How George got his groove
The late-blooming Bush was a failure at 40. But he changed his
life and found a road that led him to the statehouse and beyond.
By Eric Pooley with S.C. Gwynne
June 14, 1999
Web posted at: 11:59 a.m. EDT (1559 GMT)
Tom Dickey ducked into George W. Bush's office and found his
boss in a rare pensive mood. It was the spring of 1986 in the
West Texas town of Midland, and Dickey, a young geologist at
Bush's oil-exploration company, Spectrum 7, had come looking for
some optimism--usually a good bet from Bush. After all, Bush was
that lean, kinetic, glass-half-full kind of guy who loved edgy
verbal sparring and dumb nicknames (he called Dickey "Total
Depth," a drilling term that matched his initials). But this
time Bush was fresh out of optimism. With his cowboy boots
propped up on his desk, he was leaning back in his chair, gazing
out the window at the parched and desolate landscape of Midland,
50 miles from the New Mexico border. The financial capital of
America's largest oil-producing area, Midland was a boomtown
Since January, the price of oil had been dropping like a stone,
from $25 to $9 per bbl. Independent oilmen like Bush were going
under every day, dragging with them six of Midland's banks and
its real estate, oil-services and retail industries. From the
Rolls-Royce dealership on down, the whole town was getting
shuttered. "I don't know, Dickey," Bush said. He was about to
turn 40. He had been telling his employees that the hard times
would last a few months, that they would just ride 'em out. But
he let down his guard. "I don't know where the hell this is all
going," he said, watching a helicopter touch down at the bigger,
still successful operation across the way. "Dickey," he said
suddenly, "you need to get out of here. You need to go where
there's some action."
Bush might have been talking about himself. Normally, he liked
to plow ahead, come what may. "The Bombastic Bushkin," as his
friends called him, had never had a life's plan, never needed
one. But now he was feeling stuck, restless, more than a little
bored. He wasn't making money or having fun. He didn't have to
worry about putting food on the table (Bushes never worried
about that), but money was a way to keep score, and he was
losing the competition, courting failure in the same
business--the same town--where his father, the Vice President,
had struck it rich 30 years before. Spectrum 7 was bleeding to
death. He would either have to sell out or shut down.
He had other issues, as well. Booze was one. He drank too
much--never during the day and not enough to count as bingeing
but so much that his wife Laura and at least one colleague had
urged him to quit. God was also on his mind. Bush had been
opening up to his faith, reading the Bible seriously for the
first time in his life. "I believe my spiritual awakening
started well before the price of oil went to $9 per bbl.," Bush
says today. But he acknowledges that 1986 was a watershed year
in his life, "a year of change, when I look back on it." He
pauses. "I really never have connected all the dots that way."
The Austin powers
In separate interviews with TIME Laura and George W. Bush
offered straight talk about booze, ambition and their life under
the magnifying glass:
ON HIS DRINKING: "George was very disciplined in a lot of
ways--except for drinking. And when he was able to stop, I think
that gave him a lot of confidence and made him feel better about
himself and easier about himself."
ON HIS AMBITION: "I knew he was going to run...if ever the
timing was right. What we didn't know in 1977 was that his dad
would be Vice President and President. That kept us from running
a lot of years, kept us just on the sidelines, watching."
ON THE WAVE OF SUPPORT: "There are tides of history that are
larger than the participants. I'm a cork in a raging river."
ON RUMORS OF A WILD PAST: "The speculation is out of control.
The whole 'wild' thing is overblown, but maybe that's my fault.
I should have had a more clinical discussion about [my]
drinking. But this is a world where the whole game is to destroy
somebody, and I'm not participating. If people don't like the
way I'm handling it, they can find somebody else."
In an interview with TIME, he is looking back from a vantage
point that's both lofty and unlikely: the polished-wood confines
of the Governor's office in Austin, where he has been enjoying
the life of undeclared presidential front runner. How did a man
who was, as a cousin once described it, "on the road to nowhere
at age 40" find the road that led him here? Even some close
friends are surprised by Bush's sudden rise. Others who knew him
casually years ago are astonished that he might be deemed
presidential timber. "If George is elected President," says
Midland geologist David Rosen, a Democrat who was once a
neighbor of Bush's, "it would destroy my faith in the office.
Because he is such an ordinary guy. Likable and decent? Sure.
Presidential? I wouldn't say so."
The late bloomer is a rare but recognizable presidential type.
Think Harry S Truman or Ulysses S. Grant. No one can say whether
George W. Bush will join their ranks, but it is possible to
trace how he changed his life and made such a thing possible.
The answers are in West Texas in 1986, Washington in 1988 and
Dallas in 1990.
Within a few months of his encounter with Dickey, Bush quit
drinking. Soon after, he sold his ailing company for a
miraculous profit and moved his family to Washington, where he
worked on his father's 1988 presidential campaign and, he has
said, "earned his spurs" in the old man's eyes. He helped put
together the group that bought the Texas Rangers baseball team
and plotted a run for Governor. It was as if someone had thrown
a cosmic switch and his future came into focus. "Let's face it,
George was not real happy [in Midland]," says oilman Joseph
O'Neill, one of his closest friends. "It's the first-son
syndrome. You want to live up to the very high expectations set
by your father, but at the same time you want to go your own
way, so you end up going kicking and screaming down the exact
same path your father made. George didn't learn to channel his
energy until middle age, and he didn't feel real comfortable
until he went to Washington. He hated Washington, but it charged
him up," says O'Neill. "Then, with the Rangers, he really hit
stride. It took some hard times and big jobs to bring out the
bigness in him."
1986: Boom and bust
The office towers of Midland are monuments to the high hopes and
short memory of man. The downtown buildings, which rise 20
stories above the West Texas scrub, sprang up during the good
years--mid-'50s, late '70s, early '90s--and stand half-empty
during the bad. In 1973, Midland's most feverish era was touched
off by the Arab oil embargo, and suddenly everyone who had ever
lived in or passed through the place came looking for oil. When
George W. showed up in 1975, not yet 30, he was a curious
amalgam of West Texas and East Coast--a Midland childhood mixed
with schooling at Phillips Academy and Yale, then a succession
of jobs, parties and girlfriends in Houston, none of which fired
his imagination. After being rejected by the University of Texas
law school in 1973, he applied to Harvard Business
School--without telling his family he was doing so--and was
accepted. M.B.A. in hand, he headed for a buddy's ranch in
Tucson, Ariz., and stopped to visit friends in Midland. There he
met one old pal after another who was getting into oil, and "it
occurred to me that Midland was the place. I needed to go," he
says. "There was excitement in the air. People were beginning to
get the scent."
His friend O'Neill told him he should learn the oil business by
working for an established company a few years. George was too
impatient for that. He hired himself out for $100 a day as a
landman, searching mineral-rights titles in county courthouses
around West Texas. "I basically taught myself," he says. Bush's
move to Midland is at the heart of his official myth. Driving
out in an old Cutlass with $20,000 and a dream, scraping by in
tatty chinos and beat-up shoes. It's as close as the son of a
President can get to calling himself a self-made man. The
details may be true, but the message is bogus, because it
ignores Bush's extraordinary family connections. He tried hard
to be a regular guy but wasn't; he was famously frugal--"so
tight he damn near squeaked," says a colleague--but didn't
really need money. Rich friends of his father backed his
They also backed him when he decided to run for Congress in
1977, after only two years in town. (Yet George W. didn't want
his father to campaign for him; he wanted to do it himself.) The
decision to run violated a basic family tenet: First make your
mark and your fortune, then run for office. Only those who knew
him well had seen it coming. "He wasn't obsessed with politics,
but it was always there," says Charles Younger, a Midland
surgeon and longtime Bush jogging partner. A famously eligible
bachelor, Bush had also surprised friends by courting and
marrying--in just three months--a librarian named Laura Welch,
who was as reserved and knowing as he was brash and noisy. She
made him promise that she would never have to give a speech. (So
much for that vow.) "We campaigned the whole first year of our
marriage," she says.
Like his dad, Bush had no patience running for small-time local
offices; no one gave him much chance of winning his race. But he
was a natural--handsome, "not the smartest guy in the world but
smart enough," as Younger says, blessed with an honest love of
pressing the flesh. He won the G.O.P. primary, then ran against
state senator Kent Hance, who used a populist tactic Bush would
never forget. Hance compared his own West Texas "credentials"
with Bush's Andover-Yale-Harvard ones. When Hance got through
with him, Bush smelled like some exotic houseplant on a New
England windowsill. "I remember going to the American
Agricultural Convention in the Lubbock Coliseum," says Bush. "I
was surrounded by farmers. They wanted to talk about the
Trilateral Commission. And I look over their shoulders, and
there was Hance. I take my hat off to him." Bush lost, 47% to
53%. Never again would he let a rival paint him as an elitist.
"George has got a lot folksier since then," says O'Neill.
Bush went back into oil. He started hiring for his own company,
Arbusto (Spanish for bush), raising money from a network of East
Coast backers who were close to his father and uncle, money
manager Jonathan Bush. Among them were drugstore tycoon Lewis
Lehrman, who lost a bid for Governor of New York in 1982;
venture capitalist William H. Draper III, who would become
president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank during the Reagan
Administration; and Celanese CEO John Macomber, who later landed
the same post.
If connections got him in the door, talent sealed the deal. "The
politician was in him," says Jim McAninch, who ran Bush's
drilling operations in the early days. "He was a great promoter
and a great money raiser." He also had, as a former colleague
puts it, "a photogenic memory"--a malapropism that captures his
gift for the social side of life, his Clintonian ability to
remember names of countless people he has met only briefly.
As CEO of Arbusto, Bush developed the same management style he
uses today, a flat structure with easy access to the boss who
guides but doesn't sweat the details. "He hires good men, and
lets 'em do their job," says McAninch. "He had a lot of
oil-field savvy even though he didn't have a technical
background." In its first five years, Arbusto drilled 95 wells,
hitting oil or gas about 50% of the time, an average
performance. "George used to say, 'Man, we need a company
maker,'" recalls Dickey, who discovered some vast oil fields in
later years, working for other companies. "I always felt bad I
never found one for him. He was the best boss I ever had."
In 1982, Bush stumbled by trying to go public with a drilling
fund just as oil prices dipped. That year he also sold 10% of
his company to a Panamanian company run by Philip Uzielli, a
longtime friend of Vice President Bush's top adviser James A.
Baker III, who later became Secretary of State. What raised
eyebrows was the price Uzielli paid: $1 million in exchange for
10% of Bush's company, whose total worth at the time was
$382,000. Bush says the infusion wasn't a bailout. Arbusto, he
says, "wasn't in trouble. We were in growth mode." Bush says he
met Uzielli through investors and at first didn't know of his
ties to Baker. "Jim Baker didn't introduce me to him. Jim Baker
didn't pick up the phone and say, 'Phil, you must invest with
George W.'" So why did Uzielli pay so much for his 10% stake?
"There was a lot of romance and a lot of upside in the oil
business," Bush explains. "Everybody thought the price of oil
was going to $100." Uzielli, who has said he lost money on the
deal, couldn't be reached for comment.
In 1984, Bush merged his company with Spectrum 7, an
oil-drilling firm run by two supporters of his father, Bill
DeWitt and Mercer Reynolds. It was a good fit. Arbusto had oil
prospects; Spectrum had a network of investors. The merger
doubled the size of Bush's operation, and the Spectrum people
wanted to upgrade his image with fancy furniture and a company
car, but Bush wouldn't hear of it. "Those were the doodah days
in Midland," says O'Neill's wife Jan, "and a lot of people
couldn't resist--jets, boats, cars. George didn't go for that."
He liked the image he had.
He was optimistic, but a sign that high hopes weren't warranted
had come in late 1983, when the First National Bank of Midland
collapsed under the weight of bad loans. "We had a saying that
year," says oilman Don Evans, now national finance chairman for
Bush's exploratory committee: "'Stay alive till '85.'" But '85
was worse. Oil prices sagged, and investments dried up. By
December, rumor had it that oil prices were about to plunge, and
it happened right on schedule in January 1986. As prices
cratered, those who had been using their oil reserves as
collateral defaulted to the banks. Midland's economy folded like
a bad poker hand. Bush had always followed conservative business
practices, and since he'd had his network of investors to tap,
his debt exposure was less than that of many others. He took a
25% pay cut, and his staff took smaller ones. But soon he
realized that unless he found a buyer, it was just a matter of
time before Spectrum died.
"Everybody was in pretty much the same boat," says Evans' wife
Susie, who has known George since elementary school, "and
everybody pulled together. When times were hard, we had dinner
parties." At some of those parties, George drank more than was
wise. "Usually the next morning," Laura Bush says, she would
tell him he should quit. Spectrum president Paul Rea gently
suggested the same thing.
Bush and his friends say the media have made too much of his
drinking, that the W didn't stand for Wild, that the rumors are
overblown. (Bush now jokes about the stories: "I bought cocaine
at my dad's Inauguration," he facetiously told a writer for
Texas Monthly.) Among Bush's Midland crowd, the favorite
mind-altering substances were beer and whiskey. And most people
say Bush's consumption was not especially gaudy.
Jim McAninch's daughter frequently baby-sat for the Bushes' twin
girls Barbara and Jenna, "and George would drive her home late
at night, after his social events," McAninch says. "I never saw
him drunk. If I had, I wouldn't have let him drive my girl."
Charlie Younger, who jogged three or four miles with Bush most
every day, allows that "George would have more fun than the
average guy at the party." For Bush, it was too much fun. "I
didn't drink every minute of the day," he says, "but I drank too
He confronted the problem once and for all during a three-day
weekend in late July 1986 at the Broadmoor, a grand old resort
in Colorado Springs. The Bushes and their closest friends had
gone there to escape the Oil Patch and celebrate a communal
40th-birthday party: George and Don Evans both turned 40 that
month, and their wives would reach the milestone in the fall.
Joe and Jan O'Neill (she was also nearing 40) were there as
well. The men made for the links--"George plays golf like it was
soccer," says O'Neill, "chasing after the ball and trying to hit
it again before it stops rolling"--and everyone went to chapel
at the Air Force Academy. One night Neil Bush came in from
Denver for dinner, and the friends stayed up late, laughing and
"We weren't that loud," says O'Neill. "But the next morning,
nobody felt great." Contrary to some reports, Bush made no
dramatic breakfast-table declaration about quitting. He said
nothing--at first, not even to Laura. "It's easy to say, 'I
quit,'" he says. "But this time I meant it." It wasn't until
they got home that he told her he was finished with alcohol. "He
just said, 'I'm going to quit,' and he did," Laura remembers.
"That was it. We joked about it later, saying he got the bar
bill and that's why."
Part of what prompted him to give it up, a friend says, was that
"he didn't want to do anything under the influence that might
embarrass his father," who was preparing to run for President.
George W. was also experiencing a religious awakening, one that
began with his now famous 1985 encounter with evangelist Billy
Graham, at the Bush-family compound in Kennebunkport, Me. After
praying privately with Graham--"It was a real personal religious
visit," he says--he joined a men's Bible-study group in Midland,
"taking inventory of himself," his friend Donald Ensenat says.
As the economic crisis deepened, so did his faith. "The words
took on a new meaning," he told TIME. "It's not simple, and each
person's walk is different. I have sought redemption, and I
believe I have received it. And now it's up to me to live the
As he did so, his friends and family say, he became less edgy,
less angry, more comfortable with himself. "George was already
disciplined in a lot of ways except for drinking. He was a great
runner," says Laura. "And when he was able to stop, that gave
him a lot of confidence and made him feel better about himself."
While Bush was working on these issues, in the summer of 1986,
something else happened that would also have a profound impact
on him, allowing him to leave Midland with his head up. A
corporate savior appeared.
After the oil-price crash, Bush had begun looking for a bigger
fish to swallow his little one. His "bail-out strategy," as he
calls it now, was to have Spectrum bought out by a publicly
traded company so his investors would have a shot at getting
their money back. Texas-based Harken Oil & Gas (now known as
Harken Energy Corp.) had been buying up troubled independents on
the cheap, and Spectrum fit the profile. In one six-month period
before the acquisition, Spectrum lost $402,000. It was $3
million in debt, with no hope of attracting a dollar for new
drilling. On Sept. 30, 1986, less than three months after Bush's
40th birthday, Harken swooped in with an angelic deal. In
exchange for Bush's 14.9% stake in Spectrum, he would receive
Harken stock worth some $320,000--his first real personal
wealth. Bush was also made a Harken director and retained as a
consultant at $80,000 a year--$5,000 more than he had made at
Spectrum. He got generous stock options, and Harken hired some
of his employees. As for the dozen who weren't hired, Bush
worked his network hard and, impressively, found oil jobs for
all of them.
What did the Harken bosses see in Spectrum? Some productive oil
wells, to be sure, but mostly they saw the son of the sitting
Vice President. "His name was George Bush. That was worth the
money they paid him," says Harken founder Phil Kendrick, who
sold the company in 1983 but stayed on as a consultant. Whatever
the motivation, it was liberating for Bush. He had money and no
day job, a combination that let him accept an offer that had
been lurking in the back of his mind for more than a year--a job
that would provide action, fun and something more important. It
would get him back into politics and put him close to the old man.
1988: Dad's campaign
The offer had come from Lee Atwater, the brilliant, erratic
young political hotshot Vice President Bush had picked to be
campaign manager for his coming presidential bid. On April 27,
1985, Big George had called his family to Camp David to meet the
staff that would run his campaign. George W. and his brother
Jeb--a Florida real estate investor who was generally regarded
as the political comer among the Bush kids--had doubts about
Atwater's loyalty because his consulting firm was doing work for
Bush rival Jack Kemp. George W. asked him, "How can we trust
you?" Atwater came back with a challenge: "Why don't you come up
here and watch? And if I am disloyal, you can do something about
The proposal lurked in Bush's mind throughout the hard times of
1985-86. He says he didn't think seriously about it until after
the Harken deal, but some employees say it came up earlier. "He
was ready to go," says Dickey. In summer 1987 the Bushes sold
their house in Midland, loaded up the family wagon and drove to
D.C. Bush says he had no idea what he'd do after the election.
When he got to town, Junior, as he was known there, joined an
election effort ruled by committee and split between warring
factions: Atwater's campaign team vs. the Office of the Vice
President--"the clerks," as Atwater and Bush took to calling
them. The Lee-Junior relationship began as a mutually
exploitative one. Junior saw Atwater as a talented hired gun;
Atwater saw Junior as a job-insurance policy and a hot line to
the candidate, someone who could help sway the Vice President to
do what had to be done to win. "Pretty soon Lee and Junior were
basically colluding to manipulate Bush," says a colleague.
"You'd hear George say, 'I can't ask him to do that,' and then
Lee say, 'Goddammit, you have to!'"
George W. weighed in on strategy but showed less interest in
policy; no one took him for a candidate in waiting. (For a man
who likes to appear transparent, he sure was hard to read.) He
and Atwater became jogging buddies and friends. "They were more
alike than either had imagined--energetic, flippant,
irreverent," says someone who was close to Atwater. Both were
reformed drinkers, with Bush firmly in recovery and Atwater
limiting himself to the occasional beer, with cigarettes on
Fridays. (Atwater, stricken with brain cancer in 1990, began a
spiritual quest in his final days. Bush read the Bible at his
The young Bush threw his weight around as necessary, serving as
"loyalty thermometer" and blunt instrument, coming down hard on
leakers, loose cannons and snarky reporters, mediating staff
disputes from a generic office, where he chewed an unlighted
cigar and spat bits of tobacco leaf in the general direction of
a foam coffee cup. He recruited key staff members like press
secretary Pete Teeley, traveled the country as a surrogate
speaker and sauntered around the campaign office in his Texas
boots, cracking jokes in his tequila-sharp twang and earning a
reputation for temper. "We had more than a few yelling matches,"
says Teeley, "and sometimes you'd just have to leave him alone
and come back at him later."
His swagger masked insecurities. In private, a friend says,
"he'd say things like 'People are only coming to see me because
of who my dad is.'" As he developed a reputation as an enforcer,
Bush turned it into a joke. "Am I Maureen Reagan?" he'd ask,
referring to the President's daughter, the second most feared
member of the Reagan family. "People think I'm Maureen, don't
Those insecurities fell away as his relationship with his father
deepened. This was the first time the two had worked together
closely as adults, and Big George came to appreciate his son's
political instincts. "It was a wonderful experience for both of
us," the former President told TIME. "He was very helpful to me,
and I think it toughened him for the real world." From Midland,
Bush's friend O'Neill saw the change. "George went up there as
Sonny Corleone and came back as Michael," he says, using an
analogy from The Godfather--meaning Bush went from hothead to
When George Bush won the election, his eldest son returned to
Texas, a move that shocked Washington careerists, who saw
campaign work as a way to grab a piece of the power. But Junior
had something else in mind. When he moved to Dallas in late
1988, he was thinking hard about running for Governor of Texas.
It isn't clear when he got the idea--he mentioned it to a friend
as early as Thanksgiving 1988--or what he thought he had to
offer besides his stewardship of unsuccessful oil companies.
Still, he told a reporter in early 1989, "If I run, I'll be most
electable. Absolutely, no question in my mind. In a big media
state like Texas, name identification is important. I've got it."
He had little else. As he would tell TIME a few months later,
"My biggest liability in Texas is the question 'What's the boy
ever done? He could be riding on Daddy's name.'" Bush knew he
needed an accomplishment, One Big Thing to lay at the feet of
Texas voters. And when he got a chance to reel one in, the
opportunity came--like so many in his life--straight out of the
Bush family Rolodex.
1990: One big thing
Bush had learned from Bill Dewitt, his old Spectrum 7 partner
and a major donor to his father, that the Texas Rangers were
going up for sale. The team was owned by yet another Bush family
friend, Eddie Chiles, who decided out of admiration for Bush's
father to give George W. a chance to buy the team. George W. had
been a baseball zealot since his Little League days in Midland.
He had played at Andover and briefly at Yale. (He was cut from
the team. Dad, of course, was team captain there in 1948.)
"George had always dreamed about owning a baseball team," says
Laura. "He always wanted to own the Astros. To live in the wall
of the Astrodome like Brewster McCloud."
For President Bush, the tongue-tied patrician, baseball had been
a way to connect with his kids. One time during George W.'s
college years, when he had incurred his father's wrath by
leaving a summer job early, "George felt really bad," Laura
says. "So then in a little bit his dad called and said, 'I've
got tickets to the game tonight. Do you want to go?' And George
knew his dad was making everything O.K."
Bush hustled to bag the Rangers. He assembled a group of
investors, including DeWitt, Reynolds and Yale chum Roland
Betts. Peter Ueberroth, then commissioner of baseball, persuaded
financier Richard Rainwater to join forces with Bush. Together
they bought the team for $83 million in April 1989. To fund his
minuscule $500,000 share (eventually his investment grew to
$606,000), George W. borrowed from a Midland bank where he was a
director, using his Harken stock as collateral. He and Edward
("Rusty") Rose, front man for Rainwater's investment syndicate,
became the team's managing general partners.
Bush acknowledges that his name and connections played a major
role in his success. "Look, I don't deny it. How could I?" he
says. "Being George Bush's son has its pluses and negatives.
Eddie [Chiles] felt comfortable with me because he felt
comfortable with my family. But I was also the person that
aggressively sought the deal. I was a pit bull on the pant leg
of opportunity. I wouldn't let go."
Bush critics charged that he was just a front for the moneymen
who actually ran the team, an empty suit with p.r. skills. But
according to his former partners and people close to the team,
Bush was an engaged manager who played a substantial role in
transforming the Rangers from a shabby franchise to a success
story. Along with Rose and Rangers president Tom Schieffer, Bush
led the drive to build a fine new stadium, paid for by local
bonds. (The Ballpark in Arlington opened in April 1994, seven
months before he was elected Governor.) "George did a valuable
thing for the franchise," says Schieffer. "He gave it glitter
and celebrity. The first thing you've got to understand about
him is that George is the most likable person you will ever run
The Rangers deal put a lid on Bush's dreams of running for
Governor in 1990, but to see him during the Rangers years was to
witness the emergence of a major Texas politician, one who at
last had an identity distinct from his father's. He exploited
his Rangers power base, giving speeches across Texas in support
of the team and sitting in the stands next to the dugout for all
80-plus home games--visible to local TV cameras, munching
peanuts, signing autographs. "It was amazing," says Betts.
"Sometimes he would be there an hour after the game, still
Bush's well-crafted, down-home style was always on display. He
hated to ride in a limo, even someone else's, and the Bushes
lived in a modest brick house. Their main luxury was private
school for the girls. He dressed as indifferently as ever, in
ratty suits and eelskin boots emblazoned with the flag of Texas.
At the Rangers office, he insisted on wearing a pair of shoes
with a large hole in them, prompting his colleague Rose to buy
him a $120 pair of Gucci loafers for his birthday. "George took
them back to Neiman Marcus and exchanged them for cash," says
Bush describes these years as idyllic. "I am sure all families
have got interesting anchors, little memory scraps and moments
of history that remind them of the importance of family," he
says. "For me it was taking the kids to the ballpark." He took
his wife too. "Laura and I spent hours of quality time together
watching the game," he says. "Here we were in August. The team
was out of the race. We just visited."
By 1992 he was everywhere--in his box seat signing autographs;
out in the towns of North Texas delivering what he called the
"Baseball, Apple Pie and First Family" speech. Once he'd been a
dutiful, uninspired speaker, but all those years of surrogate
stumping had paid off. As his father's re-election campaign
rolled around, his message became more overtly political, though
never on his own behalf. Instead, the pitch was either for his
father or for Republican Congressmen, who had begun to view him
as a real asset. He peppered his speeches with references to his
parents. "I know you wished the most famous Bush could be here
tonight," he would say, "but Mom was busy." Or: "I know I'm here
to talk about baseball but I need to help the old man stay
The two themes--baseball and politics--merged nicely. Bush gave
a talk in 1992 to the Republican Forum, a political club in
North Dallas. "It was an amazing speech," says Jim Oberwetter, a
friend who is now governmental-affairs director for Hunt Oil.
"The only way I can describe it is as baseball patriotism. There
was nothing political in the speech. Politics came with the
person, so he did not have to talk about it."
Baseball was how he talked to his dad, raised his kids, made his
money and ran for office. His political base was built on twin
platforms: his Rangers celebrity and the prodigious campaigning
he had done for his father throughout Texas in 1980, 1984, 1988
and 1992. "His dad had a lot of races," says Laura. "...A lot of
the people from his dad's races were still there."
All the while, hammers were ringing and saws whining at the new
stadium in Arlington. The Ballpark fulfilled Bush's desire to do
One Big Thing for Texas. Bush also knew it was increasing the
value of his Rangers holdings, though he didn't realize how
drastically. When his group sold the Rangers in 1998, Bush's
initial $500,000 investment paid him almost $15 million. He had
finally followed his dad's rule: Provide for your family before
stepping into politics.
The Dallas years were marred, however, by a p.r. nightmare that
arose from his sale of his Harken stock. In June 1990, Bush sold
all 212,140 of his shares for $848,560, more than 2 1/2 times
their original value. His mistake was to sell the stock less
than two months before Harken reported a stunning $23 million
second-quarter loss. (Bush says he did not know Harken was going
to report the loss and thought he was selling into good
news--the forthcoming announcement of a new drilling contract.)
But it was widely assumed that Bush, a director of the company,
had insider knowledge and dumped his stock in advance of the bad
news. He compounded the problem by failing to file an SEC
The stock sale put him on the front pages and proved an
embarrassment to his father's 1992 campaign. It also called
attention to the little-known fact that in early 1990 Harken was
awarded an exclusive contract from the government of Bahrain to
drill for oil off that country's coast. With no
offshore-drilling experience, Harken was an implausible choice.
It was easy to assume that Bahrain was trying to curry favor
with the President by giving business to a company tied to his
son. Harken insiders say Bush actually opposed the deal (he was
right; the wells turned out to be dry) and had no role in
negotiating it. But the press had a field day drawing lines from
the Middle East to the White House.
Bush was stung, but not fatally. An SEC investigation concluded
that he had done nothing to merit punishment. One month after he
was cleared, Bush resigned from Harken's board--and declared for
"I knew he was going to run again at some point," says Laura,
"if ever the timing was right. We didn't know that his dad would
be Vice President and President. That kept us from running for a
lot of years." In 1992, when President Bush lost to Bill
Clinton, "George and Jeb were freed, for the first time in their
lives, to say what they thought about issues," she says.
And he was off. As Bush traveled the state, running as a
baseball man and stadium builder as well as Famous Son, moving
toward an upset of popular incumbent Ann Richards, he applied
the lessons he'd learned from his father, his mother, Kent
Hance, Lee Atwater: Trust your instincts, stay on message, be
down-home, enforce discipline. His campaign deftly exploited
Texans' fear of crime, though crime had been dropping in the
state for years (somewhere, Atwater was smiling). Richards
baited Bush mercilessly, calling him an elitist and a "Shrub,"
and everyone expected Bush to lose his famous temper. He never
did. He stayed sunny and folksy and on message all the way to
The campaign trail brought back memories--long days and nights
in the car with his father on the endless highways of 1964 and
1970, and aboard the campaign planes of the '80s. They reminded
Bush of the distance he'd traveled. "His feelings were sort of
hurt because Barbara and Jenna, who were 13, did not really want
to travel with him," says Laura. One trip brought the family to
the steps of the county courthouse in the North Texas town of
Quanah, and Bush remembered being there with his dad 30 years
before. The girls weren't impressed. But an old man came up and
told him, "I remember you when you were here last time." "It was
very touching for him," Laura says. "It made him want to weep."
He had always figured he had more in common with blunt,
sharp-eyed Barbara Bush. "I've got a lot of my mother in me," he
says. But at that moment, he surely was his father's son.
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Cover Date: June 21, 1999