Younger. Wilder?

He lived it up for a while—but maybe not as much as we think.

June 1999By Comments

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 on a hot Houston afternoon, he strolled shirtless behind his dad, smirking at the crowd. Donald Ensenat, a roommate of Bush’s in Houston, told a reporter that in those days weighty matters were low on their list of priorities. “I think we were worried about who our dates were,” he said.

By 1973, however, Bush realized it was time to get serious. He had applied to the University of Texas law school and had been rejected. (“I think that got under his skin a little bit, because I don’t think he was used to not doing what he wanted to do,” his mother said.) Without telling anyone in his family, he then applied to and was accepted at Harvard Business School. “He went there for the same reason a lot of us did,” says Clayton Day, Jr., one of his Yale classmates. “I had a lot of degrees, but I couldn’t do anything. It was like trade school.”

Two years later, driving a 1970 Cutlass, Bush retraced much of the same route his father took in 1948 to get from the East Coast to Odessa. He had decided to get into the oil business even though he knew next to nothing about it. “I said to myself, ‘Things would take care of themselves,’ and they did,” he recalled. Not that he’ll go down in history as one of Midland’s great oilmen. Living in a small, cluttered apartment that one friend described as a “toxic waste dump,” wearing notoriously unfashionable secondhand clothes (a prize was established in his honor at the Midland Country Club for the worst-dressed golfer), he started out as a landman, working for about $100 a day with independent producers like Buzz Mills, who nicknamed him Bush Boy. He spent his days going to courthouses around West Texas, looking through deeds to see who had the mineral rights to certain pieces of property. Later he started sniffing around the oil patch, trying to acquire some leases for potential ventures of his own. He named his first exploration company Arbusto Energy (pronounced “ar-boos-to,” the word is Spanish for “bush”). After he drilled a few dry holes, his friends sarcastically began calling the company “Ar-bust-o.”

Bush maintained his life-of-the-party reputation on the social circuit, though his Midland friend Joe O’Neill says he was always the first to leave a party. In 1977 O’Neill set Bush up on a date with Laura Welch, who was visiting her hometown of Midland. “He was struck by lightning when he met her,” Barbara Bush said, recalling how he spent a summer in Kennebunkport “calling back to Midland every minute. And then one day he said he was going home. I think he had called [Laura’s house] one day and a man had answered.” (Bush told me that he doesn’t remember the story.) Eventually, he brought Laura to meet his parents, and unlike the other women, she lasted longer than a day—much longer. Three months after they met, Bush married her.

Laura clearly had an effect on his life. Thoughtful and quiet, with a sly sense of humor, she was the yin to his yang, the quiet pool to his water volleyball. He began attending the Methodist church in Midland with her, and soon after their wedding, he decided to run for Congress. After his defeat, he decided to raise money for a drilling fund, much of it coming from prominent friends of the Bush family willing to take a chance on the relatively inexperienced oilman. But Arbusto was still unable to “bag the elephant”—the oilmen’s phrase for making a significant oil strike. When oil prices plummeted in the early 1980’s, Bush merged his company with another; then that company merged with the publicly held Harken Energy Corp. of Irving. As part of the sale, Bush received shares of Harken stock—a good deal, considering that Arbusto had reportedly lost $400,000 in the six months before the merger—which has led his critics to suggest that the company made the deal for purely political reasons: as a means of getting in good with his famous father and landing a contract to drill for oil off the coast of Bahrain. (Harken had no previous experience in Persian Gulf oil and gas exploration.) Government regulators later scrutinized the deal as well as the decision by Bush to sell his 212,140 shares of Harken, then worth $848,560, just before the company announced poor quarterly earnings. But he was never charged with any wrongdoing. Nor was he found to have used his political connections to help Harken win the Bahrain contract.

Still, after his lucky survival in the oil business, many people—including some in his own family—wondered what he would do next. His own first cousin, John Ellis, once told the New York Times that Bush was “on the road to nowhere at age forty.” And he might have been, had it not been for a trip he made to the family’s Kennebunkport compound on a day that evangelist Billy Graham had stopped by. “It was this beautiful Maine night,” Bush told me, “and Billy just sat there and talked to us, and we asked him questions and shared our thoughts. He and I had a visit afterward—it was just a real personal religious visit—and I started reading the Bible.”

At that point, Bush said, the Bible began to take on a far more significant role in his life. His theology was conservative: He believed (and still does) that there is no place in Heaven for those who do not accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. He also began making changes in his lifestyle: He stopped smoking and chewing tobacco, and most important of all, he quit drinking. In the summer of 1986 he and a couple of his Midland friends took their wives to the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs to celebrate Bush’s fortieth birthday. After he awoke one morning with a wicked hangover, he suddenly vowed never to touch the stuff again. Although he has insisted that he did not consider himself an alcoholic—“I drank sometimes beyond the amount that I should have,” he told me, “but I never drank during the day”—others had worried about his behavior under the influence. Laura herself once said that she sometimes would ask her husband to give up drinking “after some night that wasn’t particularly great.”

When Bush returned from Colorado, he didn’t attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. Nor did he seem to struggle, at least publicly, with whatever psychological need drove him to drink. Just like that, he stopped—and according to his friends, he has never been seen with a drink in his hand again. Almost impulsively, with little thought attached to his decision, Bush was headed in a new direction. No one could have predicted where that new direction would take him.

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