Politics & Policy

Cast Away

During her 23-year marriage to a brother of the president of the United States, Sharon Bush dutifully played the role of stay-at-home mother while reaping the rewards of her famous last name. Only now does she understand the terms of inclusion in the world’s most powerful family: Membership can be revoked at any time

The Exile: Sharon Bush, in Houston on March 8, 2004. Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden
The Exile: Sharon Bush, in Houston on March 8, 2004. Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

Sharon Bush is not the best witness in her own defense. Even before the collapse of her 23-year marriage, the excitable, diminutive blonde possessed a fervid, eager anxiety—the kind that some people shy away from, the kind that telegraphed, maybe, that she was trying too hard or wanting too much. And as her marriage was failing, Sharon engaged in the kind of desperate behavior that could be fodder for a country and western song or a lot of sessions in a therapist’s office: She made at least one late-night phone call in which she called her husband’s lover a “Mexican whore”; she tried to enlist the aid of her fourteen-year-old daughter to break into her husband’s bachelor pad; she tried to filch a few strands of his hair for drug testing; and she talked, at length, to a Vanity Fair reporter who in turn reported that Sharon had asked a friend to swab the cheek of her soon-to-be ex-husband’s lover’s child, so that she could arrange a secret paternity test to determine whether he was the toddler’s father. “Do you think someone got to her?” Sharon asked about the story’s author. We were in the plush, hushed environment that is Starbucks, and Sharon’s eyes at first widened in fear and then narrowed in suspicion, as she fought to keep her voice down and her tears in check.

Which is all to say that anyone who wanted to suggest that Sharon Bush was an unstable person could do so without much trouble, and some people who might want to do that would be, in no particular order, Neil Bush, Sharon’s ex-husband and a brother of the president of the United States; George Herbert Walker Bush, her former father-in-law and the forty-first president; her former mother-in-law and former first lady, Barbara Bush; and probably, her former brother-in-law and President George W. Bush, who has better things to do this election year than worry about the ramifications of a nasty family divorce. Various surrogates have in fact been beating the tom-toms, suggesting that Sharon will miss her husband far less than the opportunity to exploit his last name and hitch rides on Air Force One, that Neil is a wonderful man who deserves, as he wrote to his girlfriend, “a loving, caring, energetic, low maintenance, sexy, passionate, intelligent level-headed woman.”

On the other hand, Sharon has been through a lot. Her marriage was troubled before May 2002, but the problems certainly crested when she received an e-mail that month from her husband, who was traveling on business in Dubai. “It’s very clear that we have met basic material needs, but it is also really obvious that we are failing to meet each other’s core needs,” Neil wrote. “We’re almost out of money and I’ve lost my patience for being compared to my brothers, for being put down for my inability to make money, and tired of not feeling loved. I’m sure you’ve lost your patience, that you have felt abandoned and a deep sense of loneliness.” Investigating Neil’s reference in the correspondence to another woman, Sharon found herself shut out by her in-laws. “You talk to your mother. Neilsie will talk to me,” Barbara reportedly told Sharon in a remark that has since gone global.

As if the collapse of her marriage wasn’t bad enough, Sharon then had to sit mute during depositions taken last spring in preparation for a divorce trial while her attorney, a colorful man by the name of Marshall Davis Brown, recited from letters Neil had written to his lover, Maria Andrews, during the fall of 2002, when Sharon still believed reconciliation was possible. “You’re the only woman I think about, want to be with, and am absolutely committed to,” Neil wrote. “Sitting in front of your home with the moon so full in the sky makes my heart long for the day when we can fill each other with the magic and power of love!!” Sometime after that, Maria’s ex-husband got into the act, suing Sharon on behalf of his toddler, accusing her of slander because she had told too many people—the employees of a smoothie shop, the readers of the Houston Chronicle—that Neil was the boy’s father.

Then, for Sharon, things got really bad. Her vain hope that Neil might return evaporated on March 6, when he married Maria at the palacelike abode of Jamal Daniel—“His wife was my best friend!” Sharon shrieked—and she was seared by the toast given the newlyweds by her seventeen-year-old son, Pierce. “To one of the finest examples of two people in love,” he said to his father and new stepmother.

Near self-implosion at our kaffeeklatsch a few days after the wedding, Sharon fought for control, preferring to present the appearance of the confident, outgoing soccer mom she had been rather than the image of the vengeful, fearful divorcée family loyalists were peddling. At 51 she has the flawless skin and faultless highlights of a well-cared-for woman; the first time we met, she’d accessorized with a cheery Pucci-esque coat. She wears, routinely, a substantial gold ring with a pink sapphire and a cluster of tiny rubies—a Christmas present her husband brought from the Middle East. On good days, she feels that it would be entirely possible to find a well-paying part-time job and start fresh. “Please write this,” she directed me in one phone call, the long vowels of her New Hampshire upbringing still evident beneath a rushing current of pain. “Please. Say that I’m perfectly grounded, put-together, looking for part-time employment since I’m a full-time mother. That I am very disappointed in Neil. Very disappointed. And that I’m very stable.” A day or so later, she was almost perky. “I’m so glad to be rid of this man and the phoniness of the Bushes’ family values,” she said of Neil and his assorted relations and hangers-on, the ones who suggest she had been in it for the Bush coattails. “Twenty-three years,” she said, her voice taut. “You’re not in it for the name or the connections, excuse me. Twenty-three years of normal life and worrying about the kids’ homework, who are their friends and when are they coming home?—I did it all.”

It is this last fact that trips her up every time: that she played it straight and Neil didn’t, and that now, under Texas divorce law, she is entitled to half of what her lawyers, forensic accountants, and private investigators could find and that it has amounted to not very much for the rest of her life. Thinking about her failed marriage again at Starbucks, she burst into tears. “I felt sorry for Neil,” she said, sobbing. “I just wanted to help!”

Sharon Bush wasn’t the first and surely won’t be the last person to feel that way about her ex-husband. Nor is she the first or the last person to learn, too late, that she misunderstood the terms and agreements for maintaining membership in the most powerful family on earth.

All in the Family: The Bush clan posing in front of their retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, in the summer of 1986. Neil and Sharon are seated on the far left, next to George W. and Laura. Jeb and Columba are seated on the far right.

“I am the happiest guy I know,” Neil Bush told me on a sunny day in February, at another Starbucks. It is an article of faith among the senior Bushes and many people close to Neil that he is an innocent who has paid a high price for inclusion in his illustrious clan. Neil disagrees. “I reject the idea of myself as a tragic figure,” he told me, and indeed, “tragic” wasn’t exactly the word I might have applied to a man whose experiences with prostitutes in Hong Kong and Thailand had been splashed across newspapers around the world, along with the fact that he had received a few pretty nice windfalls—with more to come, possibly—for serving as a consultant of dubious expertise to various international concerns. Nor did Neil seem bothered that his divorce had, once again, resurrected his involvement in the Silverado Savings and Loan scandal, the one that left American taxpayers holding the bag for around $1 billion.

In fact, there was nothing about Neil on that day that suggested tragedy, much less ignominy: He is, at 49, lanky and handsome in a familiar way, with the forty-first president’s long nose, untroubled brow, and propensity to squint. The day we met, Neil wore khakis and a crisp white shirt rolled up at the cuffs, the better to give his long, slender hands free reign: Chatting in high gear, he cupped them, flailed them, stabbed the air, patted my shoulder, and answered his cell phone, all in the space of a minute or three. He was a youthful version of his youthful father, with the latter’s impeccable manners (“I’m really sorry to miss you, and please accept my apologies,” he told a caller) and friendly freneticism.

If bad press and a broken heart were forcing Sharon ever deeper into the role of cuckoo political wife (Martha Mitchell, Joan Kennedy, et cetera.), Neil had mastered the family art of blithe, graceful stonewalling. He wasn’t going to talk about bad news; he, like all Bushes, was looking forward, not back (or, least of all, inside), which meant that he was happily envisioning marriage to a woman he loved and pressing on with Ignite, the educational-software business that for Neil was a personal crusade to “create a joyful environment” for kids who, like him, were unhappy and unmotivated at school. “It works, and it’s going to get better and better,” Neil promised of his company, and anyone who looked into his clear eyes and open face at that moment would have wanted to root for him.

He has a gift for the fervent sell, and his mother saw it early. Neil, the fourth of six children, was six years old and home sick from school one day when Barbara asked him to read to her. “I discovered that not only could Neil not read, he didn’t have a clue,” she wrote in A Memoir. “Yet, he was getting all A’s at school, including in reading. . . . So I went to his class to see this ‘great little reader.’ It was a fascinating study in manipulation. The teacher had the children read a line or two, and when she got to Neil, he flashed that great smile of his and paused. A student helped him with the first word, the teacher the next, and so it went. Neil had been faking his way through reading—not uncommon for children with reading problems—and nobody had noticed.”

Neil was diagnosed with dyslexia soon after, but by then he had already learned something critical: that he could use his charm (his own, and later that of his powerful relations) to persuade others to do the tough stuff while he remained as blameless and buoyant as, well, a first-grader. His failings later in life would cause the press to paint him as a black sheep, the sorry sibling every free-world leader has to bear, but in fact, Neil has always been much more like the rest of his famous family—in his psychological makeup and in the way he conducts business—than anyone cares to admit.

George Bush with sons (left to right) Neil, Jeb, W., and Marvin.Getty Images

Last March I attended a fundraiser in Houston for the Kinkaid School billed as “An Evening with the 41st President of the United States, George Bush, and Mrs. Barbara Bush.” Three of the Bushes’ sons had gone to Kinkaid (George, Jeb, and Neil), so the evening had an easy, familiar air that began and ended with a standing ovation. For the next hour exactly, George and Barbara Bush sat world-leader-like, in two white wing chairs on the stage—he was slouched and relaxed, she was poised and acerbic—and performed the engaging, self-deprecating shtick that has always separated the Bushes, in loyalists’ eyes, from the doomed Kennedys, the glitzy Reagans, and the amoral Clintons. With nearly sixty years of marriage behind them, “Every day is a good day for us,” Barbara confessed. Optimism should never be underrated: “You can’t get down,” George insisted. “When you lose one, you gotta get on with your life.” His 1992 loss was a minor bump in the road. “There are a lot worse things than losing an election,” Barbara said. George agreed. “What matters is family, and I can’t emphasize that enough,” he said, with a lot of emphasis.

Basking in the Bushes’ confident, affectionate glow, I wanted to believe that the family had gotten where it is today not because of what Kevin Phillips suggests in American Dynasty—that the Bushes have endured because they created and maintained through four generations an ingenious and impregnable cabal of oil, intelligence, political, and investment banking interests—but because, as they said, they loved their children, stressed education, and exemplified good values.

The latter is a mythology they have sold just as well inside the family as outside. “If I had any complaints in those wonderful early days in Houston,” Barbara wrote in A Memoir, “it was that George and I didn’t have time to do a lot together. He was busy building a business, which involved a lot of travel, and we had five young children and a new house, which meant a lot of expenses.” This was the template for the Bush marriage, one that shaped Neil’s life and that of his brothers. He grew up with a father he deeply admired but rarely saw; instead of the man, he knew and loved the myth, the George Bush who had abandoned a privileged East Coast existence to make it on his own in Texas. Neil’s mother stayed home and, virtually alone, raised the children, earning the nickname the Enforcer.

If this was what Neil was looking for in a mate, he probably satisfied most of the requirements when, campaigning for his father’s first race for the Republican presidential nomination, in New Hampshire in 1979, he met 27-year-old Sharon Smith. The spunky young woman with the sparkling grin was not from wealth or privilege; she already had one marriage behind her and was working as a real estate agent and a schoolteacher to support herself. In contrast to the sorority girls Neil would have met while a student at Tulane and the debs he squired around Houston, Sharon would have probably seemed both sturdier and more ambitious. She didn’t come from a fine old family, but she wanted to fit into Neil’s. “I wanted to do the right thing,” she told me.

Whatever that was. After a brief courtship and a wedding ceremony in the church in Maine where Neil’s grandparents had married, Sharon—described as “darling” in Barbara’s 1994 memoir—started to join in a family portrait requested by a photographer from a newsmagazine. Barbara, standing with her husband and children, asked the daughters-in-law to step out. “I’m sorry,” she told Sharon on her wedding day. “We don’t want you in this picture.”

From that day on, she followed Neil’s lead. They moved to oil-rich Denver in the early eighties because that’s where Neil could best replicate the success his father had had in oil-rich fifties Midland. Like his father and his brothers, Neil started out with a lot of money and power behind him. George H. W. Bush was then vice president and heading Ronald Reagan’s task force on regulatory relief, as part of the push for deregulation of financial institutions. “Thus throughout the eighties, in their own ways, George and Neil Bush led parallel lives, members of an old family lending the imprimatur of legitimacy to the fast new money,” Sidney Blumenthal wrote in the Guardian in 1990.

In Denver, Neil and Sharon followed family imperatives; they joined the right church and made the right friends, as George H. W. Bush had, the ones necessary to make a small fortune and, as Neil frequently hinted, to launch a political career. Neil founded his own oil company, JNB Exploration, as his father and oldest brother had done. Sharon showed a gritty ability to climb the social ladder, chairing charity balls and creating her own foundation for abused children while raising three kids, Lauren, Pierce, and Ashley. “They were the golden couple back then,” said Rex John, a Houston publicist who befriended the Bushes in Denver.

It may be, as John said, that Neil’s ingenuousness—as opposed to, say, greed or ambition—got him into trouble. “He’s exceedingly naive and well intentioned,” said John, a subscriber to the tragic-figure thesis. Neil gladly accepted a board position with a rapidly expanding savings and loan called Silverado, at the request of the thrift’s chairman. “He told me he wanted me because I was younger than anyone else on the board, that I could add freshness, new blood,” Neil, who was 29 at the time, would explain later. “I never pretended to be an expert in the savings and loan business, and that wasn’t what he was looking for.” As chronicled in Silverado, by Steven Wilmsen, he also allowed himself to be taken under the wing of two high-flying real estate speculators, who happily invested in his oil company. One partner gave Neil $100,000 to invest in a particular deal and told him that if the deal went bad, Neil wouldn’t have to pay him back. It did, and Neil didn’t.

But when oil prices collapsed, followed by the collapse of real estate, followed by the collapse of the thrifts that had floated that game—a story familiar to lots of Texans—Neil’s business dealings attracted the attention of federal regulators. His oil company had never found much oil; it had survived instead on a series of ever more generous loans from his backers. (George W. Bush got a similar start: His unsuccessful Arbusto oil company was eventually merged into Harken Energy, which returned to him $500,000 in stock, along with consulting fees and, according to Kevin Phillips in American Dynasty, “the unmistakable message that his financing rested on his name and connections.”) Neil ran into trouble, however, when, in August 1988, Silverado posted the biggest loss in Colorado history—$100 million—and it was revealed that he had allowed his two biggest backers to borrow prodigiously from the thrift without disclosing his connections to them.

The year the regulators moved to close Silverado, 1988, was also the year that George H. W. Bush was running for president; Neil resigned from the board, claiming that he didn’t want the bank regulators to feel that his presence could affect their investigations. (As Silverado notes, there is still argument over whether the Reagan-Bush administration interfered with regulators to postpone the investigation until after the election.) In press interviews, Neil denied that he had turned a blind eye to conflicts of interest and accused government investigators of using him as “a political football.” He told reporters he was drinking fruit juices and taking care of himself and still spoke about running for public office. But the once glamorous Bushes were having a hard time: Neil was driving a borrowed car, and his parents were helping pay the bills. As Sharon would later explain in a deposition, “I just assumed Neil was in the spot because of his father being president. It was a political thing.” In the meantime, angry Denverites were picketing their home. Sharon heard that the FDIC was seeking $200 million from Neil and ten other Silverado officials while she was picking up her kids at school.

In 1991 the Office of Thrift Supervision sanctioned Neil, saying that his actions while a Silverado board member constituted “multiple conflicts of interest.” Because Silverado was FDIC-insured, its fall left the American taxpayers with a bill for $1.3 billion. Neil gave a half-hearted apology to the Washington Post, stating: “I happened to be one of hundreds of other American businessmen and women who served as an outside director on the board of a savings and loan institution that failed during the eighties. I regret that the institution’s failure cost taxpayers so much money.”

He came by this lack of contrition naturally; throughout this period Neil’s parents remained faithful and supportive. “I can’t believe that [Neil’s] name would appear in the paper if it was Jones, not Bush. In any event, I know that the guy is totally honest,” President Bush wrote to Congressman Lud Ashley, a former Yale classmate, who would eventually raise the $50,000 needed to pay off Neil’s portion of a $49.5 million settlement in the FDIC lawsuit. Barbara suffered privately. “[Neil’s] whole problem is that he is our son,” she wrote in her journal during this period. “He was investigated by the government and the press, who decided Neil was guilty before he even had his say.” But, as she wrote in A Memoir, there was a bright side: “When Neil moved from Denver to Houston, his longtime friends there welcomed him with open arms.”

Neil facing the House Banking Committee in 1990, following the collapse of Silverado Savings and Loan.Terry Ashe/Time Life Pictures via Getty Images

Houston in the early nineties was not unlike Denver in the eighties. It had made a dramatic, ego-boosting recovery from its own oil bust, and people in the energy and tech businesses—particularly highfliers at Enron—were making more money than seemed humanly possible. Those people could not have cared less about Neil’s Silverado issues; Houston has always had a forgiving attention span, and more to the point, Neil’s father, whom Houstonians have regarded as one of their own since he represented them in Congress, was in the White House.

Neil came to town with an impressive enough title: director of finance for a sports cable company called Transmedia Communications. Sharon, when not busy with the kids, volunteered with myriad charities. “I wanted to be a Point of Light,” she told me. The local press couldn’t get enough of the couple. Houston LifeStyle magazine profiled them in 1995 with the headline “The Bushes Are Correct . . . Privately, Professionally, and Politically.” The glowing story ended with “We’re glad Neil said, ‘We’re not perfect,’ ’cause we were beginning to think they are.”

Actually, there was a great deal of imperfection in the Neil Bush family at that time. The couple had arrived with little money, and Neil was effectively banned from working in banking because of Silverado. An older and wealthier version of his childhood reading circle had come to the family’s aid: The $60,000-a-year Transmedia job had been arranged through a friend and backer of his father who had raised more than $300,000 for his 1988 campaign. Friends of the elder Bushes’ also treated Neil, Sharon, and their three kids to free housing their first few years in town. It wasn’t until 1993 that they bought a modest ranch home in a pricey section of Memorial, the neighborhood that is the epicenter of prosperous Republican life in Houston.

Despite his public denials, Silverado had caused Neil some pain. He was in his mid-thirties and more determined than ever to prove that he could be as successful as his father and his brothers. By the early nineties, George W. was the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers and on his way to becoming governor of Texas; Jeb was successful in Florida real estate and launching a political career; and Marvin, the baby of the family, was showing a knack for making real money running a hedge fund. Neil, in contrast, had trouble finding real work, either because of his own misdeeds or in deference to the family’s political ambitions.

In Houston, however, there were always people close to—or wanting to be close to—the senior Bushes who were willing to help out. Nijan Fares, the son of a prominent Lebanese businessman, gave Neil a job traveling around the world selling tops to oil storage tanks. It was through Fares that Neil and Sharon met Jamal Daniel, a tall, courtly heir to an enormous Syrian fortune. Very few people in Houston’s wealthy social circles seemed to know or care exactly who Daniel was or what he did. His family was rumored to have been involved with the founding of the Syrian Ba’ath party; he seemed to have a great many companies (Uniteg, Finial, Carnavon and Grailwood at one time or another); and he liked to drop the names of the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. He was a big contributor to George W. Bush’s gubernatorial race in 1994 and early on displayed a keen generosity toward Neil: He put him on the board of his Crest Financial Services and paid him $60,000 a year for what Neil would eventually describe in a deposition as “miscellaneous consulting services as co-chairman of the company . . . such as answering the phone when [the other co-chairman] Jamal Daniel calls.”

Daniel took Neil, Sharon, and the kids to EuroDisney in 1992 and bought a $380,000 cottage for the family in Kennebunkport. The Financial Times recently reported that Neil wrote letters on Daniel’s behalf to potential investors; currently Daniel is also serving as an advisory board member of New Bridge Strategies, which counsels companies interested in rebuilding Iraq. New Bridge is chaired by former FEMA chief and George W. Bush’s staff chief, Joe Allbaugh, and boasts several former senior Bush administration officials on its board.

By the mid-nineties, Neil was calling himself a consultant, and what he was selling was Bush Inc. The senior Bushes, and Neil himself, have always denied that anyone has profited from an association with the family, but Neil in fact was simply bringing a family practice from the shadows into the light. (Consider George H. W. Bush’s Carlyle Group, where former administration officials now use their influence to create investment opportunities.) And though Neil usually stayed away from deals that had direct links to his brother’s presidential administration and earned a fairly modest annual salary that ranged in recent years from $60,000 to $180,000, he gained more than $1 million or so in various stock sales, all for doing precious little. Neil’s most promising consulting deal was more than $2 million in stock options for serving as a consultant to China’s Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing, even though he had no expertise in semiconductors at all.

Despite his globe-trotting, by 2000 Neil was financially strapped. He had invested his wealth in the stock market just as the tech bubble burst, and by his own admission, his family was spending more than he earned. He was on the road constantly, leaving the domestic details to his wife, as his father had done. Now Sharon was the Enforcer. Her good works—and perhaps her last name—had earned her the title of Outstanding Mother of the Year from the National Mother’s Day Committee, but she was unhappy. Lauren and Ashley were smart, good-natured, and compliant, but Pierce, though inordinately bright and engaging, was prone to rages that his mother, and his school, found increasingly problematic. After a doctor recommended medication, Sharon turned to her mother-in-law for help, hoping that Barbara could persuade Neil to follow the lead of another sibling who had put one of his children on medication. Barbara’s response was to hold a family conference—without Sharon.

“We see Neil and Sharon and their delightful children a lot,” Barbara wrote in a letter in 1999, “every Sunday, if they are in town and if we are in town.” But relations between Sharon Bush and her mother-in-law, never the best, had deteriorated. They were both strong-willed women who liked things their way, and their ways were different. When Sharon wanted Lauren to debut at the glitzy Hôtel de Crillon, in Paris, for instance, the professionally reserved senior Bushes disapproved; Sharon got Jamal Daniel to foot the bill. Sharon bristled when Neil was demoted in the family pecking order; she was insulted, for instance, when he was sent to campaign in small, out-of-the-way New Hampshire towns when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000. Sharon, who wasn’t always averse to using the family name to ease the progress of her own life, may have never understood that rebellion has its price. “She talked all over town about her mother-in-law, and of course it got back to Barbara,” said a friend of Neil’s. “She was disloyal.”

Sharon and her mother-in-law at the White House in 1989.Getty Images

In public Neil and Sharon looked like rich, accomplished members of the country’s most successful family. But in reality they were floating on a sea of largesse. (“Can you help me buy Ashley a horse?” a new Bush friend asked an old Bush friend once, at a dinner party.) Sharon liked the limelight, but she knew she was losing her family. Pierce’s problems were escalating, and Neil was rarely home. When he was there, he was distant and distracted.

One reason for Neil’s distance was that he had started a new Austin-based business in 1999, Ignite. The educational-software firm gave him something he had never had in his life: a purpose beyond extending the Bush family brand. Ignite was inspired, he often said, by Pierce’s learning problems, but developing the company was also a way to redress the difficulties that he too experienced as a child. As Sharon said, “Ignite was his therapy.”

I saw that and more as I watched Neil try to sell his concept to some teachers attending a workshop in Houston on a rainy Saturday last February. Ignite’s one finished product, an early-American-history course, is tailored, like most educational software, for today’s students’ attention spans and for overburdened teachers. A unit on the cotton gin, for instance, is accompanied by a hip-hop jingle that goes: “Cotton was king/Cotton so easy to grow/It was a cash crop/Oh, yeah!/And it led to a boom in the Southern eee-kon-oh-meeee!” If this approach to learning sounds familiar, maybe it is because Neil is not the first Bush sibling to display a preference for ingesting information in small bites.

By way of introduction, he told the story of his problems at school (“I remember struggling and having this incredibly painful feeling of not being able to keep up”) and displayed a cockeyed optimism (“Learning is effortless. Learning is a painless process. Learning is something we do naturally!”), as well as a wry candor (“By the way, I am the least political member of my family—I have no future in politics”). Even so, the group was about as welcoming as a Democratic caucus: The teachers stifled yawns and seemed skeptical that his software could make school fun and raise test scores. One educator approached him and began arguing passionately that class size, not content, makes the difference in educational quality. “Tell your brother we need smaller classes,” the teacher urged. The usually ebullient Neil stiffened. “Well, I don’t talk to him much,” he snapped. There was the Neil conundrum in a nutshell: He wasn’t supposed to capitalize on the family name, but he couldn’t avoid it either.

Maybe in the beginning Neil thought he could carry off Ignite on his own. But developing school software is competitive these days, even for people with expertise in the field. It wasn’t long before financial need—the company has had four rounds of financing—sent him back to the old familiar well. Jamal Daniel and the senior Bushes had been there at the beginning; Crest Financial Services put in $100,000, and the Bush Community Property Trust put in $50,000. Six months later, Crest put in another $249,998, and the senior Bushes another $150,000. Neil also got $500,000 from Michael Milken; the fallen creator of junk bonds was in turnaround as an education guru. Partners from other business ventures came in too, most notably Winston Wong, the son of one of Taiwan’s richest men—Neil’s contact on the Grace Semiconductor deal—and his sister Charlene, who was just charged with corporate espionage in Taiwan last year. The Wong siblings put in around $2 million.

A great many of Ignite’s benefactors had connections to the forty-first president. John Nau, a beer distributor who was appointed to head the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, invested $100,000. Hushang Ansary put $500,000 into Ignite; the former Iranian economics minister was a trustee of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation, donated $100,000 to George W. Bush’s inaugural committee, and now serves on the National Finance Committee of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign. The Bush family’s other Middle Eastern contacts also came through, particularly the Saudis, presumably still grateful for the U.S. aid against Saddam Hussein in 1991: Khalid Alireza, from one of Saudi Arabia’s richest families (with ties to the country’s royal family), contributed $500,000. Nasser Rashid, a consulting engineer to the Saudi king—and one of the richest men in the world—put in $500,000. Saad Hariri, a son of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, put in close to $1 million. Hamza al Kholi, a powerful Egyptian who is the chairman and CEO of the First Arabian Development and Investment Company, put in $1 million as well. One might be tempted to ask—as Sharon’s divorce lawyer did in Neil’s 2003 deposition—why Kholi chose to invest in Ignite. Neil’s answer: “He cares about kids.”

Friends of the Bush dynasty were also instrumental in getting Ignite into schools. In Houston, for instance, Ansary contributed to the Houston Independent School District Foundation; this organization raised additional funding for Ignite when HISD worried about implementing the program on a large scale. Even with all this help, Ignite faltered. At least once, Neil’s parents covered payroll with a $500,000 check from their personal account.

Better Days: Neil and Sharon decked out for a benefit in May 2001.Phyllis Hand

There was, of course, another reason Neil wasn’t focused on his marriage during this time. Although he waffled on occasion, he had pretty much decided it was over. As winter turned to spring in 2002, he and Sharon talked frankly about whether their marriage could or should survive. She wanted counseling; he didn’t. She didn’t understand how he could be traveling so much and earning so little; he felt that she was needling, nagging, and perpetually disappointed in him. Away in Dubai, he tried to be compassionate when he sent Sharon the e-mail that ended it all.

“Before reiterating concerns we shared Friday and with Mother’s Day just past, it is worth repeating that you are a world class mother,” Neil began. “Our kids are a reflection of this.” He was, however, worried about money and resentful of Sharon’s belief that “Jamal’s plotting or dad’s influence will be the magic answer to our financial woes.” He acknowledged her complaints about his constant travel but added, “When I’m not traveling either you are traveling or we both seem to get too busy to make an effort.”

He wanted to talk again when he returned to Houston, but there was one more thing: “You have asked numerous times the past couple of days whether I have another lover. My response is no. You should know however that I have recently felt loved and have had an emotional (not sexual) connection with another woman. I feel very vulnerable in the sense that I liked the feeling of being respected for the kind of person that I feel I am—kind, gentle, modest, passionate . . .”

Her name was Maria Andrews. A lushly pretty woman in her forties, she had volunteered in Barbara’s office for three years, responding to the former first lady’s myriad invitations. When Maria met Neil, her own fourteen-year marriage, to Robert Andrews, was coming to an end; the couple had worked together to build an oil and gas business based largely in Mexico, but the marriage was failing for reasons that might have sounded familiar to Sharon: Robert traveled constantly, leaving his wife alone with their three children in the sprawling $2.8 million hacienda they had built, coincidentally, just a few miles from Neil and Sharon. Robert was a self-made titan—one of his companies had $15 million in sales in 1995—and was typical of many rich men in that his focus tended to be on his fortune, not his home life.

Somehow, it wasn’t surprising that Neil and Maria first felt their mutual stirrings at a Bush family event, in this case a political fundraiser for Jeb. Nor was it hard to see what the two lovers would have in common: Maria was small, gorgeous, and geisha-like; Neil was tall, handsome, and looking, consciously or unconsciously, for someone to make him feel worthy. A flirtation ensued over the next few months, helped along by Neil’s need for Ignite investors. The Andrewses were well connected in Mexico; Maria invited Neil and his family to dinner to explore networking opportunities. (Sharon, depending on whom you believe, was unable to attend because she either wanted to be out of town or was nudged out of town.) Soon after that, the Andrewses contributed $100,000 to Ignite, and Maria also offered to make a few introductions on Neil’s behalf. In the early spring of 2002, Neil and Maria traveled to Mexico, where billionaire Carlos Slim Helu, the chairman of Grupo Carso, a conglomerate that owns a majority stake in Teléfonos de Mexico, among other things, agreed to join the Ignite team. (Later that year, Ignite would lay off 42 percent of its workforce while finalizing a $15 million deal to outsource software production to Grupo Carso.)

A contingent of wealthy Mexican “friends” joined Neil and Sharon’s social circle. An Acapulco real estate mogul named Jaime Camil offered to buy Pierce a flat-screen TV and invited him to stay free at his villa, for instance. But even with generous new acquaintances, Neil’s disposition at home did not improve. His business partners assured Sharon that he was just preoccupied with Ignite. Meanwhile, Neil and Maria were communicating by e-mail and had met once for coffee. Perhaps sensing that things were getting dicey—Pierce had discovered the relationship and was keeping it from his mother—Maria quit her job with Barbara in July.

Neil was on the fence: He was going to counseling to appease his wife, but he was also writing Maria love notes, almost one a day. Like his father, Neil was a prolific correspondent. (Rumors about George H. W. Bush’s infidelities had surfaced occasionally too, but were repeatedly and hotly denied.) “Early in our conversations,” Neil wrote, “I speculated that men and women aren’t meant to be monogamous. That’s easy to say when you are in a loveless marriage. Ours will be a committed and loving marriage. I have no doubt of my ability to be a faithful lover.” That same month, he was getting his parents used to the idea: “Everyone is sympathetic to my situation . . . You will melt like butter into our family—no doubt in my mind that everyone will come to know you as I do and will love you and welcome you. The Bush thing is a blessing and a burden for in-laws but your temperament and nature are such that you will have no problem.”

Finally, on the same day in August, Neil and Maria both filed for divorce. To protect the Bushes’ privacy, the petition was styled with their initials, NMB v. SB. But Sharon was not about to keep quiet.

Sharon Bush, in Houston on March 8, 2004.Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

The divorce was final in April 2003, but Sharon petitioned soon after to have the case reopened, alleging that she had suffered intolerable cruelty, alluding to the fact that Neil had been unfaithful and might be the father of Maria’s youngest child. She wanted her husband back, or she wanted more money to live on. (Currently, Sharon will receive $2,500 a month in alimony and $1,500 a month in child support for four years.) More bitterness followed before the judge denied her request and granted the divorce. In January I happened to be at a party commemorating the opening of Super Bowl week when Sharon arrived with Lauren and Ashley. The three women were whisked into a dark VIP suite where, in a corner near the bar, George and Barbara had sequestered themselves. Lauren and Ashley embraced their grandparents while Sharon stood nearby. “Remember me?” she asked, when she caught her mother-in-law’s eye.

“I’ve been reading your deposition,” Barbara responded coolly. Sharon beat a hasty retreat but not before running into another guest she knew but didn’t care to see: the judge in her divorce case, Republican Frank Rynd.

Even with two decades of subliminal instruction in the ways of the Bushes, Sharon, in her fight, was up against the entrenched loyalties and vast reach of a dynasty. The Bushes didn’t have to do much to battle their daughter-in-law; people simply divined their disapproval and acted accordingly. Sharon couldn’t find a divorce lawyer, for example, because no one wanted to go up against her in-laws. Even the attorney she settled on for several months—Sharon has had four so far—displayed divided loyalties: While taking Neil’s deposition, Marshall Davis Brown declared that he hoped Jeb Bush would follow George W. Bush into the presidency. (“I don’t really have an opinion on that, honestly,” Neil replied. “Yeah, well, I do,” Brown countered. “And I hope he does.”)

Sharon knew it wasn’t enough to fight the family in the courts; she also went to the press, launching a slash-and-burn campaign Karl Rove might have envied. The New York Post, with its numerous and widely read gossip columns, was the plant of choice, especially the sympathetic (and syndicated) Cindy Adams. “I have long known the details [of Neil Bush’s affair],” Adams wrote modestly, “but good looking blonde Sharon, whom I’ve always known to be a devoted mom—having seen her often with her children—asked I not print them.” The New York Observer printed a story that Sharon was shopping a book proposal around Manhattan and was lunching with celebrity slasher Kitty Kelley, who was working on a Bush family biography.

As spring turned to summer, Sharon gave a scoop to Houston’s KHOU-TV, confessing her private devastation. “I lived those family values,” she said. (She had taken a page from the Bush playbook: Pick one issue and stick to it. Sharon’s was “family values,” a phrase she repeated at every turn.) The segment also contained a clip from Neil’s divorce deposition, in which he admitted that he had accepted, while working in Asia, the services of prostitutes sent to his hotel rooms. The most infamous exchange from that interrogation: “Mr. Bush, you have to admit that it’s—it’s a pretty remarkable thing for a man just to go to a hotel room door and open it and have a woman standing there and have sex with her.” Neil’s admission: “It was very unusual.” (Friends of Neil’s would later spin this response brilliantly, asserting that his truthful answer underscored his honesty and integrity. They also praised Neil for not sleeping with Maria until her divorce was final.)

Until then, the Bush family maintained its usual above-the-fray silence. Neil and Pierce talked to Diane Sawyer and Connie Chung about Ignite, but the divorce was not mentioned. The shift in position occurred later in July, with a Chronicle story titled “He Said: I Want Out; She Said: I Want More.” In this article an entire cast of surrogates emerged to promote Neil’s side—not unlike the administration’s war against Paul O’Neill and Richard Clarke. The Bushes had an engaging, accomplished ally in Rex John (who didn’t speak for attribution until he had clearance from the elder Bushes) and attorneys John and Laura Spalding, close friends of the Andrewses. It was this triumvirate that painted Sharon not as a dedicated suburban mom but as a mad housewife: They explained that she had tried to hold the Bush family up for $20 million (she did, when she believed Ignite’s press releases claiming the company was worth $40 million), that she was practicing voodoo to get Neil to come home (debatable: Sharon said she was trying to get a hair sample for a drug test), that she broke into Neil’s apartment (admitted), and that she had called Maria a “Mexican whore” on more than one occasion (admitted, begrudgingly).

But while Sharon was publicly attacking her husband and his family, privately she was contacting them for help. Before things got totally out of hand, she wrote to the president and Laura Bush: “I believe in the family values that you both, Jeb and Columba, Bar and Gampy preached to the masses. I do not believe that children should grow up in a divorced home. I have led a straight laced life and been a devoted wife and mother. Now I reach out to you to support me and my children as I am scheduled to go to trial in April. . . . Never in my wildest dreams, after 22 years of marriage, would I have believed that I had to fight for my dignity and financial stability.” To Jeb she wrote, “I remember how you appreciated the help I gave you with Columba when you had some very rough times in your marriage. I remember your thankfulness and appreciation towards me when I took the time to spend with Columba in Maine—getting her out of the bedroom—taking her on walks and even getting her into the swimming pool when she was embarrassed about the jewelry incident at customs. I love Columba and was happy to do that for my sister and brother in law of 22 years. I have to tell you how disappointed I am in you and your family.” Sharon got no response.

As time went on and Sharon acquiesced to the reality of the divorce, her concern turned to the Houston house she’d shared with Neil since 1993. Sharon wanted to stay in it for another few years, until Ashley finished high school; Neil wanted to sell it immediately to split the proceeds, estimated at around $850,000, and pay the soaring legal bills. Sharon suggested a deal in which the senior Bushes could pay off the existing mortgage balance and take title to the house, but she would lease it back for four more years. At the end of that time, the house would be sold, and the profit—about $500,000—split between Sharon and the Bushes. “This arrangement would provide you with a far greater return than the extant 25% would net Neil, if sold today at distressed market prices,” Sharon wrote.

George declined: “First, I could not enter into any deal with which Neil did not agree. . . . Second, I would worry about how the current house would be maintained. As you well know, it is not cheap to properly pay the costs associated with a large house. . . . I think the offer made by me and Jamal should enable you to find a very nice place. Several people I know have bought 3-4 bedroom houses at a cost of less than $300,000.” He suggested that Sharon “Move forward, forget the past with Neil, give the kids, in the future, as you have in the past, all the love you can muster.” He added, “Barbara and I will always be there for them should some special need arise.”

As it turned out, Sharon found the $850,000 needed to pay for the house (the sources remain a mystery). On the day she closed, however, she received a startling piece of news: Robert Andrews was suing her for slander on behalf of his two-year-old. For . . . $850,000.

Robert told friends that he was suing Sharon on principle. She had clouded his son’s name by declaring publicly that Neil, not Robert, was his father. Sharon had tried, after the divorce was final, to push for a paternity test and reopen the case, but the judge had denied her request. Now Robert was forcing the issue. Neil told Sharon that if she would publicly apologize, the case would go away. She refused, so Robert pressed on. “That’s the kind of stuff that is never going to go away unless you nip it in the bud,” Robert’s lawyer, Dale Jefferson, insisted. “The Bushes are the closest thing to royalty we have in this country.” (“People have their noses so far up the Bushes’ tushes it’s pathetic,” Sharon’s current attorney, David Berg, countered.)

As Maria’s attorney, Laura Spalding, suggested to me, it isn’t in Sharon’s emotional interest to settle the slander suit. The case, in which paternity will be established, gives Sharon the legal right to answers to personal questions that have plagued her for some time. If Neil is determined not to be the father, Sharon will know the affair with Maria did not last as long as she had feared. If, on the other hand, Neil is proven to be the father of the boy, Sharon’s suspicions—and her fury—will be validated.

It will be a tough case, in which Sharon’s attorney, the famously combative Berg, will assert that Robert, not Sharon, made an issue of his son’s paternity by calling a press conference to announce the suit. To avoid the expense and the agony of a slander suit, Robert’s attorney recently offered to bypass the courts in favor of an old-fashioned wager: Each party would bet $850,000 that the paternity test would come out his or her way. Berg declined on Sharon’s behalf. No doubt he figured that the canny Robert would never have sued without establishing paternity first.

“Why would anyone care about me when they can better themselves by being close to the Bushes?” Sharon asked me, displaying a pragmatism honed by two decades of being Bush-worthy. Indeed, many society types had abandoned her—there were a few final Mediterranean and Manhattan freebies before it was all over—and she was finding what solace she could at Lakewood Church, the evangelical behemoth ministered at by another prominent family, the Osteens. They pray for Sharon routinely and save her a parking place in front of the sprawling North Houston sanctuary.

Neil and his new bride, Maria, at their wedding in March 2004. Phyllis Hand
George and Barbara with the happy couple. Phyllis Hand

Meanwhile, on March 6, Neil Bush and Maria Andrews married at Jamal Daniel’s estate. It wasn’t a perfect day: Neither Jeb nor George W. Bush could make it, and Lauren didn’t come in from Princeton. But the Dom Perignon flowed and the string quartet played for the 150 or so guests, and the tables were set with the finest linens and the freshest arrangements of roses, hydrangeas, and tulips. There were so many out-of-town guests—from the Middle East, Hong Kong, Mexico—snapping photos of themselves with various Bushes that the official photographer had trouble getting good shots; there were lavish gifts for the newlyweds—a pair of Bulgari watches, a Porsche SUV. Neil toasted his bride and admitted to being “crazy in love.” Maria wore the wedding ring Barbara gave her and listened adoringly as the forty-first president of the United States declared, “We love Maria. This is a very happy day in the life of the Bush family.”

Then the circle closed around her and the blissful man she had married.


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