Chapter One: The Firstborn Son
In July 1946 George W. Bush went to his first party. It was the lawn party after his christening in New Haven, Connecticut. He had been born only a few days before, on July 6. That made him a member of the "baby boom" generation, born after World War II.
This baby was the first child of Barbara Pierce Bush and George Herbert Walker Bush. The baby's father -- tall, lean, and good-looking -- was a student at Yale University. The lively, auburn-haired mother had been a student at Smith College. They named their baby George Walker Bush -- not exactly George Jr., but very close. They called him Georgie.
Georgie's father would become the forty-first president of the United States, but not for another forty-two years. However, even in those early days George Bush had already given his son a great deal to live up to. At Andover, a top-rate preparatory school in Massachusetts, he had been a baseball star. In World War II he had been a navy fighter pilot, a war hero.
Both of Georgie's parents came from families who had done well in business. One of his grandfathers was a Wall Street investor, and the other was the president of a large publishing company. For generations both sides of the family had been influential in politics.
For two years after Georgie's birth the Bush family lived in a little apartment in New Haven while George finished his degree at Yale. He was a baseball star in college, as he had been in prep school. Barbara, an enthusiastic sports fan, took her little son to the games to cheer on his first-baseman father.
After George Bush graduated from Yale in 1948, he could have stepped into a comfortable job in the financial world in New York, like his father and grandfather. But George was looking for a more adventurous career, away from his father's eye. Barbara, who had grown up in the wealthy suburb of Rye, New York, encouraged her husband. She, too, was eager to get away from their families and do something different.
One of the most exciting business opportunities in the country at that time was in the oil fields of Texas. With the new technology developed during World War II, drillers could reach deeper oil deposits. And as the economy boomed, the demand for fuel was skyrocketing.
So in the summer of 1948 George Bush accepted a job in Texas. He was hired by Neil Mallon, a close family friend who headed an oil corporation. Revving the engine of his red two-door Studebaker, a graduation present from his parents, George drove all the way from the East Coast to West Texas.
A week later Barbara and Georgie flew out to Texas to join George. They found a place quite different from green, woodsy New England. Around the working-class town of Odessa the land stretched flat, bleak, and dusty all the way to the horizon. Instead of pine-scented sea breezes, there were hot winds that blew sand and tumbleweeds down the street. And when the wind blew a certain way, there was also the strong smell of oil fumes from the nearby plants.
The Bushes' living quarters were not inviting either. Despite his wealthy background, George Bush was starting at the bottom in the oil business. The Bushes' home in Odessa was a two-room apartment, and they shared a bathroom with another family. They were thankful to have a bathroom at all, though, since most of their neighbors used outhouses. And the Bushes had a refrigerator -- also unusual in that neighborhood.
But West Texas was a "fabulous place," as George wrote to a friend the next year. "Fortunes can be made in the land end of the oil business, and of course can be lost." He spent long hours out in the oil fields, learning the business from the ground up.
Meanwhile, Barbara took care of Georgie and got used to living where people were "Eastern-prejudiced," as she put it in a letter to her family. She missed her old friends and family. But Barbara was naturally cheerful and good at getting along with all kinds of people, and she had unshakable faith in George. She adored their two-year-old son.
So did George. "He is really cute," Georgie's father wrote to a friend in August 1948. "Whenever I come home he greets me and talks a blue streak, sentences disjointed of course but enthusiasm and spirit boundless. He is a real blond and pot-bellied. He tries to say everything and the results are often hilarious...He seems to be very happy wherever he is and he is very good about amusing himself in the small yard we have here."
George and Barbara hoped to have several children, and they were delighted when a daughter was born in December 1949. They named her Pauline Robinson Bush, after Barbara's mother, and they nicknamed her Robin. Barbara came home from the hospital with Georgie's new sister on Christmas Day. That was the same Christmas that Georgie's grandfather Pierce gave the Bushes one of those new inventions, a television set. It was a hulking thing, with a tiny yellow screen.
The following year, 1950, the Bushes bought a house in Midland, not as close to the oil fields as their first home in West Texas. The house was in a new development, nicknamed Easter Egg Row because each of the little two-bedroom houses plunked down on the dirt roads was painted a different color. Otherwise, they were all exactly the same. The Bushes' house, on East Maple (there were no actual maple trees, or any other trees), was light blue.
The Bushes' new neighborhood was full of young families from other parts of the country, all hoping to strike it rich in the oil business. George and Barbara quickly made friends, and so did Georgie. One of his first and best friends was the boy next door, Randy Roden.
Although George Bush was working as hard as ever, he had plenty of energy left over for community life. He and Barbara led the drive to build a community theater in Midland. George and the other fathers started a Little League team, clearing tumbleweeds from the yellow sand to make a baseball diamond. Both he and Barbara taught Sunday school at the First Presbyterian Church.
Barbara also helped organize charities, volunteered at the Midland hospital, and pitched in to start a local YMCA. Among many other activities, the YMCA offered electric-train races for boys and their fathers. A few years later Georgie would get his picture in the Midland Reporter-Telegram for winning first place in the eight-year-old division.
Every weekend backyard barbecues filled Midland's dry air with the scent of grilled hamburgers. Friends and neighbors milled around the Bushes' backyard, while little kids ran back and forth. Georgie often wore his beloved cowboy outfit, including hat, boots, bandanna, and lasso. His sister, Robin, was beginning to walk.
Less than a year after the Bushes moved to Midland, George decided to go into the oil business for himself. He and a neighbor across the street formed a company. Now George Bush was busier than ever. But he made a point of spending time with his son, often playing catch in the backyard.
Sometimes Mr. Bush took Georgie and his friend Randy out into the oil fields with him. The oil patch, with its towering derricks, was like a strange forest in that flat, treeless country. At night oil fumes blurred the bright stars of the desert sky, and machinery clanked as the pumps worked around the clock. The boys would sleep in the back of the station wagon while George Bush checked the wells.
During the hottest part of the broiling West Texas summers George, Barbara, Georgie, and Robin took off for the cool coast of Maine. All the relatives gathered at the family retreat on Walker's Point in Kennebunkport. Sometimes the Bushes stayed with George's uncle Herbie Walker, who was backing George's business. Grandfather Prescott Bush was always there, dignified and stern -- "scary," the kids of the Bush-Walker clan called him. But Grandmother Dorothy Walker Bush was kind, and great fun for sports-loving children to be with.
Dorothy "Dotty" Bush and Georgie adored each other. She was just as competitive as he was -- maybe more so. There was a Bush family legend about Dotty as a young married woman: When she was nine months pregnant with George's brother Prescott Jr., she played in a family baseball game. Not only that, but she hit a home run and ran all the way around the diamond -- then hastily left for the hospital to give birth.
In 1952, when Georgie was six, the Bush family moved to a three-bedroom house on Ohio Street, not far from the Midland Country Club. Here the streets were paved, and there were even a few oak trees. Georgie and Mike Proctor, his friend across the street, walked or rode their bikes to Sam Houston Elementary School.
The Bushes were still in West Texas, where sometimes tumbleweeds rolled into the yard and stuck to the screen doors, and sometimes sandstorms blew so thick that Georgie couldn't see the back fence from the window. But to Georgie these were just minor annoyances. Life was mostly wonderful, full of bike races and sleepovers with friends like Randy Roden, and stunts like hanging by his knees from the struts beneath the high school football stadium.
Nineteen fifty-two was also the year that Grandfather Prescott Bush, back in Connecticut, ran for election to the U.S. Senate. He had been defeated in the 1950 race for senator, so the Bush family were especially eager for him to win this time. They were also rooting for General Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower to win the presidential campaign for the Republicans.
George Bush organized a local Republican committee in Midland and campaigned enthusiastically for Ike. But he had to do so, he joked, "making no reference to the word Republican." Texas, like all Southern states, had been fiercely Democratic since the Civil War.
Dwight Eisenhower won the election, and so did Grandfather Bush. Just a few months later, in February 1953, the Bushes had a new baby, John Ellis Bush. Because of his initials, they called him Jeb or Jebby. Robin was three, growing bigger and more fun for Georgie to play with all the time -- although she was still properly impressed with her big brother. George Bush's business, now named Zapata Petroleum Corporation, was going well. Everyone was happy, especially Georgie.
And then one day in March the happiness fell apart. It began with something strange, but not really frightening at first: Robin didn't bounce out of bed in the morning like her usual lively self. She told her mother her plans for the day: "I may go out and lie on the grass and watch the cars go by, or I might just stay in bed."
Her worried mother took her to the doctor, who ordered tests. The test results yielded grim news: Robin had advanced leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow. There was no cure, the doctor explained to Robin's shocked parents. She did not have long to live.
But George and Barbara were determined not to give up hope. At least they would get the best possible medical treatment for their daughter. While friends in Midland took care of Georgie and the baby, they flew Robin to a hospital in New York.
For the next six months, Georgie's mother lived in New York most of the time, spending her days with Robin. Georgie's father shuttled between New York and Midland, tending to business and keeping an eye on Georgie and Jebby. Every morning he went by the church to pray for Robin. Grandmother Dorothy Bush helped by sending the nurse who had taken care of her boys to stay with Georgie and Jeb.
All this time Georgie knew only that his sister was in New York seeing a doctor because she was sick. When his mother brought Robin home for a brief stay, she seemed like the same old Robin: curly blond hair, funny little smile. But there were bruises on her arms and legs, and Barbara wouldn't let Georgie wrestle with Robin the way he used to.
One day in October Georgie was at school as usual. He was carrying a record player back to the principal's office from his second-grade classroom. He happened to be outside in a covered walkway when he saw his parents' green Oldsmobile drive up in front of the school. He was sure he glimpsed the top of Robin's head above the backseat. Setting the record player down, he ran for the car.
But Robin wasn't in the car. And George and Barbara had to tell their son the bad news they had been holding back since March. Robin had been very, very sick, and now she had died. She was buried in Greenwich, Connecticut, where George had grown up.
"I was sad, I was stunned," George W. Bush later described his reaction. "Minutes before I had had a little sister, and now I did not." He cried; his father and mother cried. Georgie couldn't believe his parents had known for so long that Robin was dying and hadn't told him. As they drove to their friends' house to pick up Jebby, Georgie kept asking questions, although he could see how painful it was for them to explain.
The months to come were a strange period for the energetic, upbeat Bush family. "I remember being sad," said George W. Bush. Susie Evans, a friend at Sam Houston Elementary School, remembered the same thing, "a great sadness." Georgie missed Robin terribly, and it was hard to watch his parents suffering.
In his seven-year-old way, Georgie did his best to comfort his mother and father. Instead of playing with friends, he would spend afternoons with his mother. Once, at a football game with his father, he said he wished he were Robin. George, shocked at first, asked why. "I bet she can see the game better from up there than we can here," explained Georgie. To a sports-minded boy, a good view of football plays would be one of the major advantages of being in heaven.
Text copyright © 2000 by Beatrice Gormley