How team Bush took an airbrush
to the Chosen One’s misdeeds
The public swallowed a story of the wayward president’s son who cleaned up his act to take his place in the White House. Kitty Kelley exposes what really lurks in George W Bush’s past
On November 6, 1997, the exclusive club of America’s current and former presidents and first ladies gathered at a college campus in Texas for a celebration. President and Mrs Clinton arrived on Air Force One to join President and Mrs Ford, President and Mrs Carter, Nancy Reagan and Lady Bird Johnson.
They were there to honour President George Bush, who had raised $83m to build his presidential library at Texas A&M University.
His eldest son, George W Bush, governor of Texas, welcomed the 20,000 guests. With a few words, W smashed the bonhomie of the occasion: “I’m here to praise my father as a man who entered the political arena and left with his integrity intact . . . A war hero, a loving husband . . . and a president who brought dignity and character and honour to the White House.”
Spoken at the height of Clinton’s personal scandal in front of a predominantly Republican crowd, the assault on the current president’s integrity was not lost on anyone.
The Bush family had never accepted Clinton as a worthy successor, and they delighted in his unfolding scandal. They e-mailed one another ribald jokes about Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones’s sexual harassment suit against Clinton.
When it was reported that Jones claimed she could identify a “distinguishing characteristic” of Clinton’s anatomy, George Sr did not rest until he discovered what she was talking about. He then e-mailed his sons and friends: “His Johnson curves to the left.”
The family was looking towards its restoration to power through the presidential candidacy of George W. His mother, Barbara Bush, referred to him as “the Chosen One”. There was a problem, however. After eight years of Clinton, the American public “want to elect a statue”, as Oklahoma’s Republican governor Frank Keating put it. “They want a hero, an unblemished and untarnished guy in the White House.”
Karl Rove, the political adviser with the task of shaping W’s image, knew he had to present his candidate as the anti-Clinton: fresh (no drugs, no alcoholism), religious (acceptable to evangelicals) and faithful to his wife (majority of voters: women).
Fanning out across the country, Rove and the Bush team began to tidy up the governor’s past. Rove wanted no potentially devastating revelations to emerge that might portray W and Laura, his wife, as anything but an ideal and idealised couple. But to present W as pure and pristine was hypocritical and untrue.
George W Bush wasn’t Bill Clinton, certainly not in terms of sexual excess. But Clinton is not the standard to which he should be held. He must be compared with his own declarations on morality and his own carefully crafted public image — the image that the entire Bush family has cultivated for so long.
THE first hurdle facing the tidy-up team was to deal with W’s past drug use. As governor of Texas, he took a hard line on drugs. He supported increased penalties for possession and signed legislation mandating jail time for people caught with less than a single gram of cocaine.
Yet, as the claims of Sharon Bush, his sister-in-law, show, he could have been subject to jail time himself had he been caught “doing coke” with his brother Marvin at Camp David during his father’s presidency.
In the midst of an unfriendly divorce from Neil, another of the Bush brothers, Sharon told me last year: “He and Marvin did coke at Camp David when their father was president and not just once, either.”
As governor, George W had been very careful not to lie about doing illegal drugs himself, because he knew there were too many people who could testify to the truth. “When I was young and irresponsible,” he would say, “I was young and irresponsible.”
So what was his drugs record? When they were young, both he and Laura used to go down to the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands where they attended and enjoyed heavy pot-smoking parties. Smoking pot was hardly a sin but it did not mesh with the strait-laced image the Bushes were now presenting to the voters.
Then there were the allegations about cocaine. When W was at Yale in the mid-1960s, it was the most popular drug on campus. One contemporary, who insists on remaining anonymous, admitted years later to selling cocaine to W at the university.
Another man who was at Yale’s graduate school recalled “doing coke” with George, but he would not allow his recollections to be used on the record. This was not simply through fear of retribution. He said he did not feel right about “blowing George’s cover because I was doing the same thing”. A confirmed Democrat, he also said that although he could not stand George’s Republican politics, he liked him as a person.
Alcohol, the more familiar thread in W’s life story, started at Andover, the exclusive school W attended.
Andover stressed athletics as part of its regimen. Unable to live up to his father’s legacy as one of Andover’s most outstanding athletes, George W played his own kind of sports and won a reputation as a prankster.
“He loved stickball, which is baseball played with a broomstick and a tennis ball and funny hats,” recalled his contemporary, J Milburn “Kim” Jessup. “George made himself the high commissioner of stickball, which was a joke job.”
Alcohol was absolutely forbidden on or off campus, but the high commissioner of stickball figured out a way to beat the system. He designed an official stickball membership card that seemed to carry the imprimatur of Andover. He distributed the cards as fake IDs.
“People took the cards and started slipping off campus to go to Boston so they could get drunk,” said Jessup.
When W moved on to Yale at 18, with the Vietnam war at its height, he felt alienated on the liberal campus because of his father’s conservative politics and his own Texan childhood.
“George was definitely not on the popular side of the war issue, but he stood his ground,” said Robert Dieter, his Yale roommate. “Saying someone was conservative back then almost had a moral sting. I remember him coming back to the room and telling me that someone had been in his face about his father’s position. There was a certain arrogance that the left conveyed back then. It was hurtful.”
As a result, George spent most of his time carousing at the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity house or “the drinking jock house”, as it was known. Some classmates remember him as a “hard-drinking good-time guy” and “a jock sniffer” who “loved to raise hell”.
Ken White, a DKE contemporary, told me: “My wife remembers him roaring drunk one night at a DKE party without a date doing the Alligator; that was some sort of dance back then when you fell to the floor on all fours and started rolling around.”
In the spring of 1972, after graduating from Yale and while serving part-time in the Texas Air National Guard, George W embarked on what he would later describe as his “nomadic years”. Seeing him adrift, his father got him a job with the Republican campaign in a Senate race in Alabama.
Those who worked with George at that time remember him as an affable social drinker who acted much younger than his 26 years. They recall that he liked to drink beer and Jim Beam whiskey at the Cloverdale Grill in Birmingham, Alabama. They also say he liked to sneak out the back for a joint of marijuana or into the bathroom for a line of cocaine.
According to their recollections, he tended to show up for work “around noon”, prop his cowboy boots on a desk and start bragging about how much he had drunk the night before.
Spending Christmas in Washington with his parents, W went out drinking with 16-year-old Marvin. Driving home, he smashed into several dustbins. He swaggered into the house with the bravado of someone who had drunk too much, and there was his father, sober and unsmiling.
“You want to go mano a mano right here?” George junior challenged.
Big George called John White, a former footballer with the Houston Oilers. Bush wanted his son to perform community service with a mentoring programme for inner-city youth started by White and his teammate Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd.
Young George reported for work in January 1973 at a warehouse in a tough district where kids up to 17 years of age were offered sports, crafts, field trips, free snacks, rap sessions, tutoring for those who had been expelled, and big-name mentors from the athletic, entertainment, business, and political worlds.
Ladd recalled young George as “a super, super guy . . . If he was a stinker, I’d say he was a stinker. But everybody loved him so much. He had a way with people . . . They didn’t want him to leave.”
W stayed only seven months before he was accepted at Harvard Business School — a more hostile environment. It was the height of Watergate and his father was running the Republican National Committee for Richard Nixon, who was considered the Antichrist at Harvard. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the town that surrounded the college, only 400 people were registered Republicans.
“I remember seeing Georgie at the Harvard Business School,” said Torbert Macdonald, an old classmate from Andover, “but he looked so lost and forlorn I didn’t have the heart to say hello.”
Others were less sympathetic. “I can still see him in his cowboy boots and leather flight jacket walking into macroeconomics,” recalled a classmate. “He sat in the back of the class, chewing tobacco and spitting it into a dirty paper cup . . . He was one red-assed Texan who made sure he was in your Yankee face and up your New England nose.”
Most of his contemporaries at the business school headed for Wall Street after graduation but W moved back to Midland, his boyhood home town in Texas, trying to become an oilman. He lived above a garage in an apartment that was piled high with dirty clothes that his friends’ wives periodically washed. Most of his nights were spent in bars, drinking with buddies in the oil business.
In July 1977, soon after his 31st birthday, friends introduced him to his polar opposite, Laura Welch. “We were the only two people among our friends who had not yet married,” she later joked.
Nobody expected the introduction to ignite, but George and Laura were married within three months at the First United Methodist Church in Midland.
Laura, the only child of a Midland builder, is remembered by some former students at Southern Methodist University in Dallas for not being as conservative as most. She had smoked marijuana and backpacked through Europe after graduation. A Democrat, she had also supported the anti-war candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy, for the presidency in 1968.
In the early years of their marriage Laura joined her husband in his revels. “George and Laura ran in a much faster and fancier crowd than we did — their friends were all hard-drinking and drugging. That was part of the oil business scene then,” said Robert Whitt, a Midland lawyer.
But after a hard struggle to conceive and a fragile pregnancy with twins, Laura pulled back from the hellraising while he charged on, leaving her behind.
“I suppose there were strains in her marriage, just because he’s so difficult and high-energy and . . . she isn’t, but she never talked about it . . . Just read paperbacks and smoked cigarettes,” said Sharon Bush.
The couple kept their distance from the Bush family for several years in the 1980s, staying in Midland and even skipping the big surprise party that George Sr — by then vice-president of the United States — threw for his wife on their 41st wedding anniversary. “It’s a long way,” Barbara said, “and too expensive.” But family members confirmed that she had stopped speaking to her son, whose drunken outbursts had become a source of unending embarrassment to his wife and parents. The last eruption at a family gathering had been a tactless crack to the wife of one of his parents’ friends at her 50th birthday party: “So, what’s sex like after 50, anyway?”
He was 40 by the time he gave up tobacco, alcohol and drugs in 1986 and became a born-again Christian. In his memoir, A Charge to Keep, W credited his family’s good friend, the Reverend Billy Graham, with planting “a mustard seed in my soul”. He did not mention that he actually came to Jesus in a coffee house conversion with a much more flamboyant evangelist, Arthur Blessitt, who was known among born-agains as the man who had wheeled a 96lb cross of Jesus into 60 countries on six continents, winning a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
W figured, perhaps, that Graham was more palatable to churchgoing voters than Blessitt, who came to Midland after the bottom dropped out of the oil boom and fortunes crashed overnight. In a desperate effort to rescue lives and restore morale, some church elders invited the evangelist to stage a revival in the town. Loudspeakers exhorted the populace “to experience the love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the holy spirit”.
George, who had already begun attending a men’s Bible class, asked a friend to arrange a meeting at a hotel coffee shop. As Blessitt recalled, George began with a few pleasantries, and then plunged in: “I want to talk to you about how to know Jesus Christ and how to follow Him.”
“I was quite shocked at his direct and sincere approach,” said Blessitt. “I slowly leaned forward and lifted the Bible that was in my hand and asked him about his relationship with the Lord: ‘If you died this moment do you have the assurance you would go to heaven?’” “No.”
“Then let me explain to you how you can have that assurance and know for sure that you are saved.”
“I’d like that.”
The evangelist read from the Book of Romans. He quoted Mark, John and Luke to the vice-president’s son, who held hands, repented his sins, and proclaimed Jesus Christ as his saviour.
Conversion and abstinence did not affect W’s machismo, however. He still swaggered and cursed constantly. When a friend accused him of taking the Lord’s name in vain, George exploded: “That’s bullshit. Total bullshit.”
Whether talking to reporters, congressmen, or heads of state, George made no effort to curb his trash mouth. Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon was taken aback to hear, “I said you were a man of peace. I want you to know I took immense crap for that.”
Those closest to George agreed that the key to his new persona lay in his steely discipline. His sister Doro described him as a fat boy who deprived himself to stay thin. His mother depicted a drinker who denied himself to stay dry. Both acknowledged that the effort to control these appetites was monumental.
In order to maintain his rigid discipline, George imposed an inflexible order on his life. Like any addict in recovery, he needed a regular schedule, rising early and retiring early. He prayed daily from his One-Year Bible, which was divided into 365 readings, each from the New Testament, the Old Testament, Psalms and Proverbs.
Edgy and impatient, he exercised at least one hour, sometimes two hours, a day. With martinet punctuality, he started and ended meetings exactly on time. The routine became the core of his developing political career, first as governor of Texas and then as president.
He refused to read memos longer than two pages. He thrived on making quick decisions. His religiosity allowed him to live in a black-and-white world of absolutes with no bedevilling in-betweens. His decisiveness sprang from his need to control and to establish order amid chaos. Once he made a decision, he rarely looked back.
Despite his quick temper, he was capable of nice gestures, as he showed on the presidential trail. Ruth Gilson, an estate agent, recalled a touching moment during a $1,000-a-head fundraiser in a Washington hotel in 1999.
She was one of very few women to attend the event. “All the men looked to be lobbyists in expensive suits with huge stomachs. The room filled up fast and we were all squished together. I was at the front of the rope line. A little old lady about 85 years old crept in beside me. She said she needed to see the governor. ‘I just have to talk to him,’ she said.”
The elderly woman was frail and wearing clothes that looked worn and dated. “She looked like a church lady from the 1950s.”
George W arrived and started working the crowd. The old lady stepped forward and asked if she could say something.
He reached out and took her hand. She whispered in his ear to please do something about the price of prescription drugs for the elderly.
He nodded. “I’ll try,” he said. Then he stepped back to look at her. “Did you pay $1,000 to come here?” “Yes, sir, I did.”
“Well, I want you to get your money back.” He turned to the man with him. “Get her name and address and see that she gets a cheque for $1,000.”
The little old lady shook her head. “No, I want you to have it all, Mr Bush. I want you to win.”
“Well,” said George. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll keep $100 and you keep $900 and we’ll both win. That’s what we’ll do.”
She smiled gratefully.
“It was such a sweet gesture on his part,” recalled Gilson. “Others might have seen it as patronising, but I didn’t. In a crowd of fat-cat lobbyists that little woman in her tattered coat looked like someone’s poor grandmother, and he responded sensitively.”
Extracted from The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty by Kitty Kelley.
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