George W. Bush: As He Now Appears in a History BookHistorians/History
Both George H. W. Bush and his wife Barbara Pierce came from well-to-do eastern families. The two had met while teenagers at a country club dance near their Connecticut homes, and they continued corresponding once they returned to their private schools. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bush enlisted as soon as he graduated from Andover and turned eighteen. He trained as a bomber pilot and flew missions in the Pacific theater before returning home and marrying Barbara. Bush decided to attend Yale and it was in New Haven, Connecticut, that they welcomed their firstborn and named him George Walker Bush on July 6, 1946.
Following graduation, the Bush family packed their bags and moved to Odessa, Texas, where George wanted to start a career in the burgeoning oil industry. The young couple decided that nearby Midland would be a better town to raise their growing family, which now included Pauline Robinson, known as “Robin,” born in 1950, and John “Jeb,” born three years later.
Young George could usually be found outside playing with other children all day and into the evening. Baseball was his favorite game, just as it had been for his father, a star player at Yale. Later the younger Bush described a proud moment in his life when his dad told him, “Son, you’ve arrived. I can throw it to you as hard as I want to.”1 Describing the town of Midland as having a “frontier” atmosphere, with tumbleweeds blowing into their yard and blinding dust storms, his father admitted the environment had rubbed off on his young son. He wrote of his son who was not quite five: “Georgie has grown to be a near-man, talks dirty once in a while and occasionally swears. He lives in his cowboy clothes.”2
George attended Sam Houston Elementary and San Jacinto Junior High in Midland. He continued his interest in athletics, joined the football team in junior high, and always had plenty of friends. Many of his schoolmates also had fathers involved in the oil industry, which required them to be gone for long periods of time, and mother Barbara was the law of the Bush household. She was not afraid to mete out punishment whenever required, as when he repeated a racial slur he had heard—she promptly took him aside and washed out his mouth with soap.
For the entertainment of his class, one day Georgie decided to take a marker and draw long sideburns and a beard on his face. His teacher did not find his artistic skills amusing and took him to the principal’s office where the principal used the “board of education” to paddle the boy three times. When Barbara complained about the use of corporal punishment, the principal explained that part of the reason was the boy’s demeanor—he had “swaggered in as though he had done the most wonderful thing in the world.” Barbara then switched her support to the principal. Times like this flustered George’s father, who wrote, “Georgie aggravates the hell out of me at times (I am sure I do the same to him), but then at times I am so proud of him I could die.”3
In 1953, George saw little of his parents or his sister Robin, who had just been diagnosed with leukemia. He and Jeb remained in Texas while his parents and Robin traveled to New York City for treatment, but she lost her fight in October. George later described the day he looked up to see his family had arrived at his elementary school, and he ran out to greet his parents and sister, only to be told she had died. He described the moment of learning the truth as “the starkest memory of my childhood, a sharp pain in the midst of an otherwise happy blur.”4 When he attended a football game with his father and friends, young George said that he wished he were Robin. Immediate silence fell over the group. His father asked him why. “I bet she can see the game better from up there than we can down here,”5 he answered.
The boy obviously thought a lot about his sister, but he also was concerned that his mother was not herself. She mourned her loss and clung to Georgie and Jebby when they were home. Barbara, however, did not realize how her behavior was affecting her older son until she heard him tell a neighbor child that he could not play because he “couldn’t leave his mother. She needed him.” Barbara decided to start resuming a normal life because “I realized I was too much of a burden for a little seven-year-old boy to carry.”6
After his seventh grade year (which included winning his first political office and becoming class president), George transferred to the private Kinkaid School in Houston when his family moved there in 1959. By this time, he had two more brothers, Neil and Marvin, as well as a sister, Dorothy, known as Doro. At Kinkaid, he continued his interest in sports, especially football, and quickly made a new group of friends. This would provide a good foundation for Bush’s next stop—the prestigious preparatory school Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, which both his father and grandfather, Senator Prescott Bush, had attended.
Although the campus reveled in the autumn glory for which New England is famous, young George found the school “cold and distant and difficult”7 when he arrived in 1961. Discovering that he was behind academically, George knew he had to apply himself, and would often sit on the floor after “lights out” to continue his studying in the light from under the door. He struggled, but managed to earn decent grades. His athletic prowess also failed to measure up to Andover standards, and he did not get much gametime on their football or baseball teams, and was a second-string player on the basketball team. All of this was in marked contrast to the pictures of his father leading the school to glory on the baseball team.
Deciding to combine his love of sports with his natural affability, George introduced stickball competition to the student body his senior year. He organized a league, with himself in charge as “high commissioner,” and continued a lifelong practice of giving everyone a nickname; he called himself “Tweeds Bush” in honor of Boss Tweed of New York’s Tammany Hall. The dorms then fronted teams for a tournament. Bush recalled, “Stickball was a way of spreading joy, sharing humor, and lightening up what was otherwise a serious and studious environment.”8
Bush had made a name for himself by befriending the other students. Although never a star athlete at Andover, he became a top cheerleader, and he threw himself wholeheartedly into the task, developing skits and more nicknames for the players. When the dean considered ending George’s cheering career, fearing that the cheerleaders were drawing attention from the team, the student newspaper published an editorial in Bush’s defense. As head cheerleader, he did a masterful job of warming up the crowd for the biggest game of the year, the annual match against Exeter. Bush worked the fans for an hour, spinning yarns and telling anecdotes about each player. His classmates later recalled that this was when he learned valuable skills necessary for a political career such as “how to work a crowd, how to exploit a captive audience, how to come off wholesome and energetic and winning.”9 He did not, though, attempt to win any political office during his tenure there, but he was appointed to the respected position of proctor of a sophomore dorm during his senior year, and at the end of the year was voted second as “Big Man on Campus,” a distinction normally won by a top athlete.
The Bush family expected George to follow in his family’s footsteps when it came time to select a college. So Bush applied to Yale, but considered the University of Texas as his backup should he not be accepted. He need not have worried; Yale accepted the young Texan, and so he was off to Connecticut for the fall of 1964.
Andover’s high academic standards stood George in good stead when he began to matriculate at Yale. There he decided to major in one of his favorite subjects, history, and worked on the side. In his sophomore year, he pledged Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, which was known for its raucous parties. He was president of DKE his junior year and impressed his frat brothers when he could name all fifty pledges.
He was a pitcher on the freshman baseball team, but the competition was too keen for him to be on varsity, so he switched to rugby and managed to be on the team by his senior year. Although not a cheerleader, he did enjoy throwing himself into the competitive atmosphere, but one time it got him into trouble. After Yale defeated rival Princeton in a football game, George was among the revelers attempting to take down the goal post when the police intervened and ordered them to leave town. As a junior, Bush was invited to join the “ultra-secret” society Skull and Bones, another legacy shared with his father.
The spring of 1968 brought many changes to the country, with unrest breaking out throughout the nation, especially following the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Protests against the Vietnam War now took center stage, and for Bush and his classmates, it was time for them to make a decision: stay and enlist or escape to Canada. Rather than enlisting in the Army, Bush decided to once more follow in his dad’s footsteps and become a pilot.
Bush chose the Texas Air National Guard, serving in the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group, based in Houston. After his Yale graduation, he began basic training in the summer of 1968, followed by pilot training later that fall. The student pilots started on small aircraft, including the T-41, then the T-37, the T-38, and finally the temperamental F-102 Delta Dagger, a high performance jet with an abnormally high accident rate. He graduated in December 1969, and his father proudly pinned the second lieutenant wings on his son.
Although politicians would later try to discredit Bush’s Guard service as a way to avoid going to Vietnam, at the time he enlisted, pilots from his air group were performing combat missions there. He inquired about volunteering for active duty flying the F-102 in Vietnam after completing his combat training in June 1970, but the Air Force was phasing that aircraft out of Vietnam service. By the time Bush left the National Guard in 1973, he had flown more than 625 hours with nearly half of his time in either the F-102A or TF-102.
After he finished his pilot training and returned to Texas in 1970, Bush began a period of drifting; he simply did not know how he wanted to spend his time. George tried a variety of jobs and spent a great deal of his time simply enjoying life in Houston.
In 1972, Bush transferred for a while to the Alabama National Guard, where he helped on a senate campaign. His National Guard attendance would later become a point of dispute, but he still accumulated more than the minimum required to keep him active in the Guard as the Air Force and other armed services engaged in deep personnel cuts in the wake of America’s pullout from Vietnam.
Great-uncle Herb Walker gave him a job at his new agricultural company, Stratford, and soon George was traveling to Central America and Florida on the lookout for possible businesses to purchase. Within a short time, he learned that digesting business reports and visiting plants did not interest him, so he soon left the job. His father was not pleased by George’s action, and one day called him to discuss it. “In our family and in life, you fulfill your commitments,” his father told him. “You’ve disappointed me.”10
The words hit George with great force. When he related the encounter to a friend, he said, “Those were the sternest words to me, even though he said them in a very calm way. He wasn’t screaming, and he wasn’t angry, but he was disappointed.”11 His father could not understand why his oldest son kept drifting without any sense of purpose to his life. In 1972 when the family was enjoying their Christmas vacation together, another episode occurred underlining the tension between the two generations. Fifteen-year-old Marvin was having a tough time at Andover, so George invited him to go along on a visit to a friend’s house. They were gone for hours, and spent much of the time drinking. On their return, George knocked over a neighbor’s trashcan with his car, creating an awful racket.
As far as the elder Bush was concerned, the noise was nothing compared to seeing his underage son drunk, so he told Jeb to bring “Junior” to him. The swagger that had cost Bush a paddling in fourth grade now carried him into the study. “I hear you’re looking for me. You wanna go mano a mano right here?” Immediately Jeb stepped in and quickly diffused the situation by telling their father some big news: George had been accepted to Harvard Business School. When asked why this had not been mentioned sooner, George replied, “Oh, I’m not going. I just wanted to let you know I could get into it.”12
George would attend Harvard the following year, but during the interim he joined Professionals United for Leadership (PULL), which was a charity-run organization managed by two former pro football players who had asked Congressman George H. W. Bush about creating a mentoring program for the underprivileged in Houston. This was a cause both George Bushes could support. George threw himself into the work and loved helping the kids. One of the founders, Ernie Ladd, later said, “He was the first real white boy that all of the kids really loved.”13
But in the fall, Bush was on his way to Harvard. He studied hard, and with a sense of maturity, earned higher grades than he had at Yale. However, according to classmates, Bush did not exactly look the part of a Harvard MBA candidate. He attended class wearing his National Guard bomber jacket and cowboy boots, and kept a paper cup by his desk to spit his tobacco juice.
Bush completed his degree and decided his future lay in Midland, Texas, so he moved to his long-ago hometown. Texas oil was making many men millionaires, and its lure was hard to resist for the twenty-nine-year-old. George used fifteen thousand dollars from a trust fund to start investing in oil leases throughout the southwest. Eventually he started his own business, which he called Arbusto (Bush in Spanish), and in 1977, thanks to investments from family members and their wealthy friends, George’s Arbusto Energy company began drilling for oil. His first well was dry, but he plugged along and enjoyed better luck in future drilling.
That same year, Bush decided to follow the family’s political tradition and ran for the congressional seat for his district. Soon after he declared his candidacy, friends invited George to their home for a barbecue. They also invited another friend, elementary school teacher Laura Welch. The two immediately connected, and after a whirlwind five-week romance, they announced their engagement. The Bush family wholeheartedly approved of the quiet young lady who had captured their son’s heart. George and Laura wed at the United Methodist Church in Midland on November 6, 1977.
Their first task together was to continue his fight for the congressional seat. They aggressively campaigned throughout the west Texas district, putting hundreds of miles on their car as they crisscrossed the arid plains. Although Bush won the hard-fought primary, he lost the general election. Being portrayed by the Democrats as a carpetbagger from a wealthy Connecticut family who attended eastern schools undoubtedly was partly to blame for his loss. The voters simply did not believe him to be a true Texan. George was shaken by the defeat and felt ashamed for having failed the Bush family name.
Returning full time to Arbusto, George threw himself into his work. The oil market was booming, and his business followed. He expanded the company and renamed it Bush Exploration, which merged in 1983 with Spectrum 7, an investment company. The boom lasted a few more years, but then with lower overseas oil prices, domestic oil was less attractive, so Bush decided to sell his company. He traded its assets for stock in Harken Energy and joined the company as its chief operating officer. The experience of the past decade had been invaluable in learning how to run a business, manage materials, and work with the most valuable resource—people.
During this time, Bush underwent a personal battle with alcohol. Increasingly, he turned to drinking to lessen his load, and the family worried that at the rate he was going, it would destroy him. He was ecstatic when, on November 25, 1981, he and Laura became the parents of fraternal twins who were named for their two grandmothers—Barbara and Jenna. Fed up with her husband’s drinking and not wanting their daughters to grow up with an alcoholic father, Laura let him know it had to stop. Helping in the process was longtime family friend Reverend Billy Graham, who met with George at Kennebunkport and talked to him numerous times on the phone. George also joined his church’s men’s Bible study group, but still used humor to help ease his personal pain. When someone talked about the problems growing up as a “PK—preacher’s kid,” Bush laughed and replied, “You think that’s tough? Try being a VPK [vice president’s kid].”14
When his father began developing a national campaign to win the Republican nomination, he asked George to help, and the family moved temporarily to Washington while he worked as a special assistant for his dad. He was the one required to make decisions and oversee strategy, as well as act as intermediary between the organization and the “Silver Fox,”15 a.k.a. Barbara Bush. He was not consulted, however, when his father chose a running mate; in fact, George attempted to change his dad’s mind when it was announced that Dan Quayle was his pick because he believed his father needed someone with more credibility and credentials to help the ticket.
But it was a proud son who had the honor as head of the Texas delegation at the 1988 Republican Convention in New Orleans to announce that its votes went to George Bush, which were enough to put him over the top. George W. told the crowd, “For a man we respect and a man we love, for her favorite son and the best father in America . . . the man who made me proud every single day of my life and a man who will make America proud, the next President of the United States.”16 Meanwhile, Texas Governor Ann Richards was ridiculing the vice president at the Democratic convention, where she told the audience, “Poor George, he can’t help it . . . he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”17 George W. would not forget nor forgive that remark.
After watching his father’s inauguration and enjoying the comforts of being guests at the White House, George and his family moved back to Texas. Now the question was, what next? Deciding to take his lifelong love and passion for baseball and turn it into a profitable business, he convinced a group of investors to take the plunge, and in April 1989, they bought 86 percent of the Texas Rangers. To help pay off his $500,000 loan for most of his share, Bush sold his stock in Harken for $850,000. Although the price temporarily dropped soon afterward, it later was worth twice as much.
Bush loved attending the Rangers’ games, sitting in his seat by the dugout and chatting with other fans. He took his job seriously, though, and fired people as needed, including the manager. Thinking that a new stadium would attract bigger crowds, Bush successfully lobbied for the people to pay a half-cent higher sales tax for its construction, with the team kicking in the rest of the money. In 1994, the Rangers moved to their new ballpark, Ameriquest Field in Arlington, and attendance nearly doubled. Two years after its opening, Bush and his group of investors sold their shares in the team for $250 million; his part was $14.9 million—a tidy profit from his $606,000 investment of only seven years earlier.
By the time the Rangers moved into their new home, George was attempting to relocate as well—to the governor’s mansion in Austin. Brother Jeb was running for governor of Florida in 1998; in fact, his candidacy had started much earlier than George, who announced he was opposing Ann Richards a year before the election. Both brothers wanted their father to help in both campaigning and drumming up financial support.
Laura Bush was not terribly excited about her husband’s political ambitions because the family was now financially secure and living in a nice north Dallas home, the girls had friends, and it seemed very doubtful that anyone could topple the popular Governor Richards. George moved forward anyway, and recruited a longtime member of his father’s campaign staff, Karl Rove. He also enlisted the aid of former Texas Republican Party director Karen Hughes.
George and Barbara Bush worried that their son was making a huge mistake taking on the popular Texas governor. But he told them that he did not need to “erode [Richards’s] likeability” but rather her “electability.”18 He was eager to campaign against the woman who had ridiculed his father and then started referring to “Junior” as “shrub.” Rather than wage a battle of personalities, Bush decided to offer four issues as his platform: education, stiffening penalties against juvenile offenders, welfare reform, and reforming the amounts of damages allowed in civil cases. Many Texas newspapers applauded his platform and his unwillingness to indulge in a vindictive campaign. Apparently the people of Texas also liked his ideas—they chose him to be their next governor. He won 53 percent of the vote to Richards’s 46 percent.
Winning the governorship of Texas was rather bittersweet for George because, while he won, younger brother Jeb had lost his bid for the same post in Florida. Still, the Bush family came together in Austin for George’s inauguration in January 1999. All understood that George would not have an easy time pushing his agenda through the Texas legislature, which was dominated by Democrats and headed by Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock.
Bush’s top priority was reforming education; he was appalled to learn of the astounding number of Texas youth who were unable to read. He worked with experts to develop ways to attack the problem, including granting more autonomy to the local school districts; raising standards and eliminating social promotion; transferring emphasis from teaching whole language to a return to phonics; and using tests to hold schools accountable for their results. Bush worked with educational professionals and business and industry leaders, and pled for parents to do their part in encouraging their children to read. Within his first term, the results were encouraging, with improved test scores across the board, including for minority students.
One of the problems for Texas education, according to its governor, was the inequity of its tax system. So halfway through his first term, he decided to overhaul the entire tax structure. Funding by the state was low, so that needed to be rectified since this forced local districts to raise their property taxes. Bush decided that taxes needed to be lowered. Businesses were paying taxes at varying levels, which he insisted needed to be made into a flat tax system. In November 1996, the governor announced he was seizing the billion-dollar surplus and freezing it from being used as the down payment for a tax cut. Bush’s plan was rejected by the legislature; however, voters approved the tax cut as a referendum.
Tort reform made its way to the legislature first, and lawyers actively lobbied legislators to block any attempts by the governor to impose punitive damage limits. Bush thought excessive damages were costly for all concerned and opposed them. He wanted a limit of less than a million dollars, which was opposed by the Democrats and Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. The lieutenant governor appointed a committee to work on the problem, and Bush sent a representative, as well. Bullock referred to the governor as “too stubborn and bullheaded for his own good,” but the two sides still managed to agree to a compromise of $750,000. Once the deal was made, Bullock called Bush “the greatest Governor ever.”19
Prior to the mid-1990s, juvenile justice in Texas meant sending kids to a “boot camp,” where they loafed and did nothing constructive all day. Bush’s appointee to the Texas Youth Commission, Steve Robinson, soon changed that. Young people wore uniforms and lived a strictly regimented life defined by discipline and constructive use of their time—a radical departure from the concept of “easy jail time.” Juvenile offenders were photographed and finger printed to help in tracking gang members. The state also lowered the age to fourteen for offenders of violent crimes to be tried as adults and put into adult prisons. Weapons-free zones were established near schools. “Tough love” became the motto for rehabilitating youthful offenders. They were no longer treated as victims, but rather people who had chosen the wrong path and now had to suffer the consequences for their decisions. Learning how to make better choices in the future became part of their rehabilitation.
Faith-based initiatives also became a priority, especially after Bush became aware that a successful program, Teen Challenge of South Texas, was about to be closed by the state because it did not meet the state’s guidelines for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, but was dispensing prayer rather than medication. This program yielded results, Bush argued, and should be kept open, and it was. He ordered a task force to study the possibility of expanding ways for the religious institutions of Texas “to help people in need without violating the important principle of separation of church and state.”20 That report then provided the foundation for faith-based initiatives to be passed in the coming years, including partnering these groups with state agencies as part of his welfare reform.
Bush had campaigned for changes to the welfare system. He proposed time limits on receiving benefits, as well as requiring those who were able-bodied to either work or train to work (including attending school). Also, he wanted recipients to sign a pledge promising to be drug-free and ensure that their children were immunized and attended school.
Unable to enact all of his reforms in one term, Bush decided to run for reelection. He wanted to continue his educational reforms, including the end of social promotions, and argued that students should be tested every few years. If they failed to attain a score of 70 on the Texas Basic Skills test, remediation should address whatever deficiency they had. Critics of the plan were skeptical and insisted that by holding students to this higher accountability level, the number failing would skyrocket.
The governor’s other campaign issue was granting Texans a tax cut from their state’s surplus. Bush proposed returning $2.6 billion to the taxpayer while still providing greater state aid to education. The people decided they liked what they had seen in the past four years, and for the first time in Texas history, a governor won a second consecutive term. Bush won in a landslide against Democratic land commissioner Garry Maruo, with an advantage of 69 percent to 31 percent.
Even before the gubernatorial election, Bush started hearing questions about whether or not he was running for the Republican presidential nomination. Finally, deciding that all of the speculation was a distraction from his work and the future gubernatorial campaign, Bush called a press conference in 1997 to announce he did not know whether he would run for president. When asked why he was making such a statement in the midst of an election, Bush said that the people had the right to know that it was a possibility when they cast their vote to keep him as governor. Apparently it made little difference in the election.
At this time, former president Bush wrote a letter to Hugh Sidey, longtime journalist for Time, as well as a good friend, describing the pride he felt toward his two sons running for governor in their respective states. Calling George “good” but admitting that his oldest son was “uptight at times, feisty at other times,” he continued his description:
“He includes people. He has no sharp edges on issues. He is no ideologue, no divider. He brings people together and he knows how to get things done. He has principles to which he adheres but he knows how to give a little to get a lot. He doesn’t hog the credit. He’s low on ego, high on drive. All the talk about his wild youth days is pure nuts. His character will pass muster with flying colors.”21
Bush was a key figure at the meeting of Republican Governors, and speculation of a possible presidential bid grew. When a British reporter pressed for the Texan’s philosophy, Bush replied, “I’m a conservative with heart.”22 That would be taken by his speechwriter and changed to become “compassionate conservative.”
To prepare himself for becoming a candidate, Bush hosted fifteen various policy conferences in Austin, meeting with experts in their particular fields, from health care and social security to defense and economics. One thing he learned was that the prospering ’90s were about to run out, and economic experts recommended a tax cut to lessen the taxpayers’ burden. One lesson he had learned from his father’s campaign: no promises of “no new taxes.” Once he made his decision to run for the Republican nomination, his father and family quickly acted to mobilize financial and political support from friends who had been cultivated over the years, leaving the field of other potential candidates little access to cash.
With over a year to go before the Republican convention, Bush had already garnered the endorsements of 117 congressmen and ten senators; moreover, over thirty-six million dollars was raised during the first part of 1999. Once the campaign season began, Bush won in Iowa, but lost to Arizona senator John McCain in the New Hampshire primary. He came back to win most of the key primaries, and after losing on Super Tuesday, McCain dropped out of the race.
In July, the Republican convention in Philadelphia named George W. Bush as the nominee. Earlier in the campaign, he had asked longtime family friend and politician Dick Cheney to head a committee to determine the best running mate for the Bush ticket. After interviews and discussions, Bush decided he wanted a man with more than a quarter century of experience in government, from the time of the Nixon and Ford administrations. Cheney was asked to be the vice presidential candidate, and he accepted the party’s nomination. His long-time experience, including a stint in Congress and as secretary of defense under Bush Sr. , was beneficial to the ticket.
Many anticipated a fairly lopsided race because Democratic nominee Al Gore was following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, who remained a popular president despite having weathered an impeachment trial. The economy, while slowing down, was still good, and indications pointed to Gore coasting to victory. Polls, however, consistently showed Bush and Gore running neck and neck throughout the campaign. Bush continued pushing an agenda similar to what he had run on in Texas—improving education and granting tax cuts to taxpayers. He also insisted that there needed to be reforms in Social Security, welfare, and Medicare.
The two candidates debated three times, but these debates did little to significantly affect their ratings. Barbara Bush warned there would likely be an “October surprise,” which turned out to be the old news of George’s drinking and driving resurfacing. More allegations of drug use years before dogged Bush, but none were substantiated. The seesawing in the polls continued; both camps knew the race would be close, but neither imagined it would end as it did.
Once the polls closed on November 7, 2000, on the East Coast, news outlets began projecting winners for those states. No significant problem emerged until some began calling Bush the winner in Florida based on exit polling data, and later, Gore called to concede. As the night wore on and more actual numbers came in, the networks changed their predictions and now said Gore won Florida. Gore made another phone call to retract his earlier concession. When Bush questioned him and argued that his brother had received assurances from state election officials that Bush had indeed won Florida, Gore countered, “Let me explain something. Your younger brother is not the ultimate authority on this.”23
When the Florida votes were tallied, Bush had won, but by a slim margin of less than two thousand votes, which under state law meant all counties using machine tabulations had to be recounted. Once this was done, Bush had a victory margin of just over three hundred votes. Democrats then pushed for an additional hand recount in four heavily Democratic counties, and Bush sued in federal court to halt the hand recount, thus beginning the war of the lawsuits. Both Gore and Bush spent weeks alternately suing in state and federal courts to start/stop recounts of certain Florida ballots. Debates regarding certification and deadlines ensued. Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris said she would not accept the hand recounts, but the state Supreme Court, all appointed by Democratic governors, ordered the recounts to continue. The country watched the unfolding drama of election officials holding ballots up to the light trying to determine whether the chad (the small piece of paper removed for desired candidates on punch-card ballots) was punched through, and the term “hanging chad” (those only partially punched) entered the national dialogue.
After multiple trips to the state courts and two to the US Supreme Court, the Supreme Court ruled in Bush v. Gore that the recounts in Florida should end, and the state should certify its winner in time for the December 12 electoral election deadline. Moreover, the Court insisted that this decision was not a precedent for future elections but “limited to the present circumstances.”24
The state’s Republican legislature then certified the party’s electors who, in turn, voted for George W. Bush. This tipped the electoral college to 271 for Bush, giving him one more vote than required to win the presidency. Gore then conceded the election for a second time, with the knowledge that had he carried his home state of Tennessee, the entire issue of Florida would be moot, and Gore would have become the forty-third president. Although this was only the fourth time in history that the popular and electoral vote tallies split, many Democrats insisted that they had been robbed of the presidency, and some called for reforms in the electoral process.
Continuing with his theme of volunteerism hand-in-hand with “compassionate conservatism,” Bush asked the American people in his inauguration speech “to defend needed reforms against easy attacks, to serve your nation, beginning with your neighbor. I ask you to be citizens. Citizens, not spectators. Citizens, not subjects. Responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character.”
The Bushes attended every one of the eight inaugural balls thrown in their honor. The next morning, there was an emotional meeting in the Oval Office between the past president Bush and his son. “Mr. President,” said George Sr. “Mr. President,” returned the current president, and then both men wept.25
The Oval Office was a symbol of the presidency, and its new occupant believed it should be respected as such. He forbade anyone, including himself, from entering it without adhering to a strict dress code—suits for women, coats and ties for men. His father proudly talked of how “honor and dignity”26 were being restored to the White House.
One of the first measures that Bush lobbied to win bipartisan congressional support for was his tax cut of $1.3 trillion, passed in May 2001. Hoping to curb the recession that was beginning to erode the economy, the president touted tax cuts advocated by his predecessors Reagan and Kennedy as a beneficial means to stimulate growth. Amid dire predictions of catastrophe by opponents, the tax cuts helped move the economy upward, but at a stiff price—a ballooning deficit.
Prior to taking office, Bush had sought the aid of Senator Ted Kennedy, who understood the power of a family and its dynasty, and they pledged to work together to enact educational reform. Other Democrats, however, were unwilling to join forces with the Republican president. Still, Bush was successful in gaining enough bipartisan cooperation to pass “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation to improve test scores of the nation’s youth, increase funding for schools, and, originally, to grant private vouchers to parents if their school had a history of underperformance. This latter portion was removed, and complaints would soon pour in that NCLB was another example of a government mandate that was left to the states and local districts to scrounge for funding.
In August 2001, the president announced funding of stem-cell research, but federal monies could only be spent on utilizing existing stem-cell lines. In a televised address, Bush explained that he wanted the research to go forward in the hopes that it could find cures to such diseases as diabetes and Parkinson’s. He did, however, object to harvesting frozen embryos, and ordered a presidential council appointed to monitor stem-cell research.
Increasingly during the first months of his administration, Bush was perceived as an isolationist. For example, like his Democratic predecessor, he was skeptical of the Kyoto Protocol calling for the curbing of carbon dioxide emissions to fight air pollution, and the United States officially announced it would not adhere to the treaty. The president maintained that the treaty’s exemption of China and India and other underdeveloped nations was wrong and its “compliance would cause serious harm to the US economy.”27 Although arguing that his administration would work to fight pollution and help the environment, there was little evidence that he could point to that supported his claim that the environment was a priority. Millions of acreage hitherto considered safe from development was released for logging, drilling, and mining. Clean air and water standards were also lowered.
In the spring of 2001, Bush faced his first foreign policy crisis when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US Navy surveillance jet, forcing the American plane to land in China, and soon its crew was being held by the Chinese army. After receiving an apology, the crew was released, and later President Jiang Zemin visited Bush in Crawford, Texas.
On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, the president arrived at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, to meet with a class of second graders. Just before entering, he was told that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. He took his seat at the front of the class, and as different children read to the president, Chief of Staff Andy Card whispered into his ear, “A second plane hit the tower. America is under attack.”28 Bush gave a curt nod, pursed his lips, and attempted to at least appear like he was still listening to the class. He complimented the children on their reading but quickly told the reporters covering the story that they would move elsewhere to talk.
After hearing updates from Cheney and others in Washington and confirming that his wife and daughters were safe, Bush announced he wanted to return to the White House, but Cheney advised against it, arguing that they did not know if more terrorists were waiting to attack. Another airliner soon crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth plunged into a Pennsylvania field following its passengers’ efforts to ensure it did not reach its destination somewhere in Washington, DC.
The president flew to airbases in Louisiana and then Nebraska for briefings and short news conferences, but by the afternoon, with all air flights grounded, and military jets patrolling the skies, Bush ordered Air Force One back to Washington. From there he addressed the American people that night: “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.” Telling the people that America was strong, and reassuring them that the country’s government was fully functional, the president reminded his audience that the country had “stood down enemies before and we will do so again this time.”29 The country had embarked on its “war on terror.”
On September 14, the president addressed the congregation assembled in Washington’s National Cathedral, as well as those watching on television. “We are here in the middle hour of our grief,” the president opened. He reminded all that “our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” While most of his speech was what one expected to hear on such a somber occasion, he did insert comments to remind all that America was at war. “This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing.”30
When the president arrived at the site of Ground Zero in downtown New York City, he found destruction beyond anything he had imagined. Toiling amidst the rubble were people wanting revenge, and one worker yelled as he walked by, “Don’t let me down!” Those words and the man’s intense look bore directly into the soul of the commander in chief. A few minutes later, the president climbed aboard the wreckage of a fire truck and, harkening back to his cheerleading days at Yale, put a bullhorn to his mouth and began reciting his prepared remarks when someone shouted, “I can’t hear you,” and others echoed the same sentiment. Bush smiled and replied, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”31 The crowd whooped in response and the president beamed.
The first major action was the creation of a new cabinet position, the Department of Homeland Security, to improve both the protection of America and the communication among various law enforcement agencies, so information about potential threats would be shared between them.
On October 8, the president told the American people: “On my orders the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.” This action was only being taken, Bush reminded his audience, after the refusal of the Taliban to cooperate. Their military camps were where Osama bin Laden and his partners-in-terror trained recruits, including those involved in the hijackings of September 11. Soon eleven thousand American troops were deployed to Afghanistan, and with the support of some of its Afghan allies, the United States managed to overthrow the strict Islamist Taliban regime and replace it with a more moderate government. Osama bin Laden, however, proved an elusive quarry, hiding in the towering mountains along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. But many al Qaeda leaders were successfully caught, and they provided vital information about future terrorist attacks that were consequently quashed.
The State of the Union address in January 2002 unveiled what became known as the Bush Doctrine, which decreed that the world was now one of sovereign nations and terrorist states. To keep America secure, it now claimed the right and authority to preemptively strike any country that aided international terrorists, and Bush pointedly talked of the “axis of evil”—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea; all were labeled potential threats to world peace.
Within six months of the attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act, granting the federal government sweeping powers to fight terrorism, such as using wiretaps, collecting personal information, including health and medical records, as well as collecting records from libraries and universities. Many organizations objected to what was perceived as attacks on civil liberties, and some successfully won in court. In March 2006, however, the Patriot Act was renewed with most of its provisions becoming permanent.
A great deal of Bush’s second year in office was spent in the preliminaries of war against Iraq. First, there was the ongoing issue of UN inspections teams, which had been mandated following the Persian Gulf War. Those inspections had been allowed to cease, and after wrangling in negotiations for two months and with the threat of US action, Iraqi officials agreed to allow inspectors back into their country in November. At first the country appeared to cooperate, but officials were evasive in answering inspectors’ questions about their weapons. Earlier American intelligence had convinced the Clinton administration that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs); moreover, the British had corroborating information.
Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the UN Security Council early in February 2003 and insisted that Iraq was not complying with previous UN resolutions. France and Russia, who were allies of Iraq, refused to take any action beyond the inspections. Without UN-sanctioned support, the United States and Great Britain decide to take joint military action. UN inspectors left Iraq on March 18, and the following day, the invasion of Iraq began.
Dubbed “Iraqi Freedom,” the mission of the coalition forces was to end the reign of Saddam Hussein and capture the weapons of mass destruction. Launched on March 19, the beginning of the campaign consisted of aerial bombardment designed to weaken the leadership of Iraq and its capabilities to wage war by removing communications. Ground troops began moving into southern Iraq from Kuwait. More aerial bombardment in Baghdad over prime targets heralded the “shock and awe” phase, to emphasize the overwhelming nature of the coalition’s attack. Tough fighting ensued against the Iraqi Republican Guard near Basra and other locations as the troops moved toward Baghdad, and a question began to be asked that would be repeated in the days, months, and years ahead: does America have enough troops in Iraq? Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld maintained throughout that yes, the United States had enough “boots on the ground.” Others remained skeptical.
As the invasion continued, specially trained units hunted for signs of WMDs, and as time marched on and no stockpiles were found, more criticism was heard. Some believed that the UN inspectors should have been granted more time to carry out their mission before any military action was taken; others charged Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair had lied to the world by saying that there were WMDs when the leaders knew there were none in order to give them a convenient cover for an illegal invasion. The controversy raged for years afterward.
By April 9, 2003, Baghdad was in coalition hands, and soon other Iraqi strongholds fell.
On May 1, the Pentagon announced that major combat operations were over. The next day, Bush arrived on the USS Abraham Lincoln in a military jet. Under a huge banner requested by the ship’s crew, hung across its superstructure announcing “Mission Accomplished,” Bush praised the work of the military and reiterated the Pentagon’s announcement. He was criticized for the banner and for his attire—the flight suit he wore during the trip was similar to those worn during his National Guard days. In the coming months, the president received more criticism as the fighting continued, and many wondered if the focus on Iraq had diverted Bush’s attention from finding Osama bin Laden.
There was good news on December 13 when American troops found Saddam Hussein in an underground hideaway near Tikrit. He was taken into custody and later tried for his crimes against his own people, found guilty in an Iraqi court, and executed in December 2006.
Meanwhile, the new Iraqi interim government began taking its first shaky steps in leading the fragile nation. Problems soon developed between the two Muslim sects of Shiites and Sunnis in establishing their roles in their country’s future.
Two reports in 2004 contained news that faulty intelligence led the administration to believe there were WMDs when, in fact, there were none. More people launched allegations that the invasion of Iraq was merely a ploy to gain access to its profitable oil fields, and all were reminded of the oil connections of both President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Around the time of these damaging reports, photographs were released showing American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib detention facility. During these last months of 2003, support for the war began to decrease.
All of these criticisms were hurled at Bush during the 2004 reelection campaign; he and Cheney were opposed by Massachusetts senator John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards of North Carolina. Both candidates were reminded of their Vietnam-era history—Kerry’s fighting record and medals were called into question by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who ran damaging television ads against him. Footage of Kerry’s anti-Vietnam War protests and testimony before Congress were replayed many times. The president’s National Guard service was also scrutinized and ridiculed as being far from the front and the fighting. The two men disagreed on most major issues, and Bush continually reminded the American people that they would be safer with him in the White House than with his opponent, who originally voted for the war but then voted against funding it. Bush supporters decried Kerry’s history of “flip-flopping” on issues as making him unsuited for the job of commander in chief.
On domestic issues, the two candidates disagreed regarding abortion—Bush opposed; Kerry supported. On gay marriage, Bush opposed, and while Kerry said he did, too, he also believed that gay civil unions should be legal.
The three presidential debates between Bush and Kerry were inconclusive. Despite numerous endorsements for John Kerry by Hollywood celebrities and newspapers, the American people reelected George W. Bush. He won with 51 percent of the popular vote, Kerry receiving 48 percent, and Independent candidate Ralph Nader garnering 1 percent. In the electoral college, Bush won 286 votes to Kerry’s 252.
Before the president’s second inaugural, the majority of his cabinet announced their resignation, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Two historic appointments were made in their places—Condoleezza Rice became the first African American woman heading the State Department, and Alberto Gonzales was the first Latino in charge of the Justice Department.
The main topic on Bush’s domestic agenda for 2005 was the privatization of Social Security. This program had long been considered a political hot potato. Although he had campaigned on the premise and believed it was one of the mandates of the election, Bush had to concede defeat when Congress refused to support such a radical change in Social Security. The president did, however, have a quiet victory on the healthcare front with the enactment of a 2003 law granting more choice to Medicare recipients for their prescription medicines. Although critics proclaimed it was too confusing and ultimately too costly, the program went into effect in 2006 with minimal problems.
Domestically, the Bush administration took a major hit in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina wrecked havoc along the Gulf coast, destroying towns in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, including much of the greater New Orleans area, and leaving more than 1,800 people dead. Decrying the government’s actions as being “too little too late,” critics insisted that Bush should have sent more help in sooner and provided more aid throughout the disaster.
The president could point to some success in Iraq with the election of the Iraqi Assembly in December 2005, but as time went on, the patience of the American people for the continuing war in Iraq wore thin. Their dissatisfaction revealed itself in the midterm elections of 2006. For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, winning a thirty-seat majority in the House of Representatives, but only a slim one in the Senate—51-49. The next day, President Bush remarked, “I’m obviously disappointed with the outcome of the election and, as the head of the Republican Party, I share a large part of the responsibility.”32
With the war in Iraq continuing to drain the public’s confidence and patience, Bush pledged to the new Democratic leadership in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that “I’m open to any idea or suggestion that will help us achieve our goals of defeating the terrorists and ensuring that Iraq’s democratic government succeeds.”33 However, with the new majorities in Congress promising sweeping changes in everything from the war, to the minimum wage, postmortems on the Bush presidency filled the media. Bush, however, knew that there were more than two long years to go in his administration, and said:
“Everybody is trying to write the history of this administration even before it’s over. I’m reading about George Washington. My attitude is, if they’re still analyzing number 1, 43 ought not to worry about it and just do what he thinks is right, and make the tough choices necessary. . . . But the true history of any administration is not going to be written until long after the person is gone. It’s just impossible for short-term history to accurately reflect what has taken place. Most historians, you know, probably had a political preference, and so their view isn’t exactly objective. And it’s going to take a while for people to analyze mine or any other of my predecessors until down the road when they’re able to . . . determine whether or not the decisions made during the eight years I was president have affected history in a positive way.” 34
1. George W. Bush, A Charge to Keep, New York: Harper Collins, 2001, p. 16.
2. William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U. S Presidents, New York: Gramercy Books, 2005, p. 756.
3. Peter Schweizer and Rochelle Schweizer, The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty, New York: Doubleday, 2004,
4. Bush, p. 14.
5. Barbara Bush, A Memoir, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994, pp. 46-47.
7. Bush, p. 19.
8. Ibid, p. 21.
9. Schweizer, p. 152.
10. Newsweek, August 7, 2000, p. 32.
11. Ronald Kessler, A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush, New York: Sentinel, 2004, p. 34.
12. Schweizer, p. 220.
13. Ibid, p. 221.
14. Ibid, p. 335.
15. Ibid, p. 338.
16. Ibid, p. 364.
18. Ibid, p. 421.
19. Bush, pp. 117-118.
20. Ibid, p. 214.
21. George H. W. Bush, All the Best, George Bush, New York: Scribner, 1999, p. 618.
22. Karen Hughes, Ten Minutes from Normal, New York: Viking, 2004, p. 110.
23. Schweizer, p. 489.
24. Bush v. Gore, December 12, 2000, Supreme Court ruling.
25. Schweizer, p. 500.
26. Ibid, p. 502.
27. Bush, letter to Senators Hagel, Helms, Craig, and Roberts, March 21, 2001.
28. Schweizer, p. 513.
29. Bush, speech, September 11, 2001.
30. Bob Woodward, Bush at War, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002, p. 67.
31. Ibid, p. 70.
32. George W. Bush, press conference, November 8, 2006.
33. Bush, cabinet meeting, November 9, 2006.
34. Bush, press conference, November 20, 2006.
comments powered by Disqus
jeff curtin - 5/21/2009
Wow, what a lame narrative of former President Bush! Lacking in depth and substance, it reads like a boring 6th grade story book.
Jack Smith - 5/11/2009
Agreed...scrubbed to the hilt. No mention of ignoring advice of his generals. No mention of tapping phones; penning up protestors into "free speech" zones far removed from any event; continually misleading the American public to associate 9/11 with Iraq; and on and on.
Jack Smith - 5/11/2009
"No significant problem emerged until some began calling Bush the winner..."
I have heard that the "some" referred to above was actually a cousin of George W. Bush who was working for a Fox affiliate who began declaring GWB the winner. Is this accurate or one of those rumors circulating?
John Olerud - 2/2/2009
Does anyone still try to make the argument that Gore won Florida? Every independent recount found Bush won the state.
Star Spangled Eyes - 4/23/2008
This new music video for the Gaslights song God, Guns & Glory shows how I will remember the last 8 years of the George W. Administration.
Patrick Murray - 4/21/2008
What would be the subtitle of a Bush presidential biography?
Eight Years of Good News?
Eight Years of Bad News?
D. M. Giangreco - 4/21/2008
"Nefarious methods" and "bailouts," hmm, that must be why Texans elected him governor twice.
James Draper - 4/21/2008
Don't forget that he dines on orphans and puppies, and orphaned puppies.
Frank Cousins - 4/21/2008
How well scrubbed can a biography be? Read this one and you'll see. No mention of any of the nefarious methods that Bush used to build the Rangers stadium. No mention of the bailouts that Bush Sr.'s friends contributed to a chronic failure of a "oilman". This is fiction.Pure and simple.
- 5 Ways to Rebuild Labor and Transform America
- Trump's Praise for China over Tiananmen Square Years ago was a Preview of his Support for Military Crackdowns on the George Floyd Protests
- For the First Time in 30 Years, Hong Kong Will Not Hold a Mass Vigil Commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre
- America's New Nihilism
- National Museum of African American History and Culture Releases “Talking About Race” Web Portal
- Why Teachers, Not Reformers, Should “Reimagine Education”
- COVID, Race, and a Pivotal Moment for America
- The Memo: Trump Lags in Polls as Crises Press
- Explaining the Insurrection Act of 1807 and Looking Back on Nixon’s Law & Order Campaign (Podcast)
- Trump Declared Himself the 'President of Law and Order.' Here's What People Get Wrong About the Origins of That Idea