A Philosophy With Roots In Conservative Texas Soil
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF ( Series ) 4016 wordsMIDLAND, Tex. -- The fourth-grade classroom erupted in titters as George W. Bush, one of the class clowns, faced his friends. He had quietly used an ink pen to draw a beard and long sideburns on his cheeks.
The teacher, Frances Childress, grabbed George by the arm, yanked him out of class and marched him down the long outside corridor to the principal's office near the main entrance to Sam Houston Elementary School.
''Just look at him,'' the principal, John Bizilo, recalls Mrs. Childress telling him. ''He's been making a disturbance in class.''
The next step was pretty obvious for anyone in the 1950's version of the West Texas oil town of Midland: Mr. Bizilo told George to bend over and then reached for his paddle, the thickness of a Ping-Pong paddle but narrower and twice as long. Mr. Bizilo gave George three ''licks,'' and the boy's shrieks filled the office.
''When I hit him, he cried,'' Mr. Bizilo remembered the other day. ''Oh, did he cry! He yelled as if he'd been shot. But he learned his lesson.''
So he did.
Many of the roots of Mr. Bush's political philosophy as a presidential candidate -- including his belief in tough love for juvenile offenders -- seem to go back to his childhood. Midland, a conservative, up-from-the-bootstraps town that has grown from 25,000 when he was a little boy to almost 100,000 today, mirrors Mr. Bush's optimism, his faith in business and his doubts about an activist government. While playing Little League baseball, running for class president, or even sobbing in the principal's office, George W. Bush absorbed West Texas values that many old friends say are central to understanding who he is today.
''I think his political philosophy comes completely from the philosophy of the independent oil man,'' said Joe O'Neill, a fellow rapscallion in childhood. ''His homage to his parents, his respect for his elders, his respect for tradition, his belief in religion, his opposition to abortion -- that's the philosophy he grew up with here.''
Mr. Bush himself, in a long interview about his roots, made a similar point. ''I don't know what percentage of me is Midland,'' he said, ''but I would say people, if they want to understand me, need to understand Midland and the attitude of Midland.''
It is in the soil of Midland that Mr. Bush has said he would like to be buried when he dies, and it was to Midland that he returned in the 1970's to marry and start a family. It gave him an anchor in real America.
Mr. Bush has often said that ''the biggest difference between me and my father is that he went to Greenwich Country Day and I went to San Jacinto Junior High.'' That may be an exaggeration of the younger Mr. Bush's populist credentials, because he is also a product of Andover, Yale and Harvard. But there is still something to it.
The father, chauffeured to and from private school in Connecticut in a black sedan, suffered politically because of the perception that he was a blue blood who could not relate to ordinary people. The younger Mr. Bush also has been tainted by the idea that he was born into privilege with a visa to effortless wealth and prominence. Yet George W. Bush actually had a rather ordinary childhood, and his years biking around small-town streets in jeans and a white T-shirt left him with a common touch that is among his greatest assets as a politician.
''He understands Bubba because there is more Bubba in him,'' Karl Rove, the longtime political adviser to the Bushes, told a reporter in 1992, when Mr. Bush's friends were still carefree enough to say colorful things about him. ''He is clearly the wild son -- even today. Part of it is rooted in Midland, where he grew up in an ordinary neighborhood, where houses are close together and risk was a way of life.''
The Midland childhood is a striking contrast to that of another boy growing up at the same time, Al Gore, who instead of being paddled in Mr. Bizilo's office was attending the elite St. Albans School in Washington, swimming in the Senate pool and listening on an extension as his father the senator spoke on the telephone to President John F. Kennedy.
Midland, impatient with ideas and introspection, was a world of clear
rights and wrongs, long on absolutes and devoid of ethical gray shades. It
may be the source of some of Mr. Bush's greatest political strengths, the
unpretentiousness and mellow bonhomie that warm up voters, and also of his
weaknesses, including an image of an intellectual lightweight that is
underscored whenever he mixes up the likes of Slovenia and Slovakia.
It is easy to see why Midland does not support a postcard industry. It rests on an expanse of flat, baked nothingness. Even its residents, searching for a kind analogy, fumble a bit before coming up with ''moonscape.'' The surrounding land, home to tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes, would depress even a camel, but in the 1950's it had one redeeming feature -- it was loaded with oil.
The oil made Midland a boomtown, attracting ambitious businessmen like the elder Mr. Bush and many other out-of-staters as well. These people made for a conservative town but not a redneck one; Midland had a large proportion of geologists, engineers, lawyers and accountants, and Ivy League college graduates were everywhere.
Mr. Bush recalls it in Norman Rockwell pastels, and so do many other residents. Children bicycled everywhere on their own, crime was almost nonexistent and if anyone suspicious -- say, someone with a beard -- showed up in town, then-Sheriff Ed Darnell (known as Big Ed) would stop him, escort him to the edge of town, and tell him to ''get out.''
Yet what no one volunteers is that it was also rigidly segregated in those days, like most places in the South. Black children went to their own school rather than to Sam Houston Elementary with George Bush. The bus station and train station had separate waiting rooms for blacks and whites, and there were separate, dilapidated drinking fountains marked ''colored'' at the stations and at the courthouse.
The Bushes' first encounter with West Texas racism came when they casually invited a black man, working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to come by their temporary home in neighboring Odessa. The man had the tact to stay away, but neighbors heard about this and warned the elder George Bush to stop these invitations unless he wanted to be tarred and feathered.
Racial slurs were routine, and young George picked up the words from neighbors. Once when he was about 7 years old he used one in the living room in front of his mother, Barbara.
Michael Proctor, who lived across the street and was playing with George at the time, remembers watching as Mrs. Bush grabbed her son by the ear and dragged him into the bathroom. She washed his mouth out with soap as he spluttered indignantly.
''His family was probably the only one around that didn't use racial slurs,'' Mr. Proctor said. ''I probably didn't realize it was wrong until I saw that.''
Alongside the racism directed at blacks, there was a measured respect for the Mexicans who came over the border to work in the oil fields. As a boomtown, Midland needed laborers and welcomed Mexican immigrants, who were regarded as hard-working and thrifty. Some old friends find an echo of that attitude in Mr. Bush's efforts to push the Republican Party to reach out to immigrants.
''We saw these people cross the border and just wanting a good job,'' recalls Randall Roden, a neighbor boy and best friend. Mr. Roden recalls going out with George and his father to an oil well and spending the night sleeping in the back of the Bushes' station wagon as the crew -- Mexicans among them -- struggled to get the well going.
''I formed the very strong impression, and I think George has the same
one, that these people came for economic opportunity and worked very
hard,'' Mr. Roden said. ''If you wanted a Mexican worker to have a new
pair of boots, you'd have to buy it for him. Because if you gave him
money, he'd send it home.''
George W. Bush, though born in 1946 in New Haven, Conn., while his father was still an over-achieving student at Yale, moved to West Texas when he was not quite 2 and grew up in this nurturing environment. These days, as the son of a president and scion of a wealthy family, he is often perceived as a child of privilege, but neighbors in those days insist that in the 1950's that was not the case.
The Bush family in the Northeast had money, but the elder George left all that behind to make his own fortune in West Texas. Equipped with connections but initially without seed money, George and Barbara Bush and little George, their firstborn, settled in a tiny apartment in the hard-driving oil town of Odessa, where they shared a bathroom with a mother-daughter team of prostitutes living next door.
Local people say that you raise hell in Odessa but raise a family in nearby Midland, a much more respectable place. So, after a one-year interlude in California, the Bushes moved to Midland, living in a bright blue 847-square-foot bungalow on a newly built street in which every home was identical -- but painted bright colors to make them seem different. It was called Easter Egg Row, because the houses looked like colored eggs.
The family prospered in the oil business and moved into a series of nicer houses in Midland, culminating in one with a swimming pool. But this was not as much of a draw as it might have been. Just down the street lived Peggy Porter, one of the cutest girls in school, and because she had a pool as well, it was in much greater demand than the Bush family's.
Occasionally George W.'s grandfather, Senator Prescott S. Bush of Connecticut, would visit and cause a mild stir of interest in the neighborhood. But for the most part, the Bush family was regarded as fairly typical of the out-of-staters.
These days, Governor Bush is often seen as a princeling, the son of a president, the scion of a famous family, and Al Gore as more of his own man. But in the 1950's and early 1960's, it was the other way around. Back then, the name George Bush belonged only to an obscure Texas businessman. George W.'s closest connection to the White House was that he was a descendant on his mother's side of Franklin Pierce, America's 14th president. In contrast, in those days ''Albert Gore'' was virtually a household name, belonging to a prominent senator (the present candidate's father and namesake) who was sometimes mentioned as presidential or vice-presidential timber. The senator lost his seat in 1970 and faded into obscurity.
Yet young George was not some country hick, and he also learned to fit into the world of his Connecticut grandparents. The family regularly spent part of the summer at the family retreat in Kennebunkport, Me., and in 1954 the father took George and his best friend, Randall Roden, to Washington to see the White House, the United States Capitol and a baseball game with the Washington Senators (whose later incarnation would move to Texas and become the Rangers, owned in part by George W. Bush).
They had lunch at the senator's home in Georgetown, and a thirsty Randall promptly demonstrated the distance from Midland to Georgetown by drinking from his finger bowl.
When they are tracked down, the boys and girls who once played dodgeball at Sam Houston Elementary School, while now scattered around the country, offer recollections that are very similar: Midland was an idyllic place in which to grow up, and George W. Bush was a very typical child. In contrast to other recent presidential candidates, Mr. Bush in childhood is remarkable primarily for his ordinariness.
''He wasn't any different from anybody else,'' recalled Robert A. McCleskey, an old playmate. ''You read about Clinton and Gore and how at that age they were planning to be president. Not Bush.''
As a boy, Mr. Bush's ambition was to be another Mickey Mantle.
''All George ever wanted to be was a Major League baseball player,''
recalled a buddy, Terry Throckmorton. ''That's all he ever talked about.''
No one has ever accused Mr. Bush of being an intellectual, and the indifference to books started early. Childhood friends recall Mr. Bush reading only two sets of books for pleasure -- the Hardy boys and a series of mystery books about baseball. As one asks about his reading habits, there are a few snickers.
''Did we sit around in those days reading books?'' asked Mr. McCleskey, smiling broadly. ''No.''
George and Barbara Bush led a drive to build a school library (the school did not previously have one), but books were not a major part of a boy's childhood in Midland. Erstwhile acquaintances, while deeply admiring of the Bushes' goodness and decency, have trouble recalling early signs of greatness in the son.
''Well, no, I never did think about what he might do in life,'' said Austine Crosby, his third-grade teacher. ''He was just a good, well-rounded young man, and he did his work.''
And academically? ''He was O.K.,'' Mrs. Crosby said, a bit defensively. ''He was O.K.''
So was he in the top quarter of his class academically?
''Well, in the upper half, anyway.''
Even if he did not distinguish himself as a student, former classmates describe him as smart and blessed with an excellent memory. He had a passion for baseball statistics, a first-rate collection of baseball cards and a reputation as such a shrewd trader that boys were careful not to agree to a trade with George Bush without thinking it over very carefully.
In the mid-1950's, George came up with a scheme that showed remarkable ingenuity and helped make his collection of baseball cards the best around. He began sending baseball cards to famous players, enclosing return postage and a cheery good-luck message, and asking the players to autograph the cards and send them back.
This way, he got autographed cards from Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and other famous players. Some of those cards are now worth thousands of dollars.
Mr. Bush's lifelong adoration of baseball began when he and other neighborhood boys would go early to school to play ball. Mr. Bizilo, the principal, would take off his jacket, loosen his tie and hit balls for the boys to field.
George was a good ballplayer, friends say, a bit on the small side but
making up for it with enthusiasm and aggressiveness. He played catcher for
the Cubs, a Little League team, and made it to the town's Little League
Midland may not have had the best schools, George's onetime playmates say, but -- like Hot Springs, Ark., where Bill Clinton grew up -- it offered a nurturing environment and self-confidence for life.
''There's an assurance that you have growing up in a place like Midland, a self-confidence and a real genuine interest in connecting with people,'' said Marge Petty, the other politician in the group (a Democratic state senator in Kansas).
In particular, it was in Midland that Mr. Bush first learned to fit in, even if his parents were Yankees and his grandfather a senator. That ability to adapt and bridge groups has never left him.
Moreover, Midland values were remarkably unshaken by the 1960's. Some Midland alumni say they let their hair grow a bit longer, but -- like George W. Bush -- they mostly stood with the establishment instead of rejecting it. Very few seem to have protested significantly against the Vietnam War, seriously used drugs, thought of police as ''pigs,'' denounced their parents as oppressors or picked up a copy of Das Kapital.
''It's a town of embedded values,'' Mr. Bush recalled, adding that it had ''a heavy dose of individualism and fairly healthy disrespect for government.'' Asked if his own skepticism about the role for government is a product of Midland attitudes, Mr. Bush paused and finally nodded, saying: ''I think there's a parallel there, I do.''
Midland was steeped in optimism, and for many people growing up here in the 1950's, the moral of childhood was that the system worked, that anyone who struggled enough in that baking desert had a good chance of finding oil and striking it rich. The trajectory of the Bush family itself, from the apartment with the shared bathroom to the sprawling house and pool, underscored the point.
''The lesson lasted with George W. for years,'' said Bill Minutaglio, a Texan who has written a biography of Mr. Bush. ''I think he truly believes that people can win the lottery if they work hard, that if they put their nose to the grindstone it'll all work out without government help or intrusion.''
The antipathy for government seems a little odd, from afar, because in those days the oil business depended heavily on quirks in the tax code to encourage investments. Still, when the people of Midland sought a theater, a hospital and a new baseball diamond, they did not ask the government but raised money themselves and turned out on the weekends to do much of the work on their own.
When Mr. Bush talks about ''compassionate conservatism'' or ''faith-based initiatives,'' he evokes what old classmates remember as the spirit of Midland of the 1950's. Asked if that is what he has in mind, Mr. Bush interrupts half-way through the question. ''Yeah, absolutely,'' he said.
Those who know Midland are convinced that Mr. Bush is sincere when he
preaches compassion and calls for a ''responsibility era.'' But some also
admit that it is fair to question the relevance of lessons from a town
where raw capitalism made so many people rich and where community spirit
wove such a strong safety net.
In addition to church groups, various civic organizations were also active, and one of the local rituals for children was the meetings with cookies and milk at the home of a nice old lady who represented the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The cookies were digested more thoroughly than the teachings.
''We were terrible to animals,'' recalled Mr. Throckmorton, laughing. A dip behind the Bush home turned into a small lake after a good rain, and thousands of frogs would come out.
''Everybody would get BB guns and shoot them,'' Mr. Throckmorton said. ''Or we'd put firecrackers in the frogs and throw them and blow them up.''
When he was not blowing up frogs, young George -- always restless and something of a natural leader -- would lead neighborhood children on daredevil expeditions around town, seeing how close they could come to breaking their necks. George also quickly acquired a colorful vocabulary.
''Georgie has grown to be a near-man, talks dirty once in a while and occasionally swears, aged 4 and a half,'' his father despaired in a letter to a friend in 1951. In another letter four years later, he lamented: ''Georgie aggravates the hell out of me at times.''
There was one terrible interruption in this relaxed life, occurring when George was 7. He was at school when he saw his parents' green Oldsmobile drive up in the parking lot. At first he thought he saw his 3-year-old sister, Robin, through the window.
But his eyes were playing tricks on him. His parents had come to break the news to him that Robin had just died of leukemia. The loss staggered the Bush family, and some friends say that George's closeness to his mother dates partly from his efforts to comfort her at that time.
His mother's hair began to turn gray, though she was just 28, and she often dissolved into tears. George's father worked hard and traveled frequently, and so the boy spent much more time with his mother than his father -- acquiring in particular her lacerating wit.
Robin's death is something that he has talked about very rarely with friends, and even some of his roommates at boarding school and college did not know about her. But occasionally when the moment was right, he would confide to friends about his tears and grief at the time, about his incomprehension that Robin could have been dying without his parents telling him.
Close friends say he had nightmares for years afterward. The death also left him as a quasi-only child, for his next-oldest sibling, Jeb, was six and a half years younger. Neil and Marvin were 9 and 10 years younger than George, and Dorothy was 13 years younger. So while George occasionally used Jeb as a punching bag in childhood squabbles, and always relished his role as elder brother, most of the time his playmates and confidants were friends and roommates rather than siblings.
Soon after Robin's death, George returned to school. Most of the time,
the despair was hidden, and on the surface he soon reverted to the
wise-cracking imp they had known before.
Mr. Bush's political debut appears to have come in the seventh grade, although both he and his wife, Laura, (who was in the same seventh grade but barely knew him) say they have no recollection of it. Classmates recall that he ran for seventh-grade class president against Jack Hanks.
Jack was a formidable candidate, and four years later at Boys Nation he would be elected vice president, defeating a personable candidate from Arkansas named Bill Clinton. Yet in running against George, Jack was less fortunate, and classmates say that George was elected by a narrow margin.
''I voted for George because he was cuter,'' recalled Peggy Porter Weiss, ''and in the seventh grade that's what counted.''
Still, former classmates say that if they had been told that one of their number would become a presidential candidate, they would not have thought of George Bush. Instead, they say, the assumption would have been that it would be Bill Wood.
Mr. Wood, as bright and ambitious as he was athletic, beat out George Bush on the football field and was the first-string quarterback on the seventh-grade team (Mr. Bush was the second-string quarterback). Mr. Wood eventually became the junior high school and high school student council president and even headed the statewide association of student councils. If any young man in Midland seemed destined for the White House, classmates remember, it was he.
''Since then, the only thing I ever ran for,'' said Mr. Wood, now a
lawyer and a bit flattered and amused by the memories of his classmates,
''was the school board.''
Articles in this series will examine the lives of the presidential
candidates ast the campaign progresses. The nest article will explore Al
Gore's dual boyhood, in Washington and in Carthage, Tenn.