George W. Bush has brought the question of religion back into American political life in a way that it has not been for decades. From the 2000 election through the challenges America has faced in the wake of September 11, Bush's personal faith -- and his conviction about the importance of religion in our national life -- have won him lasting admiration from the right, while attracting fury and scorn from the left.
Now, presidential scholar Paul Kengor, the author of the acclaimed God and Ronald Reagan, reconstructs the spiritual journey that carried George W. Bush to the White House -- from the death of his sister, which shaped his character, through the conversion experience that changed his life. Read an excerpt, below.
Robin and Growing Up
To this day, George W. Bush is sure he saw her. Swears by it. He caught her small head barely rising above the backseat of his parents’ green Oldsmobile as it pulled in front of Sam Houston Elementary School in Midland, Texas, in the fall of 1953. Seven-year-old George happened to be strolling down an outdoor corridor with his friend Bill Sallee, carrying a Victrola record player to the principal’s office. The moment he saw the car, he set down the phonograph and sprinted ahead to his teacher. “My mom, dad, and sister are home,” he shouted. “Can I go see them?”
His parents had been in New York, where they were tending to George’s little sister, Robin. He knew she was sick, but had no idea how sick. The three-year-old was dying from leukemia.
George’s parents returned with an empty backseat and emptier news. “I run over to the car,” said Bush almost half a century later, “and there’s no Robin.” She was not coming home. “I was sad, and stunned,” recalls Bush. “I knew Robin had been sick, but death was hard for me to imagine. Minutes before, I had had a little sister, and now, suddenly, I did not.” Bush says that those minutes remain the “starkest memory” of his childhood—“a sharp pain in the midst of an otherwise happy blur.” When asked about the incident in an interview, his eyes welled with tears and he stammered his response.
Pauline Robinson “Robin” Bush started to show symptoms in February 1953, just after the birth of her baby brother Jeb. She simply wanted to lie down all day. Mysterious bruises began appearing on her body. The Bushes took her to Dr. Dorothy Wyvell, renowned in West Texas pediatrics, who was shocked by the test results. She told the Bushes that the child’s white blood cell count was the highest she had ever seen, and the cancer was already too advanced to treat. She recommended they simply take Robin home and allow nature to take its course, sparing all of them the agony of futile medications.
The Bushes couldn’t do that. George’s father, George H. W. Bush, had an uncle in New York who was president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. They agreed to do everything they could in the hope of some kind of breakthrough.
Barbara Bush was constantly at Robin’s side during the hospital stay. Her husband shuttled between New York and Midland. Each morning of Robin’s New York stay, her father dropped by the family’s Midland church at 6:30 A.M. to hold his own private prayer vigil. Only the custodian was there, and he let him in. One morning, Pastor Matthew Lynn joined him. They never talked; they just prayed.
Robin never had a chance. Eventually, the medicine that labored to try to control the evil in her frail frame caused its own set of problems, and George H. W. was summoned from Texas immediately. He flew all night to get there, but by the time he arrived Robin had slipped into a coma and she died peacefully. “One minute she was there, and the next she was gone,” remembered her mother. “I truly felt her soul go out of that beautiful little body. For one last time I combed her hair, and we held our precious little girl. I never felt the presence of God more strongly than at that moment.”
It all happened so fast; Robin died weeks before her fourth birthday. 10 The tragedy devastated the Bushes; it is likely the reason Barbara Bush turned prematurely gray. She had been the strong one who held Robin’s hand when she received blood transfusions at the cancer center; Robin’s father had to leave the room.
“We awakened night after night in great physical pain—it hurt that much,” Barbara recalled. Her husband said that he “learned the true meaning of grief when Robin died.” Even though he believed that Robin was now “in God’s loving arms,” the distress never disappeared. The former president told CNN’s Larry King in November 1999, “We hurt now.” Five years after Robin’s death, in the summer of 1958, George H. W. wrote a long letter to his mother. It was a sort of poem, with a dozen lines that began, “We need ...” Each line stressed how much he and Barbara missed having a little girl around the house, amid the four boys. “We need a girl,” Robin’s father concluded. (The Bushes were blessed with a daughter the next summer—their final child, Dorothy, who today raises four children of her own in Maryland.)
After Robin’s death, the Bush family struggled to put their lives back together. One Friday night, they decided to attend a high-school football game with friends. Everyone avoided the hurtful subject on all minds. The silence was broken by young George, who stood on his tiptoes in the bleachers, craning his neck to see the field over the tall heads. Suddenly, he announced to everyone’s dismay, “Dad, I wish I was Robin.” A terrible silence ensued. His father visibly blanched. “Gee,” his dad tenderly responded, “why would you say that, George?” Because Robin is in heaven, George explained: “She can probably see the game better from up there than we can from down here.” Robin had the best seat in the house.
George W. Bush is a rugged guy, a kind of cowboy—an image that works both for him and against him, usually depending upon the ideology of the source. He rightly says that his personality is “more complex than one or two events.” Yet his public image belies a more emotional side.
Robin’s death hit Bush hard. A childhood friend named Randall Roden remembers spending the night at the Bush house; when George awoke screaming, his mother rushed in to comfort him. “I knew what it was about,” said Roden...
The foregoing is excerpted from God and George W. Bush by Paul Kengor. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022