Matured and settled down but still ”The Bombastic Bushkin”
MIDLAND, Texas – Restless as tumbleweed and rolling toward age 30 without a career, George W. Bush headed back to the spunky West Texas boomtown of his childhood. Maybe in Midland he could tap a gusher and finally sink some roots.
He brought his father’s sterling name, degrees from Yale and Harvard, some $13,000 left in his trust fund, and his strongest personal asset – an exuberant charm spiked with wisecracks.
”He walked into the office and he hadn’t changed a bit, the same impish George,” recalled Joe O’Neill, a childhood friend. ”He had a conversation with every secretary on the way back to me. He knew everybody in the office by the time he left.”
Bush never found much oil in Texas, but he slowly found his way. He married and fathered twin girls, quit drinking, began studying Scripture, and made his an unsuccessful foray into the family business by running for Congress.
He learned to court friends and political supporters of his father, the vice president. And he hooked up with the oil investors who would eventually help him become managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Bush used the Rangers post to cultivate celebrity status and prepare for a gutsy, winning challenge to Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in 1994. The Rangers deal also made him a multimillionaire.
He’s clearly wised up, settled down. Yet friends say Gov. George W. Bush, the runaway front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, isn’t that different from ”The Bombastic Bushkin” who stormed the oil fields in 1975.
He’s impatient and super-competitive, whether at Scrabble or golf or politics. He’s physical, quick to drape his arm around a stranger or grab a friend in a headlock. And he’s blunt – ”the son who pulls no punches and tells it like he thinks it is,” according to Barbara Bush. He’s ”sort of gruff,” his wife concedes, and it can be intimidating.
He’s also irreverent – the class clown in his Methodist adult Sunday school. Asked what word he most associated with Christmas, Bush answered ”Santa Claus.” When his mother’s cocker spaniel died, Bush greeted her with, ”I’m so sorry, doggone it.” He showed up at a fancy costume party as Gandhi, wearing orange body paint and a droopy white sheet that ”looked like he was walking around in a diaper,” longtime friend Don Jones recalls.
”He’d just pop off without thinking what was going to come out of his mouth,” said another buddy, Charlie Younger. ”He’s reined it in some now.”
But there are still the quips and raised eyebrows and winks, often conveying an ironic detachment from whatever carefully orchestrated campaign event he’s starring in. The message, says wife Laura, is ”don’t get too serious.”
George Walker Bush was born July 6, 1946 in New Haven, Conn., where his father, already a flying hero of World War II, was charging through Yale. When ”Georgie” was 2, his parents moved West to chase the oil boom.
They settled in Midland, where friends recall an idyllic 1950s childhood of Little League, BB guns and backyard barbecues.
But young George also endured great sorrow at age 7, when his little sister Robin died of leukemia. In her memoir, his mother credits Georgie’s endearing musings about his sister – once suggesting she was watching a football game from heaven – with salving his parents’ grief.
”This incredible bond was formed between mother and son that exists to this day,” said Michael Wood, a longtime friend. Bush’s wit and verve mirror her instead of his more reserved father.
The next child, now Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was seven years younger. Three others followed: Neil, stung by the S&L scandal of the 1980s and now a business consultant; Marvin, a venture capitalist; and Doro, wife of a Washington lobbyist and mother of four.
None seems to have felt the weight of their father’s successes as much as the eldest, often called ”Junior” although he’s one name short of George Herbert Walker Bush.
He followed his father’s path to prep school in Andover, Mass., and then Yale, but failed to live up to his legacy in academics or sports. Instead, he’s remembered at Andover for organizing stickball tournaments and lavish pep rallies that brightened an otherwise rigid campus.
At Yale, like his father, he was tapped for the secret Skull and Bones society and became president of Delta Kappa Epsilon. Fraternity brothers remember him as ”the life of the party” among a group preoccupied by beer, sports, soul music and, of course, girls. He surprised friends with a short-lived engagement to a young woman from Houston his junior year.
Friends say Bush avoided the nascent Vietnam War protests at Yale and didn’t brook criticism of his father, then a Texas congressman supporting the war. He had a student draft deferment.
Shortly before graduation in 1968, Bush signed up for pilot training in the Texas Air National Guard, where it was unlikely he would be sent to Vietnam. Bush says he wanted to learn to fly like his father; he denies allegations that family connections helped win a coveted slot and avoid the draft.
”I met the qualifications,” Bush has said, and ”I served my country.”
Thus began what Bush calls his ”nomadic period.” He moved to a singles complex in Houston, chased women, drank bourbon, tooled around in a sports car and flew F-102 fighters on weekends. He bounced through several jobs, helped with his father’s congressional campaign, and worked for a year at a charity that mentored poor black boys.
He was trying to ”reconcile who I was and who my dad was, to establish my own identity in my own way,” Bush said in a 1989 interview. Unsure what to do next, he enrolled in Harvard, earning a master’s of business administration.
Bush acknowledges he drank too much but has rebuffed persistent questions about illegal drugs. Recently, he denied using drugs within the past 25 years, a period that covers his return to Midland and ascent to governor.
The earth in Midland is so dry that the only shade trees are planted and pampered, and they end at the edge of town. In the surrounding oil fields, pump jacks peck at the dusty ground like giant, lazy birds.
At age 29, Bush returned to the town where he was raised, to grow up.
For him, it was ”entrepreneurial heaven.” On the heels of the Arab oil embargo, prices were skyrocketing and fortunes were blossoming.
”George didn’t know anything about the oil business really,” said one of his business partners, geologist Paul Rea. ”The principal reason was because his dad did it, and he wanted to make some money of his own.”
With guidance from his father’s local friends, Bush began as a ”land man,” putting together deals to buy mineral rights. No one would have known from his worn jeans and hand-me-down shirts that his father was ambassador to China.
”I’ve never seen anybody live so cheap,” muses oil man Buzz Mills, who let Bush set up a desk in the cramped kitchen area of his office.
Once when his car stalled on a deeply flooded road, Bush stripped to his skivvies and climbed out a window, carefully holding his coat and trousers above the water – he was headed to a meeting and had to protect his only business suit.
Friends introduced Bush to Laura Welch, a reserved librarian who had attended junior high with him in Midland. They were married three months later. She became a stabilizing influence, ”like ballast to a rocking ship,” Younger said. Their twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna, are now 17.
The marriage started on the campaign trail in an unlikely bid for an open congressional seat. Bush staged an upset in the ’78 GOP primary but he lost the general election after Democrat Kent Hance successfully branded him a carpetbagger.
Buoyed by investments from family friends back East, his oil exploration business performed modestly well until prices plummeted in 1981. Two Cincinnati investors gave him a boost by merging their larger company, Spectrum 7, with his.
Years later, the same pair would tip him off that the Rangers ballclub was coming up for sale. He put them together with other big money to buy the club from family friend Eddie Chiles in 1989. When the team was sold last year, Bush’s original $600,000 investment plus a hefty bonus paid off $14.9 million.
But his last year in Midland was a difficult, introspective time. His business, like much of the industry, was reeling from falling prices. He focused on his growing faith. ”His conversion was like a struggle up a steep hill,” said Don Jones, a weekly Bible study partner.
Bush remained an enthusiastic social drinker. His wife, Laura, had told him ”it would probably be a good idea to stop,” as had his colleague Rea. After a boisterous, sentimental 40th birthday dinner with friends, Bush woke up with a hangover and abruptly swore off alcohol.
Another weight was lifted when Spectrum 7 was bought out by Harken Energy in late 1986, leaving Bush with a handsome chunk of stock and $120,000 consulting contract. Rea says their financial angel was attracted in part by Bush’s name – his father was now vice president.
His days as a full-time oil man over, Bush moved to Washington as a self-described ”loyalty thermometer” for his father, overseeing the political hired help in the ’88 presidential campaign. His tough manner offended some, but Bush felt he had proven himself to Dad.
”I knew there were times – I could just tell – when he respected my opinion,” he said in an interview after the election.
And the experience turned his own ambitions back toward politics. ”He got a taste of it again,” said O’Neill. ”And it whetted his appetite.”
End Adv for AMs Thurs Sept. 16 and thereafter