Robin and Growing UpPAUL KENGOR
To this day, George W. Bush is sure he saw her. Swears by it. He caught her small head barely rising above the backseat of his parents' green Oldsmobile as it pulled in front of Sam Houston Elementary School in Midland, Texas, in the fall of 1953.
"Unconditional love is the greatest gift a parent can give a child."
George W. Bush
His parents had been in New York, where they were tending to George's little sister, Robin. He knew she was sick, but had no idea how sick. The three-year-old was dying from leukemia.
George's parents returned with an empty backseat and emptier news. "I run over to the car," said Bush almost half a century later, "and there's no Robin." She was not coming home. "I was sad, and stunned," recalls Bush. "I knew Robin had been sick, but death was hard for me to imagine. Minutes before, I had had a little sister, and now, suddenly, I did not." Bush says that those minutes remain the "starkest memory" of his childhood "a sharp pain in the midst of an otherwise happy blur." When asked about the incident in an interview, his eyes welled with tears and he stammered his response.
Pauline Robinson "Robin" Bush started to show symptoms in February 1953, just after the birth of her baby brother Jeb. She simply wanted to lie down all day. Mysterious bruises began appearing on her body. The Bushes took her to Dr. Dorothy Wyvell, renowned in West Texas pediatrics, who was shocked by the test results. She told the Bushes that the child's white blood cell count was the highest she had ever seen, and the cancer was already too advanced to treat. She recommended they simply take Robin home and allow nature to take its course, sparing all of them the agony of futile medications.
The Bushes couldn't do that. George's father, George H. W. Bush, had an uncle in New York who was president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. They agreed to do everything they could in the hope of some kind of breakthrough.
Barbara Bush was constantly at Robin's side during the hospital stay. Her husband shuttled between New York and Midland. Each morning of Robin's New York stay, her father dropped by the family's Midland church at 6:30 a.m. to hold his own private prayer vigil. Only the custodian was there, and he let him in. One morning, Pastor Matthew Lynn joined him. They never talked; they just prayed.
It all happened so fast; Robin died weeks before her fourth birthday. The tragedy devastated the Bushes; it is likely the reason Barbara Bush turned prematurely gray. She had been the strong one who held Robin's hand when she received blood transfusions at the cancer center; Robin's father had to leave the room.
"We awakened night after night in great physical pain it hurt that much," Barbara recalled. Her husband said that he "learned the true meaning of grief when Robin died." Even though he believed that Robin was now "in God's loving arms," the distress never disappeared. The former president told CNN's Larry King in November 1999, "We hurt now." Five years after Robin's death, in the summer of 1958, George H. W. wrote a long letter to his mother. It was a sort of poem, with a dozen lines that began, "We need . . ." Each line stressed how much he and Barbara missed having a little girl around the house, amid the four boys. "We need a girl," Robin's father concluded. (The Bushes were blessed with a daughter the next summer their final child, Dorothy, who today raises four children of her own in Maryland.)
After Robin's death, the Bush family struggled to put their lives back together. One Friday night, they decided to attend a high-school football game with friends. Everyone avoided the hurtful subject on all minds. The silence was broken by young George, who stood on his tiptoes in the bleachers, craning his neck to see the field over the tall heads. Suddenly, he announced to everyone's dismay, "Dad, I wish I was Robin." A terrible silence ensued. His father visibly blanched. "Gee," his dad tenderly responded, "why would you say that, George?" Because Robin is in heaven, George explained: "She can probably see the game better from up there than we can from down here." Robin had the best seat in the house.
George W. Bush is a rugged guy, a kind of cowboy an image that works both for him and against him, usually depending upon the ideology of the source. He rightly says that his personality is "more complex than one or two events." Yet his public image belies a more emotional side.
Robin's death hit Bush hard. A childhood friend named Randall Roden remembers spending the night at the Bush house; when George awoke screaming, his mother rushed in to comfort him. "I knew what it was about," said Roden. "He had nightmares for some period of time. It was one of the most realistic experiences I have ever had about death and . . . it had a profound effect on him." Eight years later, at prep school in the Northeast, when young George was asked to write about a soul-stirring experience in his life, he wrote about Robin.
Though he remembers being very sad, Bush says that his parents loved him enough that the death did not traumatize him. He learned never to take life for granted, to live it to the fullest. "Rather than making me fearful," he said, "the close reach of death made me determined to enjoy whatever life might bring, to live each day."
It is telling that when George W. later wrote his life story, he began it with Robin. She is the first subject in his memoir, and her picture is among the first. She stands next to her proud big brother, who rises a foot taller. She is wearing a buttoned shirt and white sweater. He is wearing a striped tie with a long clip and white pants and white shirt. His arm is around her; both are beaming. The resemblance is clear: she is undoubtedly a Bush.
Robin's death got her seven-year-old brother thinking about God and eternity. Before her passing, the beyond was a vague and distant concept for him. The experience also taught him about finding security in a heavenly father. He found comfort in the assurance that Robin was safe in heaven, from where she could watch them. One September day forty years after her death, the Bushes were attending Sunday service at St. Ann's by the Sea, their church in Kennebunkport, Maine; the theme was about being "prepared to go home." Pensively, George W. stared at a stained-glass window of Jesus Christ holding out His arms to a child, and told his mother, "That makes me think of Robin."
George Walker Bush was born on July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut, where the family resided while his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, finished his undergraduate degree at Yale. They were there because his father had ignored the advice of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson's commencement address to the 1942 prep-school class, in which Stimson had advised the senior Bush and his classmates to finish their education before considering military service. No, said Bush. Instead, he enlisted, postponing college to become the youngest navy pilot commissioned in the war.
He and Barbara met and were married in Connecticut. George was born a year later. According to Barbara, her husband is the only man she ever kissed; no matter where George H. W. traveled, he called his wife and they prayed together before bed.
When little George turned two, the family moved to the West Texas town of Midland, where his father joined the oil industry. It is important to understand that while George H. W. was a northeasterner, George W. has always been pure Texan, of which he takes immense pride. Years later, in his first piece of political fund-raising mail, sent out as a gubernatorial candidate, he told his fellow Texans: "I view Texas as a way of life, a state of mind, a way to think." He has said repeatedly that he loves Texas; it gave him his roots and shaped his character. To know Texas and Midland in particular is to know Bush.
Midland is where it all began for George W. in the late 1940s and 1950s. Washington Post reporters George Lardner Jr. and Lois Romano noted that while he was the only Bush child not born in Texas, George W. is "the one who would become the truest Texan, who had memories of the oil business, of sleeping in the back seat of the station wagon while his father waited for a well to come in." Of all the Bushes, he has the most Texas in his blood.
In those days, the dry, dusty Midland had a frontier feeling sandstorms whirled, tumbleweeds tossed. When he arrived at school in the morning, he dusted sand off his desk. One time, a pounding rain that followed a long dry spell left frogs everywhere, croaking in fields and on porches, like the biblical plague.
It was a small town, where families watched out for one another and everyone went to church on Sunday. When they did, Midland's flock left their doors unlocked. The Bush family attended the First Presbyterian Church in Midland. That was a switch for George's father, who had been reared in the Episcopal church. George H. W. was raised in a home where each morning at the breakfast table his Connecticut mother or father read a Bible lesson to the children. On Sundays, they attended services at Christ Church in Greenwich. George H. W.'s grandfather, whose full name was the familiar George Herbert Walker, had been born into a devout Catholic family in St. Louis, and was named after the seventeenth-century religious poet George Herbert.
Now in Midland, the Episcopalian became a Presbyterian the denomination of his wife so that the entire family could attend one church. There, at First Presbyterian, he taught Sunday school. The family spent eleven good years at that church before leaving Midland in 1959. More than twenty years later, when George W. returned to that same church, he too would teach Sunday school.
To this day, Bush says he can recite the entire lineup of the 1954 Giants. Though he goes to bed early, he likes to try to watch SportsCenter on ESPN, where he catches the latest from the baseball diamond. He cites Field of Dreams as his favorite film a movie about a father and son and their love for each other and for baseball. As president, he recently read the latest biography of Dodgers great Sandy Koufax.
His father had been a southpaw first baseman at Yale, where he rose to be captain of the team before withdrawing from college to fly in combat. George W.'s neighborhood buddies were in awe when his father caught the ball behind his back. They all tried to imitate the feat. George was a catcher; he still fondly remembers the moment his father told him, "Son, you've arrived. I can throw it to you as hard as I want to."
He also played football, a natural outgrowth of the weekly community pilgrimage to high-school football games on Friday nights, a Texas tradition. In seventh grade, George was the quarterback for the football team.
For six years, Bush attended school at Sam Houston Elementary. He completed seventh grade at San Jacinto Junior High, where he was popular. There, for the first time, he ran for president, and won. To this day, he has yet to lose a presidential bid.
His life changed in 1959 when the family moved to Houston, so that his father could be closer to his oil rigs. This was a major shift for George and, while it broadened his borders, he was saddened to leave his friends. Though he adjusted, he never fully recovered; privately, he longed for West Texas.
Nonetheless, George H. W.'s financial prospects were finally looking up. One thing that has not been generally understood about the Bushes is that while George H. W.'s relations had money, at first he and Barbara did not. Before he had an oil well, the senior Bush was a clerk; his family's home was a tiny box in a low-income section of town, purchased with an FHA loan. Before that, George and his parents had settled for an apartment in a shotgun house, where they shared a bathroom with two prostitutes who lived next door. This was not the Greenwich Country Club.
It was during these earliest years that George came by his lifelong ability to roll with the punches. By his teen years, the Bush brood had expanded substantially. Robin was gone, but George had three brothers: Jeb, a baby when Robin died, was followed by Neil and Marvin. They were soon joined by a sister, Dorothy, the last of the Bush kin. Huddled in the car, the family drove 744 miles eastward across the flat plains to Houston. The fourteen-hour drive toward the Gulf of Mexico brought a different climate: Houston was green, and it had rain.
In Houston, George made his first shift in religious denominations. The family went back to his father's roots, joining St. Martin's Episcopal Church at the corner of Sage and Woodway. George became an altar boy, and remained so until he left for prep school. In his early teen years, he served Communion at the 8:00 a.m. service and relished the Episcopal trappings. "I loved the formality, the ritual, the candles," he said, "and there, I felt the first stirrings of a faith that would be years in the shaping."
Mom and Dad
During those earliest Texas days, mothers were the rock in the family. Most of the fathers in the Bushes' social circle were in the oil business, which meant they were often away at drilling sites. This left the mothers with the task of driving children to and from ball games. This does not mean that George's father whom he always refers to simply as "Dad" was an absent father.
Today, Bush says that "unconditional love is the greatest gift a parent can give a child" and that the unconditional love his parents bestowed on him and his siblings "freed" them. Growing up, they knew that "while they might not approve of everything we did . . . our mother and dad would always love us. Always. Forever. Unwaveringly. Without question. They said it and showed it." During his father's twelve years as vice president and president, he stresses, his father was never too busy to take a call from his children or to write them lengthy letters.
There are parallels between how Bush views his earthly parents and his heavenly one. He has likewise expressed the conviction that faith in God frees individuals, and that God wishes His children to be free. Like his perception of his parents, he views God as loving all His children unconditionally, though he may not approve of their many missteps. Bush himself has frequently drawn this connection between the love of God and the love of a parent.
The bond between George and his mother tightened after Robin's death. Following the loss, George H. W. got back on the road with the oil business. At home alone with the two boys, though, Barbara suffered great despair after her daughter's death. And her oldest son, deeply aware of his mother's anguish, worked to make her feel better by becoming a jokester, a cutup.
Rather than go out with his friends, Bush stayed home to try to cheer her up. Barbara once said that this did not dawn on her until she overheard George telling friends that he could not play because he had to stay home and play with his mother. "I was thinking, 'Well, I'm being there for him,' " she remembered. "But the truth was he was being there for me."
The fact that his father was on the road so much brought George and his mother ever closer. Once, in the mid-1960s, George drove his mother to the hospital while she was having a miscarriage. When she worried that she would not be able to walk out of the car, George told her he would carry her into the emergency room. She spent the night in the hospital and lost the baby. The next day, Barbara's son sternly asked, "Don't you think we ought to talk about this before you have more children?"
Teddy Roosevelt has been quoted as saying that his father was the greatest man he ever knew. George W. has said the same about his father. At the dedication of his father's presidential library, he called him "the world's greatest dad." At the start of his Republican convention speech in Philadelphia in August 2000, in a subtle reference to President Bill Clinton allegedly calling him "daddy's boy" two days earlier, George W. looked toward his father's seat and proclaimed before a national audience, "I am proud to be your son."
To the Northeast
The teenage George had settled into a contented life in Houston when his parents started talking of sending him to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, one of the nation's most exclusive college prep schools and his father's alma mater. "My parents wanted me to learn not only the academics," said Bush, "but also how to thrive on my own." In 1961, he was accepted and enrolled at the age of fifteen. Andover, he soon found, was nothing like Texas. Unlike school at Sam Houston, he ditched his T-shirt and blue jeans for a coat and tie. There were no girls at all.
Bush attended chapel at Phillips every day except Wednesday and Saturday, and served as a deacon at the chapel, though the extent to which his attendance was a pious one is difficult to determine. One journalist reported that the deacon role at Phillips had long since lost any serious religious significance. Chapel services were required, though they often served as school-wide meetings featuring general announcements and guest speakers. Sunday services were led by a Protestant minister named A. Graham Baldwin.
Bush made friends fast in Andover, earning the nicknames "Tweeds" and "Lip." He played varsity baseball and basketball and JV football, was head cheerleader and a member of the Athletic Advisory Board, Student Congress, Spanish Club, and the Phillips Society, and was proctor at the America House. He was bestowed the mock honor of High Commissioner of Stickball, and finished second in voting for Big Man on Campus. At the academy George W. also learned discipline, how to think, and to read and write with proficiency. A teacher named Tom Lyons imparted to George a lifelong love of history, which he majored in at Yale a few years later. To this day, his books of choice are more often than not works of history.
In his memoir, after describing his first taste of politics in Andover, he wrote about how the people there encouraged him "to rise to the occasion." One of the most surprising aspects of Bush the politician is that he is able to call on this talent at key moments. Friendly and unfriendly observers alike have marveled at his unexpectedly strong performances in the public arena; he seems to have discovered that surprising ability at Phillips.
Much of that surprise has been expressed by modern pundits, born of their continual underestimation of Bush. Though the president has never pretended to be a genius, he is far cleverer than many give him credit for being. At Andover, Bush learned not to try to forge a phony pretense regarding intelligence. He still remembers the first paper he wrote, for which he pulled out a thesaurus and substituted fancy, flowery words to describe his emotions. Instead of simply saying that "tears" ran down a face, he wrote that "lacerates" fell. The paper was returned with a giant zero, carved so emphatically that it could be seen from the back side of the blue book. It has always been tough to stereotype Bush, particularly during his younger years. At every elite school he attended, classmates remember him as a swaggering kind of good ol' boy from Texas. Yet not even the snobs seem to have held that against him; by all accounts he fit right in and was perennially popular. He had a peculiar tendency to be a snob against snobbery, despising showy displays of wealth and valuing humility over ostentation.
Bush spent his next four years at Yale, where he earned a bachelor's degree in history in 1968. Rather than absorbing spiritual enrichment, Bush gained a reputation as a partygoer at college. Though a fairly serious student, Bush remained a prankster, the president of a fraternity, and someone with whom anyone could have a good time.
As he had been at Phillips, at Yale Bush was greatly bothered by "intellectual snobbery." He was popular, seemed to enjoy himself, and did well academically. He had entered with a score of 1206 on his SATs, a high score by the stricter SAT scoring of that era. The Washington Post gained access to a copy of his grade transcript. Though it did not publish Bush's grades, the Post did note, by comparison, that Vice President Al Gore's grades in his sophomore year at Harvard were lower than any semester recorded on Bush's transcript from Yale.
Yale also offered reinforcement of the comfort with issues of race he had learned at home. In a time when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Bush was buddies with Yale football star and future NFL all-pro Calvin Hill. To this day, he vividly recounts a talk about being a "Negro in America" by Dick Gregory, the black activist, at a Yale graduation event. Thirty years later, in his memoir, he would quote from Gregory's speech.
This was not a time of punctilious churchgoing for Bush. One of his few encounters with a minister was a visit he paid to Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin, who was well known as an antiwar, radical left theologian. When Bush had some questions about the Vietnam War, about the protests and upheaval he saw around him, his father suggested he drop in and talk to Coffin for advice. According to Bush, not only was Coffin unhelpful, but he also insulted his father. At the time, Bush Sr. had just lost a close Texas race for the U.S. Senate to a liberal Democrat named Ralph Yarborough. "I knew your father," Bush remembers Coffin commenting, "and your father lost to a better man." It was not the only time the younger Bush would encounter a rude reception from a liberal theologian.
For the record, Coffin later said that he had no recollection of a conversation with Bush and that if he had said anything of the kind it would have been in jest. Yet Bush told his parents of the incident right away, and to this day they remember how clearly it affected him. His mother has said that Coffin's comment was "shattering" to her son. "And it was a very awful thing for a chaplain to say to a freshman at college," she continued, "particularly if he might have wanted to have seen him in church. I'm not sure that George ever put his foot again [in the school chapel]." Yet Bush himself never forgot "how to pray," he has said, regardless of whether or not he did so inside a house of worship.
The Real World
Spiritually, the late 1960s and 1970s found George W. Bush spending less time searching his soul, and more trying to find a gainful place in the world.
In 1968, eager to follow in his father's footsteps, Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard and became an F-102 fighter pilot. Spending fifty-five weeks on active duty before graduating in December 1969, he logged thousands of miles and discovered a new lifelong love.
From there, Bush did some job-hopping, some volunteer campaign work, some travel. He did a stint as a management trainee with an agribusiness company in Houston, a job with stability but little satisfaction. This was a notably unclear time in his life.
Then Bush took a low-profile job that had a profound influence on his life and thinking. He accepted a full-time position with Project PULL (Professional United Leadership League), an inner-city poverty program located at 1711 McGowen Street in the heart of the slums of Houston's Third Ward. PULL recruited professional athletes during the off-season to offer their time as role models for young black boys under the age of seventeen. A recruiter for the program, Bush also became a mentor himself.
John L. White, a former tight end with the Houston Oilers, had asked Bush's father to help him with the program after the two met during George H. W.'s 1970 Senate campaign. Behind the scenes, his father asked White to find his son a place in the program. He wanted his son to see that side of life, and perhaps improve his focus in the process.
Bush was the only white person on all of McGowen Street. "Any white guy that showed up on McGowen was gonna get caught in some tough situations," said one of PULL's founders. "You better be able to handle yourself." George W. "stood out like a sore thumb," according to one of PULL's senior counselors. With his shabby casual clothes and beat-up car, Bush the sloppy bachelor looked nothing like an Ivy Leaguer.
By his own account, PULL introduced Bush to a world he had never seen: a tableau of homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, fatherless children, single mothers, teens who could not read, boys who hid guns under their shirts. "It was tragic, heartbreaking," said Bush, but also "uplifting." It was his introduction to what a well-meaning nonprofit organization could do his first lesson in what he would later call compassionate conservatism.
One employee remembered Bush's devotion: "[He] came early and stayed late." Bush wrestled with the boys, played basketball, and took them on field trips to juvenile jails as a deterrent to crime. He taught them not to run when police drove by. He was also creative in settling them down: One day he took a group of raucous boys for a plane ride. When one of the teens started getting rough, Bush stalled the engine, scaring the teen and his friends into obedient silence.
"Big Cat" Ernie Ladd, an NFL star, spoke glowingly of Bush at PULL. "He was a super, super guy," said Ladd, who promised he would call Bush "a stinker" if he was one. "Everybody loved him so much. He had a way with people. . . . They didn't want him to leave."
The biggest impact Bush made at PULL was on a six- or seven-year-old boy named Jimmy Dean; likewise, the boy seems to have made a strong impact on Bush. Bush has said that Jimmy became like a little brother to him. Edgar Arnold, a PULL director, called Jimmy an "adorable kid." "Everybody liked him, but he bypassed all these famous athletes, all these giants, and picked out George Bush, and vice versa."
Bush eventually left the job to go to Harvard. White advised that he could do a lot more for those kids one day if he got a Harvard degree. When White died a few years later, Bush returned to deliver the eulogy. There he learned that little Jimmy had been shot and killed in the ghetto. In later years, Bush said that Project PULL reinforced his biblical belief that "we are all equal in the eyes of a loving God."
George W. opted for an MBA at Harvard Business School, which he called the West Point of capitalism. "I was there to learn," remembered the focused Bush, "and that's exactly what I did." He lived alone in an apartment, jogged, rode his bike, studied a lot, and graduated in June 1975.
Once again, he detested the intellectual vanity around him. In a way, he literally spit at it. "One of my first recollections of him," said Marty Kahn, a Harvard classmate, "was sitting in class and hearing the unmistakable sound of someone spitting tobacco. I turned around and there was George sitting in the back of the room in his [Air Guard] bomber jacket spitting in a cup." "You have to remember," Kahn continued, "this was Harvard Business School. You just didn't see that kind of thing." Whether in Cambridge, New Haven, or Andover, you couldn't remove the Texan from George W. Bush.
After getting his master's from Harvard, he tossed everything he had into his blue 1970 Cutlass and headed back to Texas. He could get along in New England, as he had in the previous decade, but it still left him with a fish-out-of-water feeling. He returned to his roots, his comfort zone, and went searching for meaning in Midland cowboy country, oil country. "West Texas," he recognized, "was in my blood."
Back in Midland, he started at rock bottom in the oil business, where he hoped to find success and perhaps a sense of calling. His company, Arbusto, missed black gold everywhere it poked. Rival drillers started calling Arbusto "Ar-busted." Bush started drinking.
Two years after returning to Midland, in 1977, he met Laura Welch, a Midland girl who had gone to elementary school at James Bowie, not far from Sam Houston.
Laura had earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1968 from Southern Methodist University. After teaching for a while at schools in Dallas and Houston, she entered the University of Texas at Austin and earned a master's degree in library science in 1973. After that, she worked at the Houston Public Library before returning to Austin in 1974. Then she became a public school librarian at Dawson Elementary School, where she remained until her marriage.
In November 1977, only a few months after they met, George and Laura both thirty-one were married. Naturally, they made their first home in Midland. They both desperately wanted children, but pregnancy proved elusive. Just as they were starting to think about adoption, however, they were blessed. On November 25, 1981, they became the parents of twin girls, whom they named after the twins' grandmothers, Barbara and Jenna.
Settling in Midland also meant it was time for George to get on track spiritually. For a time, he and Laura attended both her church, the First United Methodist Church in Midland, and his, the First Presbyterian Church in Midland. At the Presbyterian church, George W.'s increasing seriousness was evident: soon he was teaching Sunday school, just as his father had done years before at that same church.
After the twins' baptism in 1982, George officially joined Laura's church. Like his father, he deferred to his wife's denomination, deciding to join one church as a family. After years of flipping between Protestant denominations, mainly Episcopal and Presbyterian, this switch to the Methodist faith was permanent.
George immediately became active in the Methodist church, where he served on the finance committee. On Sundays it was his job to count the money collected from the congregation, then spend Sunday afternoons at meetings of the administrative committee. He also became involved with the United Way and chaired one of its campaigns. In this time of personal volunteer service with faith-related groups, George W. Bush was taking a step forward in his faith and his life. Now a husband and a father and a man undergoing a serious stage of spiritual growth Bush must have known that moving back to Midland had been the right thing to do.
Nonetheless, Bush still had a way to go. Blaise Pascal believed that in every heart there is a God-shaped vacuum that only God can fill; in these years, the hole in George W.'s heart was at best partly full. It was an encounter at the family vacation home in Maine that would forever change and define him.
Paul Kengor. "Robin and Growing Up." Chapter One in God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004): 1-19.
The foregoing is excerpted from God and George W. Bush by Paul Kengor. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
Reprinted with permission of the author, Paul Kengor and HarperCollins Publishers.
Copyright © 2004
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