IT SOUNDED LIKE A BAD MUSTARD, BUT IF you were young and upscale and single in booming Houston in the late 1960’s, Chateaux Dijon was the place to live. The nearly four-hundred-unit apartment complex, just a few blocks from the new Galleria mall, was a social hub for the first wave of baby boomers coming to town. On summer weekends recent Yale University graduate George W. Bush could often be found in the middle of the volleyball pool, one of the louder pools in the complex.
Sitting by one of the quieter pools was a pretty young librarian and schoolteacher from Midland named Laura Welch, but the two didn’t cross paths. Back then, Bush was not exactly drawn to quiet pools. He drove a sporty Triumph and on weekends flew fighter jets for the Texas Air National Guard at nearby Ellington Air Force Base. He was cocky, boisterous, and a terrific flirt. “I remember every guy back then was mesmerized with the daughter of the designer Oleg Cassini, who happened to be living in Houston,” recalls one of Bush’s Houston buddies, Doug Hannah, the son of real estate developer turned space rocket entrepreneur David Hannah. “A lot of us took a run at her, but it was George who ended up dating her.”
Bush once told me that he was “pretty cavalier” in his early twenties. “I was rootless,” he said. “I had no responsibilities whatsoever.” Actually, he worked various jobs, if only halfheartedly: He spent less than a year at an agribusiness company, which he called “dull,” and then helped run a program, again for less than a year, in which Houston athletes mentored poor African American boys. He changed girlfriends even more quickly. “He brought some lulus to Maine in those days,” his mother, Barbara Bush, said in 1994. “They were very nice, but it would only take a day before he would decide they wouldn’t fit in with the family.”
Perhaps because Bush still refers to this period of his life as “my so-called wild, exotic days,” reporters invariably ask him whether he used illegal drugs or drank too much. During the 1994 governor’s race, he brusquely told the Houston Chronicle, “Maybe I did [use drugs], maybe I didn’t.…How I behaved as an irresponsible youth is irrelevant to this campaign.…What matters is how I behave as an adult.” This past April, when I asked him to talk about his behavior in those days, he refused. “There is a game in politics called disprove a negative, and I’m not going to play it,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen—leading a candidate down the blind alley of rumors and allegations. It degrades the process. I think it’s finally time for someone to stand up and say, ‘I made mistakes. I’ve learned from my mistakes. My pledge is to bring honor and integrity to the office and not play the Washington, D.C., game, or sometimes the Texas political game, of ‘let’s see if we can destroy the candidate with rumors.’”
In truth, the loose talk about Bush may be somewhat exaggerated. “He probably gave his aura a little extra mystique in the earlier interviews he did,” Hannah says. “He wasn’t that wild. We were such cheapskates back then that if someone’s parents were willing to pay for our liquor, we would go over there, have dinner and drinks, and play Jeopardy until it was time for someone to drive us home.” One evening Bush went drinking with his youngest brother, Marvin, who was then just fifteen. On the way back to his parents’ house he drove over a neighbor’s trash can. When his father asked him to step into the den to talk about what happened, Bush snapped, “You want to go mano a mano right here?” Some believe the incident symbolized the son’s need to stand up to his far more successful father, but not Bush. “It was probably the result of two stiff bourbons, nothing more,” he told me with a wry smile.
Still, Bush knows that the media are going to dig through his past, looking for something new in the form of juicy anecdotes. When I called on the manager of the Chateaux Dijon in April to ask if anyone there remembered Bush, he told me that a reporter for the Washington Post had just been in his office asking the same thing. No one doubts that one question in particular will be asked about Bush over and over, just as it was asked about Bill Clinton and Dan Quayle during their campaigns for national office: Did he try to dodge the Vietnam draft? In 1994, soon after he first announced for governor, I asked him if he had joined the Texas Air National Guard to avoid the war. “Hell, no,” he replied. “Do you think I’m going to admit that?”
Bush said he was not given special help to get into the Guard—“They were having trouble getting people to volunteer to go to pilot school,” he said—but his critics insist that strings had to have been pulled to get him in because former Guard officials have maintained that there was a long waiting list. And since the National Guard is run by the state, with its adjutant general picked by the governor, there are any number of ways that someone could have intervened on behalf of a child of privilege. “Obviously, the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the Speaker of the House had a lot of influence on the National Guard,” says a state official from that era. “And if you look at that list, you’ll see, besides George W. Bush, many sons of politically prominent Texas families who just happened to get into the Guard—regardless of the waiting lists.” Indeed, Lloyd Bentsen’s son was in the same Guard unit as George W.
When it came to politics, young Bush hardly seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. He traveled the state giving speeches during his father’s 1970 Senate campaign, but his irreverence was on display. During a charity walk