|How Bush Came to Tame His Inner Scamp
It was a sedate cocktail party on a summer evening in Kennebunkport, Me., when the wild man of the Bush clan wobbled up to an old friend of his parents, a prim, well-dressed matron who had recently turned 50, her hair pulled tightly back from her forehead in the most severe way.
George W. had enjoyed a few too many drinks, and his family members knew enough to watch him nervously.
''So,'' he asked her, by way of conversation, ''what's sex like after 50, anyway?''
It was a vintage Bush moment, recounted by friends, the kind of incident that made young George's buddies laugh and cringe at the same time. He could be hilarious company, but also often outrageous and childish. Some acquaintances were offended by what they saw as Mr. Bush's arrogance and immaturity, by his penchant for drinking too much and thinking too little. Even his wife, Laura, wanted him to grow up.
''Bush was acting like a little kid'' in those days, recalled Mel Turner, a fellow Republican activist in West Texas in the 1970's and 80's. ''He was an immature rich-kid brat.''
Not everyone is that harsh, and many of his friends welcomed the ''bombastic Bushkin,'' as they called him, as a breath of fresh air. But the upshot was that as he approached 40, an age when Al Gore was already a senator running for president, George W. Bush was just a heavy-drinking, fun-loving oilman struggling to control his temper, salvage his business and hold on to his marriage.
Then Mr. Bush did grow up. A classic late bloomer, Mr. Bush offers reassurance for 40-year-olds everywhere. Just 14 years later, he is a multimillionaire, a successful businessman who turned around the Texas Rangers and prospered with them; the overwhelmingly popular governor of Texas, the only one to be elected to a second consecutive four-year term; the about-to-be-crowned Republican nominee for president, running ahead in the polls; and, apparently most important of all in his own priorities, the very happily married husband of Laura.
Mr. Bush redeemed himself and is today very much a product of that redemption. On the campaign trail, it lends him an air of authenticity, allowing him to come across as a decent man today without the baggage of having always been a squeaky-clean, apple-polishing mama's boy.
There is a popular image of Mr. Bush's younger days, fueled by late-night television jokes, suggesting that he spent much of the 1970's stupefied in a drug-fueled haze. But Mr. Bush's elliptical comments suggesting that he used drugs before 1974 may have led people to think that he was wilder than he really was, and the fuller portrait of him in the 1970's and early 1980's indicates that his behavior was more callow than criminal.
Many of his friends say that by the standards of his time he was pretty strait-laced.
''I don't know why he said all this about drugs,'' said Diane Paul, his girlfriend from 1970 until 1972. ''He never did anything like that. He was the straightest guy I knew. The most we ever did was go to a party and drink beer.''
Mr. Bush's problem, it seems, was not so much that he was dissolute as that he was irresolute. He continued plodding along, acting young and irresponsible when he was well into middle age, until he faced a personal crisis.
A common criticism of Mr. Bush is that he has enjoyed a charmed life, without ever having to struggle, and there is something to the idea that he has been incredibly lucky and privileged at many junctures. But the truth is also more complex, and on his own terms life in the 1970's and 80's was no stroll through a sun-dappled park.
With oil prices plunging, Mr. Bush struggled to keep his business going. He was deeply pained that he had lost money that friends had invested with him. And most cutting of all, some friends say, he worried that his wife was so sick of his boorish behavior that she would consider leaving him and taking their twin daughters.
These pressures, instead of breaking Mr. Bush, changed him.
There is no neat one-sentence explanation for how he grew up. It was a gradual process, stretching from his arrival at Harvard Business School in 1973 until after his 40th birthday in 1986. Indeed, his friends say that he is still settling down.
But one of the keys to his turnaround seems to have been his succession of failures in politics and business, which acquaintances said humbled him and left him much more likable. Another was pressure from Mrs. Bush.
So Mr. Bush gave up alcohol and turned toward religion. He remade himself, and then his tremendous people skills, backed by his family connections, took over and propelled him in both business and politics.
Less Ambitious Than Competitive
What makes George Bush tick?
In the case of the father and former president, the answer arguably is fairly straightforward: ambition and a fierce sense of competition.
The younger George Bush is more complicated, and for him the answer reflects one of the critical differences between him and his father: George W. is fiercely competitive, but for most of his life he was not ferociously ambitious. That combination helps explain both the stuttering first two-thirds of his life and the triumphant latest third.
Normally, competitive people are also ambitious. But Mr. Bush has been an anomaly, for from childhood he was always enormously competitive in certain areas -- playing baseball, winning friends, making people laugh, giving great parties -- without being particularly focused on the future.
Friends say that if there is one overriding reason that Mr. Bush gravitated toward politics it is not so much overweening ambition as a series of personal encounters with successful politicians; after rubbing shoulders with them, he concluded: I can do better than these bozos!
Looking at the careers of President Clinton or Vice President Al Gore, one gets the sense of a man running a marathon, resolutely pushing on with thoughts of glory at the finish tape. Mr. Bush's career, in contrast, brings to mind a cheerful hitchhiker who has the incredible good fortune to be picked up by a series of limousines.
''I don't know whether I'll be your president,'' Mr. Bush said in an interview, adding: ''But you know, I've got the sense of, if it's meant to be, fine. And if it's not meant to be, you know, heck, it's not something I planned my life to be anyway.''
It was only when Mr. Bush arrived at Harvard Business School in the fall of 1973 that he began to buckle down and prepare more rigorously for the future.
He lived alone in a small apartment, jogging and bicycling daily, studying diligently, chewing tobacco, dressing wretchedly and stewing over what he saw as the arrogant elitists around him. The Watergate scandal had left Harvard fiercely anti-Republican, at a time when his father, as chairman of the Republican National Committee, was defending President Nixon.
After graduation in 1975, Mr. Bush still did not know what he wanted to do with his life. He spent the summer in China, where his father had taken a job as chief United States envoy, and this was an occasion when his unfamiliarity with foreign policy had practical consequences.
Mr. Bush had hoped to date Chinese women, but as any student of international relations could have told him, Chairman Mao was still ruling China, the Cultural Revolution was under way and China's women were unwilling to give up their Little Red Books to engage in counterrevolutionary entanglements with visiting Americans.
Eventually Mr. Bush took up a family friend's invitation to return to Midland, Tex., where he had spent his childhood. He decided to start in the oil business just as his father had.
''It smelled right and it felt right,'' Mr. Bush recalled, adding, ''I really wanted to be my own man, my own businessman.''
By all accounts, Mr. Bush worked hard to build up his oil business and, in 1978, to run for Congress in an unsuccessful campaign. He married Laura and stopped bringing his laundry over for his friends' wives to wash.
''He buckled down when he came to Midland,'' said Joe O'Neill, a friend since childhood. ''That was the turnaround. He was serious about making it in the oil business.''
Yet while there is something to that, Mr. Bush also seems to have retained a good bit of immaturity even as he forged ahead in the business world. Young people often found him charming, fun and exciting to be around, as well as tremendously friendly and likable. But others sometimes saw him as arrogant and childish.
''My impression at that time was that he was a little immature,'' recalled Curtis Webster, a local banker and city councilman. Mr. Webster remembered a time when he and a friend met Mr. Bush on the street, and Mr. Bush play-punched the friend on the arm.
''Like you do when you're 12,'' Mr. Webster said with distaste. ''I thought he was real immature.''
On another occasion, Mr. Bush barged in late at a Republican reception at the Midland Hilton. He greeted everybody with a bit too much ebullience (''Hey, here I am, did anyone miss me?'') and then came up behind a dignitary in midconversation, tapping him on the far shoulder so the man turned to find nobody at all.
Some of Mr. Bush's friends tittered, but others present saw it as confirmation that Mr. Bush had a few rough edges.
The election defeat in 1978 was a major blow to Mr. Bush and his friends, but many people in the area thought it was the best thing for his personality.
''I've heard a lot of people say that the experience changed him, made him more humble,'' said Johnnye Davis, a local Republican activist who raves about Mr. Bush but also recalls a ''cocky side'' that turned some people off.
That cockiness seemed to retreat as Mr. Bush faced difficulties in the business world and struggled through a business downturn.
He has spoken about the usefulness of his business experience in running for president, and in an interview he talked of having done ''pretty well.'' But an accurate assessment of his time in the oil business would be mixed: he proved fabulous at recruiting investors, but not nearly so good at running a company profitably.
In a sense, Mr. Bush's strength lay in salesmanship. Then as now, he was a brilliant fund-raiser, and through his family and father's friends raised millions of dollars to drill for oil. But he never found much petroleum, and then in the mid-1980's oil prices virtually collapsed, so that his investors -- like many others -- did poorly.
According to a company prospectus, Mr. Bush raised $4.67 million from his limited partners, but his company returned only $1.55 million in distributions (plus hefty tax write-offs). Meanwhile, Mr. Bush structured the deals so that he did pretty well for himself even as his investors suffered.
After the first few years, when he took no salary at all, he paid himself a salary of up to $82,000. He also kept 80 percent of the company for himself, had the company take distributions of $362,000 on $102,000 in investments, and finally sold his stake in 1986 for stock worth $530,000, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
It was not a bad arrangement for himself, and Mr. Bush's longtime friend and accountant, Robert A. McCleskey, says that Mr. Bush's net worth rose from $50,000 in 1975 to more than $1 million by 1988. That is not, Mr. McCleskey notes, the record of a man who is a failure in business.
Still, it was humiliating. Investors had lost money, and everybody knew that Mr. Bush had essentially failed in creating a viable company.
''It's a humbling experience to drill a dry well and call up all your investors and tell them that you convinced them to put money into something that was no good,'' said Ernie Angelo, a leading Republican businessman in Midland. Like an election loss, he said, it is the kind of experience that makes a young man less cocky.
''He became a much more likable person in a few years after he got here,'' Mr. Angelo said of Mr. Bush. ''He had the reputation when he came here of being cocky and arrogant, and he lived that down.''
Married With Children
By all accounts, a crucial factor in the taming of George W. Bush was his marriage in 1977. As a friend from Yale days, Donald B. Ensenat, says, ''Laura changed him.''
Mrs. Davis, the Republican campaigner, puts it this way: ''Laura's the sweetest person you can imagine, and some of that rubbed off on him.''
Laura Bush comes across as quiet and meek, and because she started off as a school librarian Mr. Bush used to tease that her idea of a speech was saying, ''Shhhhhh.'' But friends say that she can be a tough woman who deflates her husband when she feels it is necessary.
''Laura can be plenty tough, and she can chew him out,'' Mr. McCleskey said, chuckling. ''I saw them once, when he was giving orders to all these people and rattling off commands, and she just looked at him and said, 'Bushie, you're not president yet!' ''
When others laughed at his raucous style and impishness, it was Mrs. Bush who told him to pipe down. When others offered him another beer, Mrs. Bush told him to cool it.
''She holds his feet to the fire,'' said Mike Barker, a West Texas journalist who has known Mr. Bush since before he was married. ''My impression is that privately she tells him exactly what she thinks.''
Mutual friends say that Mrs. Bush was attracted to her husband's impishness and boisterousness but also, over time, wearied of it.
''Laura gets a lot of credit'' for calming her husband, mused Elsie Walker, Mr. Bush's cousin. ''She loves George's fun side, but after a while she got tired of George's edges that came from the drinking.''
''He was a riot,'' Ms. Walker added. ''But afterward, when you're older, that can wear thin. And she would never hold back whatever she felt.''
Mrs. Bush increasingly began to lean on her husband to quit drinking, friends say. Mr. Bush says he does not know if he was actually an alcoholic, but acknowledges that he was drinking too much, and others share that assessment. He was not a mean drunk, but when lubricated he could be loud, obnoxious and hardly the kind of father a mother wanted around her young daughters.
Mr. Bush has told several friends over the years that he was forced to choose.
''Laura said, 'It's me or the bottle,' '' one longtime friend quoted Mr. Bush as saying. ''She said it to me maybe 50 times.''
''His marriage was falling apart, and he cared about his girls,'' the friend added. ''That's what turned him around.''
Mr. Bush has contested the idea that the marriage was ever so severely strained, and some friends say they saw no signs of strain beyond typical marital spats. One confidant believes that Mrs. Bush may never have quite given an ultimatum but that Mr. Bush told friends she had because he felt in his mind that he had to choose -- that unless he gave up liquor he would lose his daughters, whom he treasured above all.
In any case, even those who say that the marriage was seriously troubled say that Mr. Bush always appeared to be faithful to his wife and shunned opportunities for flings when they came along, as they sometimes did. He could be indiscreet about his love life before marriage, friends say, but always insisted that he had been true to Laura.
Then in the summer of 1985 Mr. Bush met with Billy Graham -- a meeting engineered by his parents -- at the family compound in Kennebunkport. They had lunch on the patio overlooking the ocean, dinner by the fire and long conversations as they strolled along the shore. Mr. Bush was inspired to begin reading the Bible daily (which he says he still does), and back in Midland he began attending a Bible study class.
Mr. Bush had grown up in a religious household, attending First Presbyterian Church in Midland, but it was an austere, restrained Yankee faith. After his daughters were born, he switched to his wife's church, First United Methodist, but a close friend says that in those days he went to church each Sunday more for the sake of his daughters than because of any deep inner commitment.
Yet after the meeting with Mr. Graham and his Bible study sessions, Mr. Bush became increasingly serious about his religion. He is at home discussing religious matters with evangelical leaders in a way his father never was. Mr. Bush is publicly guarded about his beliefs (partly because of a much cited incident in which he suggested that non-Christians could not get to heaven), but by all accounts, his faith has developed into something that is an important part of his inner life and that was a significant element in his maturing.
In July 1986, a year after he began studying the Bible seriously, George and Laura Bush went with a half-dozen friends to celebrate their collective 40th birthdays at the luxurious Broadmoor resort in Colorado. There was one evening when they all stayed up late, drinking a bit too merrily.
The next morning, Mr. Bush has recalled, he woke up feeling befuddled -- and quietly resolved that he would never touch alcohol again. Friends say he told nobody, not even his wife, until weeks after their return to Midland. He simply drank sodas instead of beers, and it was many weeks later that he finally explained to his friends that he had given up liquor.
Mr. Bush worked harder and mellowed a bit, so that while he remained mischievous he was less likely to offend. He became a better father. He grew up.
''He's a late bloomer, let's face it,'' said Mr. O'Neill, his childhood friend. ''Twenty-five years ago, who would have thought that he'd run for president? It took Laura, some dry holes and some talks with himself to get settled down.''
No Backward, or Inward, Glance
The old George still flashes through from time to time.
While he has buckled down in recent years, Mr. Bush even now on the campaign trail comes across as unusually relaxed or complacent, depending on one's point of view. He often takes Sundays off, he reserves time for jogging or working out, and in contrast to Mr. Gore he gives the impression that he still would rather spend an evening joking with friends than reading a health-care policy analysis.
Underlying this relaxed approach seems to be a personal philosophy that things will work out in the end.
''Somebody said, 'Well, what are you going to do after you're governor?' '' Mr. Bush mused. ''Or, 'If you don't win president, what are you going to do?' I mean, I just don't worry about those things. I kind of figure life is going to work its way out somehow.''
For many politicians, success arises from a mix of self-doubt, drive and extraordinary ambition. When Bill Clinton lost his first political race, in 1974, he was out the next morning, shaking hands with voters and thanking them for supporting him, his eye already on the next election.
Nothing could be more antithetical to the way George W. Bush has lived his life. He is a cheery guy whose success has arisen not from self-doubt but from self-confidence, and when setbacks have arisen he has normally shrugged and moved on.
''He's just not that complicated,'' says Ms. Walker, his cousin. ''The things that would send me into analysis, well, he feels conflict, but he can move on. He doesn't let it stop him.''
Deep disappointment washed over Mr. Bush, for example, one April afternoon when he was a junior at Yale. He fervently wanted to follow his father and grandfather into Skull and Bones, the most exclusive of Yale's secret societies, but word trickled out on ''tap day'' that he would not be among those invited for membership.
Mr. Bush was understandably subdued as he ran into a fraternity brother, Robert A. F. Reisner, near the Yale Co-op bookstore. Mr. Bush explained that he was deeply disappointed by failing to keep up the tradition. But he added that he was ready to move on.
''He was philosophical about it,'' Mr. Reisner said. ''This wasn't something that was going to do him in. He was ready to live with it.''
Mr. Bush need not have been so stoical. Luck stood by him, as it usually has, and that night he was tapped into Skull and Bones after all.
When he is asked whether he has regrets in his life, anything he would do differently, he shrugs and is typically uncontemplative.
''You know, I don't live my life that way,'' he said. ''I'm not one of those people who say, 'Gosh, if I'd have done it differently, I'd have. . .' ''
His voice trailed off. Been a presidential candidate? he was asked.
''Yeah,'' he said, with a glint in his eye.
''I'm not one of these people that kind of gets stuck in the past,'' he added. ''I'm always moving forward. I think one of the things you'll find about me is I'm a person who's fairly spontaneous, and I don't brood and I don't get stuck. So I don't know. I can't think of anything I'd do differently.''
Mr. Bush has also held on to a bit of his bombastic style and needling humor. When his father was president and invited Queen Elizabeth to the White House for a state banquet in May 1991, his mother introduced him to the queen -- and he promptly began telling a yarn about how he had embroidered his new cowboy boots with the phrase ''God Save the Queen.''
Mrs. Bush explained tartly to Queen Elizabeth that she had seated George well away from Her Majesty, ''for fear of him saying something.'' Then, the Bushes have recounted, George confessed to the queen that he was his family's black sheep and added, to his mother's horror, ''Who's yours?''
Queen Elizabeth smiled and retorted, ''None of your business.''
This is the ninth article of a series about the lives of the presidential candidates. The next installment will look at Al Gore's entry into politics.
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