George Bush’s Life in 13 Objects
Posted December 1, 2018 3:17 a.m. EST
1. Poppy’s Glove
George Bush played baseball at Yale, as his father had, and he became captain of the university’s team in 1948. Poppy, as he was known in his years as a student, was a popular player, and he was known for his sense of humor.
When he was president, he kept his first baseman’s glove in a drawer of his desk in the Oval Office. He oiled it regularly and often used it to concentrate, putting it on to sock his hand in while he was thinking.
The sport brought Bush great pleasure. He and his wife, Barbara, often invited Houston Astros players for lunch in Texas, and he once brought President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to a Baltimore Orioles game. Even after vascular disease began to limit Bush’s movements, sports and the outdoors were still important to him. He still spent summers in Maine and enjoyed time on his speedboat, the Fidelity. “Nobody asks me to be on the team anymore,” he said in the HBO documentary “41.” But with boats, “I’m still in the game.”
2. Skull and Bones
Bush was a member of Skull and Bones, a secretive undergraduate society at Yale. Several of his family members had also been “Bonesmen,” including his father, brother, uncles, great-uncle and a cousin, and his son George W. Bush. This Skull and Bones mascot is from the society’s 1879 photo album, the year after William Howard Taft was selected for membership.
For Bush, the elite network was like an extended family. Bonesmen helped him get his first job in the oil industry, and several invested in his oil ventures. Others offered financial support for his election campaigns, and some served under him as advisers, speechwriters, ambassadors and cabinet members.
But being a member of an elite and secretive society also presented a challenge for Bush, who struggled to shake off an image of being out of touch with ordinary Americans. In the 1992 presidential campaign, candidate Patrick J. Buchanan criticized Bush for having run a Skull and Bones presidency. Rumors about the society’s rituals, and theories about its influence on the U.S. government, deeply frustrated Bush and his family.
3. In Memory of Robin
One day in 1953, Barbara Bush found that her normally active 3-year-old daughter, Robin, was pale, sluggish and covered in bruises. That afternoon, the Bushes learned that their daughter had advanced leukemia. Over the next few months, Barbara Bush traveled repeatedly between Texas and New York, where Robin was treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. After roughly six months, the hospital performed surgery after it found that Robin’s treatments had caused internal bleeding. She died two months before her fourth birthday.
A portrait of Robin, painted by Louise VandenBergh Altson in 1953, was a gift from George Bush’s mother. It was displayed prominently in the family’s home in Midland, Texas, and remains in their Houston home today.
George Bush struggled with Robin’s illness, admitting later that he “didn’t have the guts” to comfort and care for her. But Barbara Bush never left Robin’s side. After the child’s death, George Bush helped his grieving wife keep busy with volunteer work and social functions. Their 7-year-old son, George, tried to distract his mother by making her laugh. The Bushes were determined to move forward.
After the births of two more boys, the Bushes had another daughter, in August 1959. That daughter, Dorothy, was “a wild, dark version of Robin,” George Bush wrote.
4. Viva Zapata!
After graduating from Yale in 1948, Bush moved to West Texas to work at an oil-equipment company run by a close friend of his father’s and financed by his father’s employer, the investment firm Brown Brothers.
A few years later, he and three partners founded Zapata Oil, a contract drilling company in Midland, Texas. They named it after “Viva Zapata!,” a Marlon Brando movie about Mexican rebel Emiliano Zapata, who fought to protect lands owned by peasants. The name evoked being in the vanguard, but many viewed it as an odd choice in a town of privilege.
In the late 1950s, the company began operations in the Gulf of Mexico and the Persian Gulf. Although the company faltered at the time, it highlighted the potential of offshore drilling. Bush and his partners split up Zapata, and he took the helm of the Zapata Off-Shore Co.
During his travels for that company, Bush made important political connections: He befriended King Hussein of Jordan and built Kuwait’s first offshore oil well with the approval of the ruling al-Sabah family, which the United States restored to power after the Persian Gulf War of 1991. As he increasingly focused his attention on politics, he sold his stake in the company, netting about $1 million, or more than $8 million in today’s dollars.
5. A Long Alliance
In the mid-1960s, Bush moved his family to the wealthy suburbs of Houston to expand Zapata Off-Shore and to begin his political career. Around the same time, his son, George W., confided in friends at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, that his father’s ambition was to reach the White House.
Bush joined the Houston Country Club, the Ramada Club and the Bayou Club, and he and Barbara Bush had an active social life. He became known for writing thank-you notes to almost anyone whose path crossed his, and Barbara Bush kept notecards to keep track of their growing social network. (The cards reportedly numbered in the tens of thousands by the time the Bushes reached the White House).
It was at the Houston Country Club that Bush developed a friendship that he would carry to the Oval Office: He began playing tennis with a 34-year-old lawyer, James A. Baker III. The two men were an odd but complementary pair, and they shared big political goals.
Baker became an important ally in Bush’s political life, overseeing his Senate campaign in 1970 (which was unsuccessful) and his run for the presidential nomination in 1980 (he became vice president to Ronald Reagan). He then became secretary of state in the Bush administration in 1989, and chief of staff in 1992.
6. Director of Intelligence
In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford asked Bush to serve as director of the CIA. Bush viewed the position as a detour, one that would prevent him from being named vice president and would keep him away from the Oval Office. But moved by a sense of duty, he accepted.
Bush became director in 1976, not long after the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam War. Stories of domestic spying on anti-war protesters and of plots to assassinate international leaders dominated the headlines, and the public was skeptical of intelligence services. In 12 months as director of the agency, Bush appeared 51 times on Capitol Hill to defend the CIA’s activities.
Despite early criticism that he was too partisan for the CIA, Bush became known at the agency, and by many in Washington, as one of its best directors. In 1999, the agency renamed its headquarters the George Bush Center for Intelligence. Bush is credited with balancing Congress’s requests for more oversight with the CIA’s ability to conduct intelligence and to protect its agents. He is also known for having raised the morale of staff members, in part because of his casual leadership style. He rode the employee elevator rather than a private one, went jogging on the basement track, and wrote many thank-you notes. He even let disguise experts transform him with red hair, a big nose and thick glasses before an important meeting, at which he gave himself up, exclaiming: “I’m sweating under this thing!”
7. Running Against Reagan, and Then With Him
Bush faced long odds as he entered the 1980 Republican primary. He had served in government for more than a decade but was still unknown to most Americans, having been elected only twice, representing the 7th District of Texas in the House of Representatives.
The clear party favorite was Reagan. The former Hollywood actor and governor of California charmed voters with his grandfatherly style and an ability to speak clearly on issues. Campaign consultants told Bush he would have a chance of winning only if Reagan faltered. In the Iowa caucuses, Bush got the lift he needed, beating Reagan by roughly 2,000 votes, what he called his “Big Mo.”
Bush and Reagan, the two leading Republican candidates, agreed to face off in a debate before the New Hampshire primary. The Federal Election Commission required that all candidates be present, however, so Reagan offered to finance a two-candidate debate with his own campaign money. To Bush’s surprise, Reagan ended up inviting all of the candidates to participate in the debate. Reagan had an angry exchange with the moderator, who demanded that the candidate’s microphone be turned off. “I’m paying for this microphone, Mr. Green,” Reagan said, a line Spencer Tracy had used in the 1948 film “State of the Union.” The crowd cheered, and Reagan beat Bush nearly 2-to-1 in the state.
By the middle of the year, Reagan had the support of enough delegates for the Republican nomination, but Bush had enough support to persuade Reagan to take him on as a running mate. They beat Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale in a landslide, with 489 electoral votes to 49.
Four years later, they beat Mondale and Geraldine A. Ferraro by an even larger margin, setting up Bush for his own successful presidential run.
8. A Surprising Selection
At the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in 1988, Bush announced that he had chosen a young senator from Indiana, Dan Quayle, as his running mate. It was believed that Quayle, 41, could draw support from women and young voters, as well as from conservatives and the religious right. (The official bust of Vice President Dan Quayle, modeled more than a decade after the election, is on display in the Senate wing of the Capitol.)
When questioned by the news media about his past, Quayle came across as shaky and inexperienced. He ultimately got more attention from the television networks than did Bush, who acknowledged in his diaries: “It was my decision, and I blew it, but I’m not about to say that I blew it.”
Bush’s sons and his campaign chairman, Baker, did not support the choice of Quayle as running mate. It seemed so unusual that some family members and the news media speculated that it was part of a strategy to prevent impeachment proceedings against Bush, as Congress was investigating the Iran-Contra scandal at the time, and Bush’s involvement in it.
Quayle became known for his public gaffes. At a spelling bee in Trenton in 1992, he encouraged a 12-year-old to add an “e” to the end of “potato.” Although many thought these sorts of missteps were a liability for the Bush administration, Bush kept his No. 2 on the ticket in 1992.
9. The Saudi Link
Bush’s ties to the Saudi royal family, and to Saudi Arabia more generally, were so strong that he was once known in the Middle East as the “Saudi vice president.” His friendship with King Fahd is credited with making Saudi Arabia a strong ally, especially through the Persian Gulf War. A 14-karat gold model of the Masmak Fort in Riyadh was a gift to Bush from King Fahd in 1992.
Even after Bush left the White House, his family maintained close ties with members of the Saudi royal family. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and his wife said the Bushes were “almost family.” Barbara Bush said she felt the same way, and she affectionately called the prince Bandar Bush.
Friendships between the two families have extended beyond the diplomatic and the social. King Fahd contributed $1 million to Barbara Bush’s campaign against illiteracy in 1989; Prince Bandar gave $1 million to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in 1997; and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal gave $500,000 to Phillips Academy in 2002 to fund a scholarship in Bush’s name.
Bush has also used the close ties to foster business opportunities. In 2000, for example, he visited the crown prince at a luxurious compound in Saudi Arabia, in the capacity of senior adviser for the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm.
10. (Barbara and) Millie’s Book
By the time Bush became president in 1989, his wife — “Bar,” as he affectionately called her — was so well liked that her approval ratings were higher than his own.
Barbara Bush was liked for her matronly style, her self-deprecating humor and her warmth. Her popularity was so broad that even her best-selling book, “Millie’s Book,” written in the voice of the family springer spaniel, made significantly more in royalties than “Looking Forward,” the autobiography George Bush wrote before the 1988 campaign.
Known in the family as the “silver fox” and the “enforcer,” Barbara Bush fiercely defended her husband’s reputation and was said to have had a strong influence on his opinions of people. But even when her views differed from those of her husband — she once admitted that she was an abortion rights advocate — she did not try to change Bush’s opinion. “I’m not a wave maker,” she once said. “I do not agree with my husband on everything, and I’m not going to tell you if I don’t agree. Because I’m going to tell George Bush how I feel. Upstairs.”
Barbara Bush’s influence on her husband’s professional life was not immediate. She spent the first decades of her marriage as a housewife, caring for six children and nurturing the couple’s social ties, often staying at home alone while Bush traveled for his work or for his political ambitions. The arrangement took a toll, and Barbara Bush sometimes grappled with depression during her husband’s long absences.
Barbara Bush died on April 17 at age 92.
11. The Environmental President
In his 1989 campaign for the presidency, Bush, a former oil executive, promised to be the “environmental president.” He vowed to strengthen the Clean Air Act and to find common ground between economic and environmental interests. After taking office, he appointed a professional conservationist to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Paradoxically, a major environmental catastrophe, and one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history, occurred during Bush’s tenure in the White House. In March 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska. The spill damaged 1,500 miles of coastline, killed hundreds of thousands of marine mammals and birds, and devastated local communities.
Exxon was held responsible for the disaster, and Bush was mostly spared criticism. While Congress was initially critical of the administration’s slow response, the president subsequently sent many high-level officials to Alaska, including the head of the EPA, the transportation secretary, the commander of the Coast Guard, the interior secretary and the vice president. Ultimately, the spill is thought to have worked in his favor, as it is credited with encouraging lawmakers and the public to support amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990.
But for some who were hit directly by the effects of the spill, the federal government’s response was lacking. “The Bush legacy in Prince William Sound is oiled beaches, sick wildlife, sick former cleanup workers, and a lot of hardships that the towns survived — all costs of America’s oil dependency that have been swept under the carpet,” said Riki Ott, a local resident and marine toxicologist.
12. The NRA Breakup
In 1988, Bush campaigned with the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, and many have thought of him as a supporter of gun rights. During his presidency, he stalled the passing of the federal Brady bill that would have required a five-day waiting period to buy handguns, to allow for background checks.
But in 1995, Bush wrote a letter to the rifle association rescinding his lifetime membership. He was responding to comments by Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, who had said that the Clinton administration’s “semiauto ban gives jackbooted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.”
That language offended a “sense of decency and honor,” Bush wrote. “It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.”
Critics of Bush’s change in position said that he had long been a supporter of gun control, but that he had joined the rifle association only to appeal to voters in the 1988 election. Bush had supported gun control during his failed Senate campaign in 1970, and as president, he favored a ban on the import of some semi-automatic weapons. Because of this, and because he did not vigorously oppose the Brady Bill, the NRA declined to endorse him during his 1992 re-election campaign.
13. Summers in Maine
Bush moved his family roughly three dozen times, and he traveled the world for business and politics, but he has spent nearly every summer at his family’s retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine. There, family members said he could truly relax and be himself. For all of Bush’s attempts to portray himself as a lover of Texas barbecue and pork rinds, and despite its being a symbol of his affluent New England upbringing, he never let go of his Kennebunkport home.
While it has provided a place for family, leisure and sport, Bush has also used it for business and political work. As a young Texas oil executive, he and his uncle wooed investors there with a dip in the Atlantic, a warm towel and a martini. When Bush was president, Kennebunkport became the summer office of the White House, a spot where his grandchildren bumped into diplomats, Cabinet members and heads of state. In August 1990, after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the president held meetings with his national security adviser there, and began early talks on building a coalition with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister and its ambassador to the United States.
Barbara Bush noted in her memoirs that her husband was happy only when all of the beds at the home, which sleeps 34 people, were full. Guests included Bill Clinton and CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz. “Your mother and I sit out here like a couple of really old poops,” Bush once wrote to his children, “but we are at total peace.”
Sources: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum; news reports; Bush family biographies and autobiographies including those by the authors Pamela Kilian, Herbert S. Parmet, Kevin Phillips, Alexandra Robbins, Peter and Rochelle Schweizer and Craig Unger.