, so Uzielli spent his $1 million for stock worth just $38,237.60. He wound up losing his money. Even with Uzielli’s cash injection and other money, including some from his grandmother, Bush’s oil company was sinking. Rescue came again, this time from a benefactor named Bill DeWitt Jr., who merged his company, Spectrum 7, with Bush’s. The bottom line from this merger is that Bush, who had invested $102,000, received a payback of $362,000. His various backers, who had put up $4.66 million, received only $1.54 million—but didn’t mind because of the tax write-offs.

Then Spectrum 7, too, started to go belly up. Along came yet another savior, Harken Energy, paying Bush $530,000 in stock for a company that was facing foreclosure. Eventually, Harken too fell upon hard times. It won the right to drill for offshore oil in Bahrain just before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and threatened to control the Gulf’s oil reserves. This time, Bush managed to get out just before the stock price dropped, leaving his partners and other stockholders to take the loss when Harken’s stock plunged.

Practically everything Bush touched in the oil business turned to ashes, yet he always emerged both unscathed and, according to Mitchell, oblivious. “George W. never seemed to acknowledge adequately the role of the carpetlayers in his life,” she writes.

He had been able to raise the capital for Arbusto with the help of his Uncle Jonathan. Philip Uzielli, a good friend of James Baker, had bailed him out at the right time. He had been saved from fiscal ruin by the merger with Spectrum 7 that Paul Rea helped facilitate; and Harken had taken a gamble on George W. because of, among other reasons, the power of his family name. While George W. was a smart, well-liked boss and colleague, his insecurities prevented him from giving credit where credit was due.

George W. took time out from the oil business—but continued to earn $10,000 a month as a no-show consultant for Harken—to help his father win the presidency in 1988. He was a close adviser to his father, and after his election claimed credit for firing the President’s curmudgeonly chief of staff John Sununu. According to Mitchell, however, even that is an exaggeration of his role. The actual bad news was delivered to Sununu by his own deputy, Andrew Card, after Card had a talk with the President.

George W. Bush returned to Texas to be recruited as a partner in a consortium that wanted to buy the Texas Rangers baseball team. In Bush’s version, he assembled the investors to purchase the team. Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth said, however, that the investors—plus himself and American League Commissioner Bobby Brown—and not Bush had put the deal together. Bush quickly became the public face of the team, sitting in a front-row seat beside the Rangers dugout and acting as cheerleader. Ownership of the Rangers was a spectacular financial success after the city of Arlington, Texas, agreed to build a new stadium with public funds and turn it over to the team essentially free. Ivins quotes a critic who describes Bush, in this venture, as “a welfare recipient.” When Bush eventually sold his share, he pocketed $15 million on an initial investment of over $600,000 after just eight years.

Purchase of the Rangers was designed to increase Bush’s visibility in Texas so that, like his father, he could go into politics. He had run for Congress from a Lubbock-Midland district in 1978 and lost to Kent Hance, then a Democrat. When he considered running for governor of Texas in 1990, his plight was made clear to him by a female Republican pollster, who told him, according to Minutaglio: “George, everybody likes you, but you haven’t done anything. You need to go out in the world and do something, the way your father did when he left Connecticut and the protection of his family. You just haven’t done shit. You’re a Bush and that’s all.”

Bush’s thin claim to qualification to be president rests on his service as governor of Texas, a constitutionally weak job—his powers are shared with the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House—that is apparently not even a full-time occupation. According to Mitchell, Bush has spent many an afternoon playing solitaire on his computer. As of this writing, he has spent less time as governor, five years, than his rival for the Republican nomination, Senator John McCain of Arizona, spent in a North Vietnamese prison.

Molly Ivins provides a close-up look at Bush’s insider financial dealings and governorship, and finds him to be a skilled and likable politician, far more at home in Texas and with Texas’s peculiar back-slapping, guffawing ways than his father ever was. She challenges his claims of having enacted a major cut in property taxes by pointing out that local school districts promptly raised their own rates to make up for the lost revenues.

In view of his background, it is not surprising to find that Bush has been a protector of big business, championing laws that make it harder to sue corporations and protecting his state’s polluting industries from environmental regulations. Ivins calls him punitive toward welfare recipients and oblivious of children’s health needs. Summing up one convoluted episode concerning health care, she writes, “In straightforward, nonbureaucratic English, because he is running for president, George Bush attempted to (1) bar 200,000 children from a low-cost federal-state health-insurance program, and (2) discourage poor children from receiving free health care to which they are entitled under federal law.”

Bush’s greatest controversy as governor was his refusal to halt the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, who murdered two people and then found Christianity while on death row. A worldwide campaign, including appeals from the Pope and the Reverend Pat Robertson, attempted to save her from becoming the first woman executed in Texas in the modern era. Under Texas law, Bush says in his autobiography, he was permitted only to give her a single thirty-day reprieve; he could not, he claims, commute her sentence. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which could have spared her, refused to do so, and the courts granted no relief. Bush appears to have been anguished by the decision. One of his daughters opposed him on it. Though a nominal Methodist, he has consistently disregarded his church’s opposition to capital punishment.

But Bush’s worst political moment came after Tucker’s execution, when in an interview with Talk magazine, he mocked her final pleas for life. Tucker Carlson, a conservative writer with no apparent reason to damage Bush, asked the governor to describe what Karla Faye Tucker had said in a “from death row” interview on the Larry King Live television show.

“‘Please,’ Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, ‘don’t kill me,”‘ Carlson reported. “I must look shocked—ridiculing the pleas of a condemned prisoner who has since been executed seems odd and cruel, even for someone as militantly anti-crime as Bush—because he immediately stops smirking.”

What can be said in favor of his governorship? Bush has pursued a personal campaign for improving literacy for young people and has also made genuine efforts to “reach out,” at least rhetorically, to black and Hispanic voters. Even though largely Hispanic south Texas is one of America’s great blighted areas, he nearly won a majority of Hispanic votes in his astonishing 69 percent reelection in 1998 and even picked up 27 percent of the black vote. In Texas, his brand of politics clearly works.

Ivins and her coauthor Lou Dubose are adept at sorting through the intricacies of Bush’s oil deals, the Texas Rangers baseball transactions, and the power balance between Texas’s weak governorship and powerful legislature. Ivins has both a penetrating mind and a light touch, but some of her mannerisms—like repeatedly writing about the “oil bidness”—become cloying, even to her. She defends the spelling of “bidness” in a footnote by informing us that this is how the word is actually pronounced. Yes, and Texans also tell us they have let Chrahst into thur horts, but we need not beat it to death.

Of these four books, the biographies by Minutaglio and Mitchell are excellent, especially when we consider that their subject would be hard put to complete a legitimate full-page resume without padding it. Bush’s autobiography, written by his communications director, Karen Hughes, is a slapdash affair, filled with homilies about love and family while never acknowledging all the benefactors who have greased Bush’s way through life. It contains many excerpts from his speeches and is strewn with compliments to the various people he has named to government office. For all their cold-eyed scrutiny, Ivins, Mitchell, and Minutaglio do a better job of making Bush seem like a human being than his own autobiography does.

On the basis of the evidence, there is nothing in any of these books that appears to qualify Bush for the presidency, with the exception of his ability to win votes in Texas and raise money from big-ticket contributors. He is energetic, friendly, and a natural cheerleader. He is certainly not stupid, but when we consider his remarkable energy as a campaigner he appears to be unaccountably lazy in other respects. Although his father was envoy to China, ambassador to the United Nations, vice president for eight years, and president for four, George W. Bush seems not to have been paying much attention to the substance of his own father’s job. He is currently learning to recite the lines being fed to him by a team of foreign-policy advisers, many of them inherited from his father’s administration who now say a Restoration is at hand.

Given his lack of national political experience, Bush may be at the mercy of such advisers. He has gotten some of his stock responses down by rote, but in a television interview on January 23, as he answered a barrage of questions, he appeared completely confident—and deeply interested—in only one issue: a defense of the intangible-drilling cost tax deduction for investors in the oil industry.

On other issues, he seems much less sure-footed and, as he campaigned across Iowa in January, he offered proposals that answered the various demands of conservative Republicans without seeming to realize that they could be contradictory. For example, he threatened to “take out” any weapons of mass destruction that Iraq deploys, which satisfies Republican hawks. Yet if he is willing to react to such threats with preemptive strikes, why is he also advocating a Star Wars missile defense? A preemptive strike on missile launchers would be far cheaper and safer than the multibillion-dollar Star Wars missile defense, which has yet to pass an operational test. Yet many conservatives are devoted to an antimissile shield, first advocated by Ronald Reagan, with almost religious fervor.

Bush also made it a point, while in Iowa, to appear at religious centers that provided community and social services. This served a two-fold purpose: first, to highlight his own religiosity in a state where 42 percent of Republican caucus voters identify themselves as born-again Christians, and second, to further a conservative antigovernment agenda by channeling federal money to “faith-based” service providers rather than using government itself to dispense assistance.

Use of faith-based service providers has become accepted orthodoxy in the Republican Party, and Bush has embraced it, even though it runs counter to his warnings in a speech at the Manhattan Institute last year that Republicans should not seem to be instinctively antigovernment. While many such organizations work efficiently, they are inherently exclusionary, if only because there may be many people in need who are unwilling to turn to a church or synagogue for help. In addition, these government-funded religious organizations appear to be somewhat less accountable to outside scrutiny and, as a recent scandal over day-care vouchers in New York shows, subject to corruption.

Bush clearly has no shortage of confidence. As he looked out at the possible Republican field for 2000 he could see former vice president Dan Quayle, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, Elizabeth Dole, and Steve Forbes and conclude correctly that he could outraise any of them. (John McCain had virtually no national name recognition until quite recently.) He is good at making a friendly impression on the campaign trail, though he is not a particularly good speechmaker. And he had been around his father’s White House often enough not to be daunted by the majesty of the presidency or by the quality of the people he met. He drilled his hole and, for the first time in his life, hit a gusher.

But Bush’s biggest vulnerability as he seeks the White House is that the more you look at him, the less you see. Every achievement, with the exception of his 1998 reelection as governor, evaporates on scrutiny, even minor ones like his supposed firing of Sununu or his vaunted Texas tax cuts. Perhaps it won’t matter. Maybe he understands the real world—a world in which the most important question is “Who are your people?”—better than the rest of us. In his own life, so much has been handed to him. Why not the presidency?

January 26, 2000

This Issue

February 24, 2000