Politics

The Texanhood of George H. W. Bush

He built an oil empire, revitalized the state’s Republican party, gave rise to a political dynasty, and forever changed the Lone Star State. Yet the question dogged him his entire life: Was he a real Texan or merely a Yankee transplant?

I always enjoyed watching George H. W. Bush and the media, both local and national, spar over one of the most contentious issues of the president’s life and times: whether he was a real Texan or not. Even a respectable (and generally respectful) publication such as this one got in on the act. “He was a lean and lanky six feet two, with crystal-blue eyes, neatly combed brown hair, and the kind of clean-cut, delicately handsome features that seemed to sing out ‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ ” is how a June 1983 Texas Monthly article described a 24-year-old Bush, newly arrived in the West Texas oil patch in the summer of 1948.

There was no shortage of Bum Steer Awards calling into question his Texas bona fides over the years. In January 1985 we gave him top billing after he claimed that his real residence was his family’s compound, in Kennebunkport, Maine, so he could save $123,000 in taxes. “The IRS didn’t buy it, but we do,” we wrote. “Now we know why you spent the whole year acting like a Yankee. Anybody who’d sell his Texanhood for $123,000 deserves to be Bum Steer of the Year.”

Four years later, we gave Bush, by then the president-elect of the United States, yet another Bum Steer, this time for calling the presidential suite at the Houstonian Hotel his Texas residence during the campaign. Newspapers from the Los Angeles Times to the Toledo Blade also had a little fun with the story, much to the delight of Democrats, a group of whom rented out that very suite during their state convention to needle the Republican candidate.    

Even in death, Bush has been haunted by the specter of eternal exile: “Forty-first president honored in adoptive home of Texas before being laid to rest,” announced a Wall Street Journal story after his Houston funeral. It was as if 41, as he was affectionately known here, was never allowed the privilege afforded to just about everyone else who settles in Texas, which is the honor of calling oneself a Texan without a modifier attached. Davy Crockett came from Tennessee, as did Sam Houston. No one has ever made fun of their claims to the Lone Star State.

Vice President Bush and Barbara, following Super Tuesday primaries on March 8, 1988, in Houston.

Ed Kolenovsky/AP

Maybe Bush became a target because he came from a world most Texans have historically held in contempt: Yankeeland, specifically the Richie Rich environs of Greenwich, Connecticut, where his dad, Prescott (Prescott!), was an investment banker and, later, a Republican senator. And of course Bush went to that fancy-pants prep school, Phillips Academy, in Andover, and then, after a stint in the Navy during World War II, to hoity-toity Yale. There was also all that patrician stuff: the exceedingly good manners, the prolific writing of kindly notes (he once apologized in an email to me for declining to participate in a story about his son Neil’s bitter divorce). Real Texans for many years were thought to be guys like oilman Oscar S. Wyatt Jr., who shot hogs from his helicopter. Bush never got points for striking out for West Texas and building his oil business there beginning in the late forties, and anyone who has spent much time in Midland knows it makes Asmara look like an oasis. 

Maybe the problem was that the struggle over his Texanness was internal as well as external. Bush’s life in Houston was often an awkward combination of old-money noblesse oblige and, well, the Texas thing. He had Texan interests if not quite authentic Texan tastes. When he and Barbara moved with their four children to Houston, in 1958, he was already on his way to being a millionaire, but he chose to live in understated Tanglewood instead of flashy River Oaks, where most other oilmen had made their home. He loved Mexican food but preferred the West Houston chain Molina’s Cantina, which has never been known for using serrano and jalapeño peppers in abundance. He loved barbecue too, but his favorite joint was the now moribund Otto’s, a homey dive near Memorial Park that was eventually eclipsed by far tastier spots in more racially diverse parts of town.

On the other hand, you have to give the guy credit for legitimizing the virtually nonexistent Republican party in Texas, a brave act for its time. Back in the day, says Dave Walden, a longtime political operative in Houston, “you basically had three kinds of Republicans: the John Birch Society types, who were really off-the-wall; the hard-core Goldwater people, who were very conservative; and the pro-business, moderate, try-to-get-along-with-everybody, try-to-keep-the-government-out-of-our-lives-type Republican—that’s where Bush was.” But it wasn’t until Bush agreed to become Harris County party chair and started barnstorming the state that people of the GOP persuasion thought it was okay to join up. As Mark P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, points out, “If you were a politically ambitious person, the strategic thing to do was run in the Democratic party, not to stick with your Republican brand and run as an outsider.”

Of course, even as he launched a political career, Bush had to make some changes to his image. He was stuck with the carpetbagger charge when he ran for Senate against the folksy Democratic liberal Ralph Yarborough, in 1964. As the presidential biographer Jon Meacham reports in Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, the candidate had to give up wearing a necktie and using big words (like “profligate,” as in spending). He had to trade in his Mercedes for a Chrysler. He still lost, but along the way he won a lot of respect from people who weren’t members of the Petroleum Club.

Bush with his wife, Barbara, and their children Robin (who died in 1953 at age three) and George W. at their Midland ranch in 1950.

Frances McLaughlin-Gill/Condé Nast via Getty Images

Bush with Houston Astros coach Yogi Berra and pitcher Nolan Ryan in 1988.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Left:

Bush with his wife, Barbara, and their children Robin (who died in 1953 at age three) and George W. at their Midland ranch in 1950.

Frances McLaughlin-Gill/Condé Nast via Getty Images

Right:

Bush with Houston Astros coach Yogi Berra and pitcher Nolan Ryan in 1988.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Bush was at heart a sentimentalist, but he also came to display a pragmatism that seemed distinctly Texan. His move to the right during the Reagan years and during his own presidential campaign could have been (and was) described as expedient. But in Bush’s calculus it would also have seemed the most expedient way to maintain his own power and influence. He may have struggled initially with his electoral losses, but Bush was also one to pick himself up and start over, always looking forward and rarely back.

And like many Texans, his faith—albeit Episcopalian, not Southern Baptist—was never in doubt. “Unlike Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, his faith was a very public part of his persona,” Jones said. Bush taught Sunday school and had a family pew at St. Martin’s, in Houston. His devotion was genuine and unapologetic, as evidenced by the affectionate and knowing eulogy given by his minister, the Reverend Russell Levenson Jr., at the Washington National Cathedral. “They were not political members of that church. They were regular attenders,” Jones said. 

That Bush wanted a second funeral, in Houston, was itself a testament to his adoration for the place he called home. He and Barbara had been prominent empty nesters here, socializing with longtime friends without big-dealing it, eating Chinese food at the Galleria, and attending Astros and Texans games. There seemed to be more local sports figures—Nolan Ryan, J. J. Watt, Yao Ming—on the funeral guest list than old-line Houstonians, though that may be because there were so few of the latter left. I don’t expect many people back in Bush’s hometown of Greenwich would have ever arranged for a musical tribute by the Oak Ridge Boys and Reba McEntire. But Bush wasn’t a stuffy guy.

And in the end, there was the choice of his final resting place. Bush did not pick the family compound in Maine after all, but Aggieland, a place that many would declare the most quintessentially Texan spot in all of Texas.

I say it’s time to cut the guy some slack. Welcome home, George, forever and ever and ever.

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.

Share
Tags: Politics, George H. W. Bush, in memoriam, Longreads

Comments

  • José

    We can’t blame GHWB for being born a Yankee instead of a native Texan. That was no fault of his own. Instead we should acknowledge and credit his good judgment and foresight in coming here to make his mark, both in business and politics.

    • a Texas libertarian

      We came blame him for bringing his Yankee globalist militarist predisposition with him.

    • docjstrange

      I agree. My mother moved to Texas after graduating from high school to attend nursing school and never left. She was as Texan as anyone I have ever known. 41 was a good man. Nothing better can be said of any of us.

  • WUSRPH

    Excellent analysis of Bush and the problem he always had with where he was from. Texa was lucky to get him, even If he was not born here.
    He stands out so, so much from the likes of other non-Texans who we were unlucky to attract such as Dan Patrick.

  • WUSRPH

    The sad reality Is that Bush—what he stood for, how he acted and the kind of man he was–is out-of-date with the current GOP.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/01/02/mitt-romneys-op-ed-crystallizes-all-reasons-old-gop-establishment-has-been-pushed-aside/?utm_term=.0e829ae0a3b3

    http://tinyurl.com/y8d67tgz

    This is clearly illustrated in this interesting—and as a result a very disturbing–article—about how the very things that Mitt Romney cited as concerns about Trump shows how far out of touch Romney is with the typical Republican voter as all the things he cites as faults are considered to be virtues today. It true, those how hope for the return of the day when the parties could work together can forget it. Only worse can be expected.

  • Jeff lee

    Where a man calls home is the place his heart is. Folks have always, perhaps more so now, seen Texas as a land of opportunity and mystery, both of which are seemingly in short supply elsewhere. Thanks Mrs. Swartz, for setting it straight. 41 came home in 1992, and forever and always in 2018.

  • Kozmo

    First-class Carpetbagger and rank opportunist. Why else did he spend so much vacation time in New England? His sons are no better. Those sort of hustlers only come to Texas (or anyplace) to make money and take advantage of lax regulation or oversight. All this retrospective “Saint George” stuff makes me ill and is being carefully crafted to benefit the careerism of the aptly named “P” Bush. Mark my words.

    • Michael A

      Kozmo, you need to get out more. GHWB moved his young family to Midland/Odessa and was selling oilfield equipment. After many years he worked his way up to starting his own oil company. He earned his stripes in Texas but couldn’t walk away from the Bush family roots up east, it wouldn’t be right.

    • Hugh Everett

      Presidents who spend their retirement years in Texas qualify as real Texans: LBJ, Bush 41, Bush 43.

      Hillary Clinton is not a real Arkansan.

    • Fantasy Maker

      He spent time in Maine because:

      A. He spent many summers there because that was where he was born and raised with many fond memories.
      B. It is a lot cooler there in the summer than anywhere in Texas.
      C. You sound like just another jealous liberal jackhole who is bitter about being alive.
      D. GFY

  • Michael A

    I remember how the media trashed him when he was in office—“do you miss me now?”

    • a Texas libertarian

      Nope.

  • Jana Mae

    My dad & 41 ran in the same Houston business and political circles back in the 60s. Dad would call him a carpetbagger, with an air of disdain. I suspected at the time, and my mother recently confirmed, that is was out of envy and perhaps a bit of jealousy as well. George was charismatic in a sneaky self-deprecating fashion. Since when do we Texans not welcome good guys with open arms, anyhow?

  • TheManTheyCall

    Bush was a globalist. An American sell out. His son is trash as well.

  • Cindy Tochterman

    We have a saying in West Texas that if you wear out a pair of shoes here, then you can call it home. President GHWB was a West Texan – we’re all mostly from somewhere else whether it’s Kennebunkport or Brady or Lometa or Houston. Y’all other Texans in the other three corners can keep debating this stuff, but the friendly, outgoing folks of West Texas claim him, and everybody else adventurous enough to face the sand and the wind, as our neighbor.

  • a Texas libertarian

    Yankee globalist. Give me the Birchers and the Goldwaterites any day over the Neoconservative warmongering brand of the Bushes.

  • a Texas libertarian

    …but Aggieland, a place that many would declare the most quintessentially Texan spot in all of Texas.

    Well, at least you got one thing right. It’s a shame the place has to be associated with the Bushes.

  • a Texas libertarian

    and the pro-business, moderate, try-to-get-along-with-everybody, try-to-keep-the-government-out-of-our-lives-type Republican—that’s where Bush was.

    That’s where Bush said he was. And I guess that’s all we really care to remember about any of our presidents.

  • dickslastretort

    I thought GHWB was a great Prez. One of most qualified ever. His son will go down as one of worst. His grandson has no qualifications for holding the position he does now. Every colt Secretariat sired did not become another Secretariat. In politics, we seem to think the top stud will always produce a winner. Unfortunately, some are duds. Nice pleasure horses, but lacking the right stuff. When will we learn?

  • Kozmo

    Nope. Not buying it. Not a Texan except as a carpetbagger, and for good (bad) measure an unprosecuted war criminal who likely committed serious crimes on behalf of the Reagan-Bush 1980 ticket with those secret negotiations with the Iranians to keep the American hostages until after the election.

  • Fantasy Maker

    41 was born in the northeast- that was not his choice but as soon as he could get down here, he came on his own and built some very deep roots that span several generations. He will ALWAYS be Texan in my eyes.

Recommended