President George W. Bush leads our nation in a time of unprecedented peril. But how well do we really know him or his remarkable family, whose history often mirrors the history of America? Peter and Rochelle Schweizer trace the extraordinary trajectory of their rise to power. The Schweizers are guests Wednesday, on 'Scarborough Country.'
Chapter 10: One-on-one
Anytime the rains came to Midland, rejoicing could be heard in the Bush home. Little George would anxiously pace around the living room in a soiled T-shirt and jeans waiting for it to let up. When it did, he would burst out the front door and join his friends at a nearby pond.
Thousands of frogs would be there, croaking and hopping about. “Everybody would get BB guns and shoot them,” recalls Terry Throckmorton, a childhood friend. “Or we’d put firecrackers in the frogs and throw them and blow them up.”
For the Bush children, Midland was an idyllic place of adventuresome days and placid, star-filled nights. Little George, Jebbie, Marvin, and Neil had the run of the house. Each had their own place in the family, and each tried to define himself within it.
Little George, the eldest by more than six years and also his father’s namesake, spent his free time riding around on his bicycle looking for adventure. It could be something very simple like throwing dirt clods, or catching the matinee at the theater in town. “On Saturdays we’d meet at the ball field and put together a ball game,” recalled Robert McCleskey. “In the afternoons we would ride our bikes down to the Ritz and watch the serials, mostly Buck Rogers and cowboy movies.”
Little George was, like his father, a great collector of friends. They came from school, the neighborhood, or the baseball diamond. To those he was particularly close to, he would assign nicknames. It was his mark of friendship.
Most of his time was spent dreaming about baseball. He had heard from family and friends about the great triumphs of his grandfather, father, and uncles on the baseball diamond. Little George played catcher on the Midland little league team and was a member of the Midland All-Stars. While not the most gifted athlete, he more than made up for it with an innate aggressiveness. He swung the bat so fiercely, coaches would have to urge him to loosen his grip. “He tries so very hard,” his father wrote to his friends.
George often arrived early at Sam Houston Elementary School to play baseball with his friends. The school principal, John Bizilo, would come out on the field, take off his jacket, loosen his tie, and hit a few balls for the boys. Some neighborhood girls would come and watch. One who didn’t was a small, pretty girl named Laura Welch, who lived only a few blocks away. Laura and her friends were interested in more refined matters, at least as defined by a young girl. They spent their Saturdays at the Rexall Drug Store sipping Cokes and passed their free time reading or listening to 45s-mostly Buddy Holly, the Drifters, and Roy Orbison-and dancing in their socks.
Little George didn’t have much interest in that sort of thing. If his father was a gentle and obedient child, this son was different. George Walker Bush was, many in the family said, more Walker than Bush. He did little reading except for the occasional Hardy Boys story or a series of mystery books about baseball. He did make one early run at electoral politics, however. In the seventh grade he ran for class president against Jack Hanks, a popular kid. Few expected him to win, but with heavy campaigning and a smile he managed to do so narrowly. (Hanks went on to a political triumph of his own. Four years later he went to Boys Nation and was elected vice president, defeating a young candidate from Arkansas named Bill Clinton.)
Perhaps baseball more than anything gave George something to share with his father. Big George coached his son’s team, which usually played its games on Saturday mornings. Then in the afternoon the fathers would play a pickup game. Word got out-not from George himself-that the coach had been a star player at Yale. And his skills were on display for all to see during the afternoon dads’ game.
”If he was standing in the outfield when someone hit a fly ball, he could put his glove behind him at belt level, drop his head forward, and catch the ball behind his back,” recalls Joe O’Neill, a childhood friend. “We’d try to do it too, but the ball would always hit us on the back of the head. We all had scabs on our heads from trying to catch the fly balls like Mr. Bush did.”
For Little George, life would be defined by the need to live up to his name. He had seen his father’s photos of the Yale team and heard stories from his uncles and great uncles about Poppy’s playing days. Little George would have trouble matching those accomplishments. Fay Vincent, a family friend who later went on to be baseball commissioner, remembers visiting Texas in the 1950s and watching Little George play. “I remember him striking out a lot. Wild swings with lots of muscle; but he was swinging so hard, trying so hard, he didn’t take the chance to watch the ball.”
Little George loved the game and became fixated on becoming a star.
”All George ever wanted to be was a major league baseball player,” recalls Terry Throckmorton. “That’s all he ever talked about.” In an instant he could recall the batting averages and slugging percentages of his favorite players. He swapped baseball cards with a passion and proved to be so shrewd at it that his friends had to carefully think through any deal or they might be taken.
”He would sit there on the floor with his brothers and they would argue for hours about the value of a Pee Wee Reese card,” recalls Elsie Walker. “He was so tenacious about it, it was ridiculous. He either convinced them to make a bad trade, or he just waited them out.” Soon he was writing notes to famous players, offering words of encouragement and enclosing a baseball card with return postage. His diligence paid off as he got signed cards returned from Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and some of his other favorite players.
At school Little George was not exactly a serious student. He would get into trouble because of that Walker swagger. In the fourth grade he was clowning around in class and used an ink pen to draw a mustache, beard, and long sideburns on his face. When he shared his artistic work with his classmates, they erupted in laughter. The teacher, Frances Childress, promptly grabbed him by the arm and took him down the corridor to see the principal.
”Just look at him,” she said. “He’s been making a disturbance in class.”
The principal took George by the hand and told him to bend over and reach for the ground. He then promptly administered three licks with a paddle.
”When I hit him, he cried,” John Bizilo recalls. “Oh, did he cry! He yelled as if he’d been shot.”
When Bar found out, she was furious. With the death of Robin, she had become fiercely protective of her oldest son. She called Bizilo immediately. “My husband’s going to kill you,” she said with slight exaggeration. “He’s out of town, but he’s coming home to kill you immediately.”
Bizilo calmly explained what Little George had done: When sent to the principal’s office to explain his actions, he had been far from contrite. Instead, George had “swaggered in as though he had done the most wonderful thing in the world.” When Bar heard the full story, she ended up supporting Bizilo.
When George Sr. was at home, he sometimes clashed with his oldest son. “Georgie aggravates the hell out of me at times (I am sure I do the same to him),” he wrote his father-in-law, “but then at times I am so proud of him I could die.”
Little George was strong-willed and stubborn. Even as a young boy, Little George constantly butted heads with his father, recalls Gerry Bemiss, who saw them frequently in Kennebunkport. Otha Taylor, who helped out in the Bush home, recalls the two Georges “were always tussing about something.”
His younger brothers each seemed to move in a different path to make room for themselves in this busy and active family. Marvin grew up with a wicked sense of humor, trying to communicate and establish himself by making fun. He would pee in the housecleaner’s iron or switch the liquids in the kitchen. When you reached for the apple juice, you’d find vegetable oil instead. Neil was the attractive little kid. Pleasant and well-mannered with shining white blond hair, his father would call him Whitey. He became the good kid, the one who got attention and identity by being the most obedient son.
For Jebbie, being the middle child proved to be the most difficult. Too young to compete with his older brother as a boy, he had also spent scarce time as the family baby, with Neil being born just two years after him. He quickly emerged as the most serious of the Bush children, but also the one that family members saw go through the most changes. “Jeb I thought of as somebody who as a kid was experimenting and trying to figure out his role,” recalls cousin John Ellis.
Despite their age differences, the boys were expected to compete on an equal footing. It was the family’s currency of communication, a way of showing that you were a Bush. Competition was also a way to channel their natural rivalries. “The boys absorbed the family’s competitive nature at an early age,” says Bucky Bush, their uncle. “I remember watching them playing baseball, basketball, board games, just about everything, and just going nuts, playing over and over again, each one trying to win one over on the other.”
Robert Mosbacher, a longtime family friend, remembers that when the Bushes would visit in Houston, the Bush boys were always eager for a game. “We played touch football in the backyard and a game called wonder tennis, a game of table tennis with a larger table,” he told us. “What was so interesting was that the sense of competitiveness was much greater at wonder tennis than touch football. Touch football is a team sport and they weren’t as fiercely competitive at that. But wonder tennis-it’s one-on-one, that really brought it out in them.” One-on-one sports-not team sports-really brought out the competition among them, particularly as the boys became older. “We played basketball,” recalls Neil Bush, “and we’d throw elbows at each other and duke it out.”
”I remember one afternoon up in Maine,” Marvin Bush recalls. “My brother George and I were playing tennis when things got a little tight on the tennis court. I was about ten years younger than he and it got to an especially tense point in the match. I think I was fairly brash and was making sure he knew exactly what the score was. The next I knew he was chasing me up a fence.”
In those early years, Little George was the lead boy. It was a function of both his age and personality, which could come on strong at times. But as they grew older, Jeb began to assert himself. “At first George was in charge and Jeb always seemed to be finding the place where he fit in,” recalls John Ellis. “But as they got older, Jeb started to chart his own path and at one point had surpassed his brother in terms of success.”
In Midland the boys would fight over toys, the rules of the game, or the proverbial pecking order. When a fight did break out, it was Barbara who usually got in the middle to break it up. “Sometimes they’d come up the driveway yelling dirty words at each other and Barbara would send them to their rooms and that kind of discipline,” George Bush said. “She would say, ‘Your dad will be disappointed in you.’ “
That was the family’s most powerful tool for imposing discipline: instilling a profound sense of disappointment that you had let the family down and hurt everyone. George Bush says he considers it the most effective parenting tool they had; he rarely spanked his boys.
George and Barbara still reserved a special place for Robin. They placed a portrait of their late daughter in the living room for everyone to see. Barbara worried at the time whether it was fair to “our boys and to our friends” to give her such a prominent place in the home. George never thought so.
Barbara and George were desperate to have another girl. “What I’m going to do,” Barbara told everyone, “I’m going to keep trying until I get another girl.” In August 1959, Barbara gave birth to Dorothy Walker Bush, whom they called Doro. Big George in particular was beaming. Robin was still very much on his mind, and Doro added a touch of softness in a home with four rowdy boys. She instantly received special attention from her father. It was as if he had a special place in his heart reserved for a little girl.
”My dad would just spoil me with love,” Doro Bush recalls. When she was a small girl and George was in town, he would tuck her into bed at night, telling her about Robin. “We would both cry,” she says. The whole family saw Doro as a living reminder of Robin. “Dorothy is enchanting,” George wrote his friend Lud Ashley. “She is a wild dark version of Robin. They look so much alike that Mom and Dad [Pres and Dottie] both called Dorothy ‘Robin’ all last week when Bar went to visit at Hobe Sound.”
Despite the time he tried to reserve for his children, George spent most of his time traveling on business. Zapata was now heavily involved in offshore drilling. That meant, instead of trips to West Texas or Houston, George was increasingly venturing to Europe, Latin America, and the Persian Gulf. He was in many respects a distant figure for his sons, much as his father had been to him.
His heavy travel schedule also caused tension at home. “I had moments where I was jealous of attractive young women out in a man’s world,” Bar later recalled. “I would think, well, George is off on a trip doing all these exciting things and I’m sitting home with these absolutely brilliant children, who say one thing a week of interest.”
Compounding the problem was the fact that Barbara was often left to handle problems on her own. When Jebbie was diagnosed with what was thought to be a rare bone disease, Barbara had to handle it by herself. “George was away, so my friends held my hand,” she recalled later. “But it turned out to be only an infection in his heel. Neil had an eye emergency and I had to rush him from Midland to Houston, but it turned out to be nothing.”
George and Bar would argue. She would complain about the burdens on her, and George would counter with how hard he was working for the family. Bar finally figured that the arguing did little to improve anything. “What’s the point?” she recalls. “He would just let you flail and flounder . . . I mean, it’s no fun to argue in a one-sided argument. He knows what he thinks and he’s perfectly willing to let you scream and yell, but I gave that up. That was a waste of our energy.”
After the early years of euphoria in the marriage, their relationship was changing. Teensie Bush Cole recalls seeing how the two, who were very much in love, started relating to each other differently. “Love matures and becomes more understanding,” she told us. “You become friends and if you’re not friends, you don’t have a good marriage. Somehow when he was away it didn’t matter, they stayed close. She understood George. You’ve got to understand your husband if you are going to be happy. If Barbara had said, ‘I can’t take another house, I can’t take the politics,’ he might not have done it and really been damaged, because he loved her that much.”
George could sometimes be less than sensitive. One day George and his friend C. Fred Chambers were sitting and drinking beers when Bar called them in for dinner. They sat down at the table. George took one bite and grimaced. “You expect me to eat this shit?” Bar ran away in tears as George and Fred laughed.
This sort of bantering went on until Barbara developed her own defenses. Shellie Bush Jansing recalls having dinner with George and Bar one night. When Bar reached to take another helping, George said, “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” It was a particularly insensitive comment because Barbara was always concerned about her weight. This time, rather than get upset, Bar simply smiled and began humming the tune “Old Gray Mare.” “And he shut up,” says Jansing. “That was her way of saying absolutely cut this out or you’ve had it.”
The offshore side of the oil business was still in its infancy, and George was determined to see it through because he believed it had so much promise. Several offshore ventures had already failed: The rigs tipped over or never found any oil; others had been destroyed by tropical storms.
Zapata was using new rigs designed by L. G. LeTourneau of Vicksburg, Mississippi. LeTourneau had designed a self-elevating platform on three legs that he thought would be stable enough to withstand major storms. George was intrigued enough by the idea that he struck a bargain with him. In exchange for a $400,000 advance, LeTourneau would build a rig at his own expense. If the thing actually worked, LeTourneau would receive some Zapata stock and $550,000 more.
LeTourneau tested the rig in the Mississippi River, where it worked fine. But when it began operations in the Gulf of Mexico, saltwater destroyed the gearboxes. George spent considerable time with him, watching over his investment. It was a slapdash operation most of the time. “His design was questionable,” George Bush later recalled, “but if something didn’t work-if one of the legs squeaked when the barge was jammed up-he’d climb up there with a piece of chalk and just start marking up the steel. He’d tell his workers to cut this out here and cut that off there, and they’d get a welding torch out to do it. That inspired confidence in us because he could fix something and get it going. He was a creative genius. But more conservative engineers would have been horrified by the way he did things . . .”
The first rig was the Scorpion, a $3.5 million project financed by a bond offering in 1956. The next year Zapata financed construction of another rig, the Vinegaroon, named for a West Texas insect. The Vinegaroon began drilling in Block 86 off Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, and it was the first offshore rig to make a major find. Soon it was producing 113 barrels of oil and 3.6 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. Zapata received a half interest in all the royalties that came from the field.
The international offshore oil business was a high stakes game influenced by a variety of political factors. In 1956, while meeting in London with Zapata investors and other oil company executives, the Suez Crisis erupted. George watched anxiously as the Suez Canal was closed, threatening the northward flow of Persian Gulf oil. In 1958, Zapata’s Scorpion rig was moved from the Gulf of Mexico to a location in the Cay Sal Bank, just fifty-four miles north of Isabela, Cuba. Tensions were high because of a festering revolution being led by Fidel Castro.
During the latter half of the 1950s, George Bush turned Zapata into a global company, with operations in the Gulf of Mexico, the Persian Gulf, Trinidad, and the north coast of Borneo. Negotiations for these contracts were tough and George was often directly involved, meaning he oftentimes was not home.
In his foreign travels George would sometimes bring Little George along. They traveled together to Latin America and went to Scotland several times, where they stayed with Jimmy Gammell, a Scottish investor who had a major stake in Zapata and sat on the board. They spent time at the Gammell’s family farm in Perthshire, going over finances and discussing their contract with the Kuwait Shell Petroleum Development Company. Over the course of those visits, Little George became friends with Gammell’s son, Bill. It
would prove to be an enormously helpful relationship later in life. Gammell’s son went off to boarding school and became good friends with a classmate named Tony Blair. At a critical juncture in the days after September 11, Gammell would solidify the relationship between the two men and convince Blair that Bush was someone to take seriously.
Little George would also travel with his father to Medellín, Colombia, where Zapata had an office headed by Judge Manuel B. Bravo, a Texan. While George Bush would visit, Little George would go to the Bravos’ house for homemade meals. “My mother fed him tortillas and arroz and frijoles,” recalls Manuel B. Bravo, Jr. “He didn’t want to go back home . . . He would say that this is the best food I ever had.”
Like his father, George Sr. was focused on his work. In Midland he helped start two banks and soon was involved in several other ventures, including serving on the board of an oil field equipment company named Camoc, Inc. He joined the boards of the American Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors, the Independent Petroleum Association, and the Texas Mid-Continental Oil and Gas Association.
By the late 1950s, Zapata was going in two different directions. The firm was not really making much money. George saw the firm’s future in offshore drilling. His partners Hugh and Bill Liedtke wanted instead to concentrate on building a larger presence on land in Texas.
The two visions might have been reconciled, but there was also friction concerning the interference of George’s uncle, Herbie Walker. A major investor in the firm who had helped round up other investors, Herbie wanted his voice heard on just about every matter. Forceful and tough, Herbie irritated Hugh Liedtke to no end. Finally it was decided that the business should be split. George would take Zapata Offshore and the Liedtkes would take Zapata Petroleum. Herbie and his fellow investors bought out the Liedtkes’ 40 percent stake in Zapata Offshore while the Liedtkes bought out the Bush-Walker interest in Zapata Petroleum. At the time, George owned about 15 percent of the company, a stake worth about six hundred thousand dollars.
Despite the split, however, the friendship between George Bush and Hugh Liedtke would last, as they so often do with George Bush, for a lifetime. Liedtke would go on to run the oil giant Pennzoil, and by 1973, fifteen years after their split, Liedtke wanted drilling rights in China. George Bush, who had just ended his term as the U.S. representative there, accompanied him to Beijing to meet with Chinese officials. Shortly afterward, Liedtke was granted the first drilling rights in China.
By splitting Zapata, George was now a self-made man. He was running his own operation, and the gamble on offshore oil was paying off. “He was the first in our group, along with Hugh Liedtke, to make a million, and in that day a million was a bundle,” recalls Earle Craig, Jr., a Midland friend. “I was pea green with envy.”
George would no longer need to spend his days driving through the bone-dry fields of West Texas. He was working with larger companies now, renting out his rigs to the world. That meant a change in his work and a change for his family. Tiny, comfortable Midland, which seemed so very much to be home, was no longer big enough for George or Zapata. To be a player with the big companies would mean moving east, to the booming city of Houston.
Midland had been comfortably middle-class, a community too small and tight-knit to allow for the formation of wealthy enclaves. Little George and Jebbie had gone to public schools there and played with the children of laborers, lawyers, and teachers. In Midland the family had attended First Presbyterian Church, a congregation made up of a cross-section of people from the community. Houston was very different. Settling into Oak Haven, with its large homes, graceful oaks, and expansive green lawns, their world changed overnight. They joined St. Martin Episcopal Church, a formal and wealthy congregation made up of people from Houston’s nicest suburbs. George joined the Houston Country Club, the Ramada Club, and the Bayou Club.
For Little George the change was most dramatic. Gone was San Jacinto Junior High School, where he knew just about every kid. Now he was attending the Kinkaid School, a prestigious prep school for the children of wealthy Houstonians. It was competitive, and prestige suddenly mattered. Little George quickly realized how different things were going to be.
”One day at Kinkaid a guy walks up to me after practice and says, ‘Hey, you want a ride home, Bush?’ “ he recalled years later. “I was waiting for the bus. This was an eighth grader, who might have been fourteen at the time, and he was driving a GTO-in the eighth grade! I remember saying, ‘No thanks, man.’ It was just a different world.”
In Houston, George Bush set about making friends and social contacts as his business operations expanded, just as his father had done in New York City some forty years earlier. In Washington, Prescott had joined every social club that he could. George did the same in Houston. At parties and socials, he developed friendships and alliances with families that would make critical contributions to his family’s success for the next two generations.
While playing tennis at the Houston Country Club, he met a young lawyer named James A. Baker, scion of a family of Texas lawyers going back three generations. Baker had gone to the Hill School in Pennsylvania (where three of George’s Walker uncles had also gone), then on to Princeton University and the University of Texas Law School. His grandfather had founded Baker and Botts, the second oldest law firm in the state.
Though George and Jimmy had never met, their families were not exactly strangers. Robert S. Lovett, Pres’s friend and partner at Brown Brothers, had been a partner at Baker and Botts and was counsel to the Harriman family’s Union Pacific Railroad. “My father had done some work with Brown Brothers Harriman before I met George,” James Baker said. “And Baker Botts had contributed to Prescott Bush’s Senate campaign.”
On the day Bush and Baker first met, they played a match of doubles tennis. They complemented each other on the court in a way that would serve as a metaphor for their entire relationship. “George was good at the net, and I was good on the baseline,” Baker said. Each, it seemed, had different strengths.
Another one of the young bucks that George met was Robert Mosbacher, a charismatic independent oilman who had set up his own oil company in Houston. Like George, Mosbacher had been born back East, in Mount Vernon, New York. His father Emil was a wealthy stockbroker who had managed to sell his holdings before Wall Street crashed, and like George, Mosbacher had gone through the Depression largely untouched by the tumult around him. Educated at Choate and Washington and Lee University, he headed west after college in September 1948, only a few months after Bush had done the same. Mosbacher settled in Houston and became a wildcatter, poring over county real estate records searching for possible oil leases. After a few failed attempts, in 1954 he found a million-dollar natural gas field in South Texas at just about the same time George and Zapata Petroleum made their first major find.
Like George, Mosbacher was interested in expanding his operations overseas, and the two talked about offshore drilling together. In the end the business plan fell through, but the two later invested in Hollywood Marine of Houston, a limited partnership that operated barges moving petroleum supplies along the Gulf Coast.
George also became friends with a Houston attorney named Leon Jaworski. Founder of Fulbright and Jaworski, a law firm, he had served as chief of the War Crimes Trials Section during the Nuremberg tribunals after World War II. A conservative Democrat like Baker, Jaworski ran in George’s social circles. In 1974, Jaworski would be appointed special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation, which would lead to Nixon’s resignation. In 1980 he would run an organization called Democrats for Reagan and Bush.
Another Houston lawyer he became close to in these years was Robert Strauss. A lawyer with great influence and many friends, Strauss would later serve as head of the Democratic National Committee during Watergate, at the same time that George was head of the GOP.
As the universe of Bush family friends continued to expand, Barbara took to writing out note cards to keep track of them all. The list included Poppy’s friends from Andover, his war buddies, his teammates and classmates at Yale, friends and neighbors from Midland, investors and partners in Zapata, and new acquaintances in Houston. She even had the names and addresses of the men who had rescued George in WWII. Friendships were becoming institutionalized, so they could be tracked and nurtured. Barbara would take meticulous care of the card file, noting birthdays, funerals, hobbies, and interests. At first the cards were kept in a small recipe box. By the time George was president, they would number in the tens of thousands.
The move to Houston had been about more than business. George was also thinking seriously about politics. Certainly he had taken an interest in his father’s career and had participated at the local level in politics. In 1952, while living in Midland, he had arranged an airport reception at the request of his father for a young vice presidential candidate named Richard Nixon. Nixon arrived and started to speak when a couple of protesters began to disrupt the event. “Bush took one look at them and tore over there,” recalls John Overbey. “He ripped up their signs and told them to get the hell out of there.”
George could think about getting involved in politics because he was financially secure for the first time in his life. His father had established the threshold: Take care of the family first. But the road would not be easy. In the early 1960s, Texas was largely a one-party state controlled by Democrats. They held every major statewide office but one. In 1961 a Republican college professor named John Tower had managed to win the Senate seat vacated by LBJ when he became vice president. But the GOP was a minor factor in the state. Even George’s friends like Jimmy Baker wouldn’t consider leaving the Democratic Party. Another challenge for George: Larger-than-life Democratic personalities, true-blue Texans like LBJ and John Connally, dominated the process.
Compounding the problem was the disarray of Texas Republicans. At the local level in Houston, Jimmy Bertron, the Harris County GOP chairman, had been besieged by squabbles over how to define the party while mainline conservatives battled more extreme elements, including members of the John Birch Society. Robert Welch, head of the Birch Society, declared in 1961 that Los Angeles and Houston were the organization’s two strongest cities. Bertron was trying to broaden the base of the party by promoting conservative economic issues and appealing to the business community. But the Birchers were making it difficult, with talk of blowing up the United Nations, violently resisting the income tax, and claims of a global conspiracy.
The Birchers in Houston were far from a group of ragtag protesters; they were a formidable force. Some of the most powerful and influential Texans at the time supported the organization. H. L. Hunt, the legendary oilman and patriarch of the powerful Dallas family, was sending large contributions to the organization, and his son Nelson Bunker Hunt was friends with Robert Welch. The local leader of the Birch Society was a state senator named Walter Mengdon, and a charismatic former general named Edwin Walker was very active in the Houston chapter. Bertron had battled them for several years, but by 1963 had had enough. He was moving to Florida and wanted to turn the Harris County GOP chairmanship over to someone else.
Bertron had tried for quite some time to get George Bush involved in the party, but with little success. Now, with Bertron retiring, the GOP needed a new man to serve as county chairman. And they wanted George Bush.
Party leaders came to the Bush house for lunch, and Bar served up a meal and drinks while they explained the situation. Would George consider running for county chairman?
It was not an easy decision. Zapata Offshore now had four rigs in operation. They had contracts with Gulf Oil and Standard Oil of California and Royal Dutch Shell to drill oil in the Persian Gulf, Latin America, and the Far East. Zapata also had two hundred people on the payroll. The company made great demands on his time.
Yet the desire to get involved in politics was great. It was what had animated his father more than anything. And the idea of service, hammered into his head by his mother, seemed to have no greater expression than in public life.
The next year, at the February 1963 Harris County GOP Committee meeting, George appeared as a candidate for county chairman. He was the unanimous choice. In his acceptance speech George promised to end the factionalism, bring all elements of the party together, and work with both moderates and Birchers.
George’s selection as county chair was widely touted around Houston as evidence that the GOP was heading in a new, youthful, and vibrant direction. But it failed to get off to a good start. The Houston Chronicle ran a short article on his election, declaring that George Bush wanted to “hone the party to a fine edge for the important job ahead in 1964.” Unfortunately, the photo that appeared above the caption was not George Bush at all, but somebody else.
In the weeks that followed he had various faction leaders over to his house, hoping to forge a conservative coalition. Friendship was his great gift, and he considered it one of the most powerful tools in his arsenal. But it would not be easy. George, like his father, was a conservative by temperament, not ideology. The Birchers, with their strong views on every single issue, were an alien force to him. George had underestimated the extent of the divide.
Instead of getting bogged down in ideological disputes, George took the reins of the party and immediately began working on organization, assembling a group of friends to help him remake the party. William B. Cassin, a lawyer with Baker and Botts, was appointed party counsel. A group of business friends became committeemen. William R. Simmons, a young Houstonian, was appointed executive director.
George started a research library to help the party keep up on the issues and launched a county newspaper that could be sent to party activists. Then he made a point of visiting each of the county’s 202 precincts. “My job is primarily an organizational job since the Republican Party has quite a few unorganized precincts,” he wrote to his friend (now congressman) Lud Ashley. “So far I like it a lot and although it takes a tremendous amount of time I think it is worthwhile.”
Using his contacts and a large base of friends, George set about to raise $90,000 for the party, an unheard-of amount in local Texas politics. He moved the headquarters out of the old digs on Audley Street and into a spacious house on more desirable Waugh Drive. George took an office upstairs in the front bedroom. Increasingly he spent his time at party headquarters rather than at Zapata. Barbara began spending more of her time there, too, stuffing envelopes or knitting while George met with party officials. The hard work quickly paid off. In a matter of six months he had raised his $90,000.
Yet despite his success in energizing the Harris County GOP, it didn’t take George long to get entangled in the web of political disputes. After one of his first speeches in a small town south of Houston, George was asked by one activist about his position on the Liberty Amendments. The Birch Society had proposed a series of constitutional amendments designed to get the U.S. out of the United Nations, abolish the Federal Reserve, and get rid of the income tax. George was dumbfounded by the question and didn’t know anything about the so-called “Liberty Amendments.” All he could tell the man was that he would study the issue in depth. Days later, George went public with his views of what the party should stand for. As he told the Houston Chronicle, he wanted to focus on convincing the public that the GOP was not “extremist” but “conservative.”
”The Republican Party in the past,” he said, “and sometimes with justification, has been connected in the mind of the public with extremism. We’re not, or at least most of us are not, extremists. We’re just responsible people.”
What George was facing with the Birchers was similar to what his father had faced with McCarthy in the 1950s. Determined to chart a course as what he called a mainstream conservative, he was loath to offend hard-liners. George no doubt drew from his father’s experience in Connecticut, and his choice of words was remarkably similar. The Birchers engaged in what he called “smear and slander and guilt by association,” the exact phrase his father had used against McCarthy supporters.
Even so, George was no Republican moderate. In 1963 he supported Sen. Barry Goldwater for president. This was more than a question of party loyalty. George believed that Goldwater was a good man, based on what his father had told him. As George’s brother Bucky recalls, “Dad liked Barry a lot. They had their differences, in part because Arizona and Connecticut are very different states. But dad thought Barry was a good and decent man.” George also embraced quite a bit of the Goldwater message. He read Goldwater’s seminal Conscience of a Conservative and gave a copy to Little George. People who considered Goldwater an extremist didn’t understand him, George told his friends.
The mood in the Houston office was enthusiastic the first year of Bush’s tenure. GOP activists at headquarters tossed darts at balloons that covered a photograph of Lyndon Johnson. The number of volunteers was rising along with campaign contributions. But the fissures continued as George was attacked by both sides. The Birchers called him a “Rockefeller Republican,” even though he was supporting Goldwater and not Rockefeller for the nomination. Liberal Republicans were upset because of his early and active support for Goldwater. George tried to ignore his critics and stuck closely to the Goldwater message.
In public speeches he was aggressive when he discussed issues ranging from Vietnam to race relations. Like his father, he was convinced that black voters were a natural for the GOP. They simply had never received accurate information about what the party stood for. “First they [the Democrats] attempt to present us as racist,” he told one newspaper. “The Republican Party of Harris County is not a racist party. We have not presented our story to the Negroes in the county. Our failure to attract the Negro voter has not been because of a racist philosophy; rather, it has been a product of our not having the organization to tackle all parts of the county.” He went on to blast Democrats, who were the biggest segregationists in Texas and still managed to attract a large black vote because of their stance on poverty programs. “We believe in the basic premise that the individual Negro surrenders the very dignity and freedom he is struggling for when he accepts money for his vote or when he goes along with the block vote dictates of some Democratic boss who couldn’t care less about the quality of the candidates he is pushing.”
In late 1961, Sen. Prescott Bush went to see his doctor in Greenwich. He had served ten years in the Senate and was sixty-eight years old. His spirit was still strong and he was making plans to run for reelection the next year. But his body seemed to be failing him. His six-and-a-half-foot frame was slightly stooped now and plagued with arthritis. The doctor checked him over, and as Pres was getting dressed he asked about his condition in light of the coming reelection campaign. The words from the doctor were direct: “You would be crazy to run for reelection,” he was told. If he did, he might not live to see election day.
Pres went home and discussed the matter with Dottie and his sons. It didn’t take Dottie long to make her feelings clear: No campaign was worth dying for. The boys, particularly Pressy, shared their mother’s concern. But as they talked the matter over, they could see in their father’s eyes that he was being asked to give up a job that meant almost everything to him.
A few weeks later, his office in Washington issued a press release. The senior senator from Connecticut would not seek reelection. “Fortunately, we have able younger men available,” it declared. After the news went public, Pres sat in the study of his Georgetown home and quietly wept.
One month after the announcement, Pres traveled to New Haven and his beloved Yale University. Pres sat on the stage in front of the graduating students as the university president read a citation for his honorary doctorate. Seated next to Pres was his friend and fellow senator (now president) John F. Kennedy. “You have served your country well,” read his citation, “and personified the best in both political parties.” Pres Bush received his award graciously, but family members left the ceremony feeling they had attended not an awards ceremony but a funeral.
The decision to retire would haunt Pres Bush the rest of his life. He would live another ten years in generally good health. After the Senate, he returned to Brown Brothers as a senior advisory partner. He was by now a relic of an earlier era of the firm. New partners never consulted him on serious business. He was bored and frustrated and deeply bitter about having given up his seat.
”He was always bitter about that decision,” recalls Pres Bush, Jr. “He was simply miserable after he left the Senate. He was bored and felt that he had made the biggest mistake of his life in leaving.”