The Faith of George W. Bush
Charisma HouseCopyright © 2004 Stephen Mansfield
All right reserved.ISBN: 1591854709
Chapter One A Charge to Keep
It was not the Longhorns, the Aggies, or the DallasCowboys they were thinking about that day in Texas.Though football is nearly the state religion, Texans hadsomething else on their minds. And they were not worryingabout the price of crude. Oil seemed to be selling just fine.No, on that day in January of 1995, most Texans were thinkingone thing: Today George W. Bush will be inaugurated as governorof our state.
He had done it. Very few thought he would. They hadlaughed when he announced his candidacy. Columnist MollyIvins called him "Shrub," and even his friends chuckled whensomeone called him just another "rich son of a Bush." But hesurprised them all, even his parents, and defeated theextremely popular incumbent, Ann Richards. He wouldbecome only the second Republican governor of Texas in thenearly 120 years since Reconstruction.
For "Dubya," the day was a blitz of events, one stackedupon the other. He was distracted as he dressed that morning;the speech Karl Rove had been writing for him playeditself in a loop through his mind. There had been last-minutechanges in wording, and since delivering speeches still wasnot his strong suit, he wanted to get it right. The speechwould only last ten minutes, but it meant so much.
He was aware but not fully engaged when his fathercame to him and pressed a pair of cuff links into his hands.He knew what they were and probably showed some gratitude.But it may have been forced. He was still in a bit of ahaze and had not really grasped the full meaning of themoment. Then, as they left the capitol to attend a prayerbreakfast at a nearby church, his mother put a note in hishand. Again, there were thanks and a hug but no sense of theweightiness he would come to attach to it all later.
Then, there was the limo ride to the church and thewaiting crowd. He waved as he walked toward the door,shook hands with well-wishers as he entered, and sat insilence once he found his seat. There was the usual businessof such an event: the greetings, the songs, and the readingsfrom the Bible. His mind wandered. Perhaps it all was movingtoo fast for him. Perhaps he wanted to remember thewhole day, and it was already becoming a blur. He rehearsedthe morning in his mind; perhaps that was when he recalledthe note he had quickly shoved into his pocket. The preacherwarmed to his text as George W. pulled the envelope fromhis pocket and began to read. And the tears came.
* * *
Another day, another year, another Texas city: It is 1943. Theplace is a hot, dusty air base near Corpus Christi. The SecondWorld War is in full fury, and the United States is trainingrecruits and shipping them abroad as fast as they can bereadied. It is the ninth of June, and a graduation has justtaken place at this busy airfield. Three figures are standingtogether in the brutal Texas sun. One is nearly six and a halffeet tall and every bit of 250 pounds. There is a woman,much shorter than the other two and clearly the larger man'swife, with a noble grace already etching itself in her face.Then there is the beaming one, the tall, underweight seamansecond class who has just received his navy pilot's wings. Heis barely twenty years old.
The larger man, obviously the father of the new pilot,reaches into his pocket to take hold of something small,which he then presents without ceremony to his son. It is aset of gold cuff links. The son knows their meaning, for hehas come to understand the ways of his father, who is not anoverly expressive man. "My father is proud of me," he senses,"and these are the symbols of his joy at this wonderful andfearful moment of my life."
The boy treasures the gift and, even more, his father'spride. He thinks of it later when he is shot down over thePacific Ocean. He remembers it when he studies at Yale, runsan oil company, wins a seat in Congress, heads the CIA, andbecomes vice president and then president of the UnitedStates. And he thinks of his father and the gift the day hisoldest son, George W., becomes the governor of Texas. Theyare his most prized possession, but it is time to pass themon.
* * *
George W. Bush has not heard much of the sermon. Yet, thepreacher must think he is doing very well. The governor-electis in tears, after all. The sermon must be a hit. But it is the note in his hand that has undone the newlyelected governor. It is from his father, the former president."These cuff links are my most treasured possession," theolder man has written, and he invokes that June day in 1943when his own father first gave them. "I want you to havethem now," the note says, and then the father speaks of theson "receiving his wings" on this inauguration day, of how heunderstands the younger man's excitement, and how he willbe a fine governor. It is, in a sense, a blessing-the kindfathers have given their sons for generations.
There is more in the note, however, and through the yearsGeorge W. would rehearse each word again and again. But it isthe last line that sticks, that he will never forget, that nowmoves him to weep.
Having expressed his love, his pride, and his confidence,the father writes in closing to the son: "Now, it is your turn."
Throughout the years, the Bush family has been reticentto speak of itself with words like legacy, dynasty, or, certainly,empire. They prefer to talk in terms of trust, destiny, and faith.But there is little question that what passed between formerPresident George Herbert Walker Bush and his governor-sonwas more than jewelry and a note of encouragement. It was,as one scholar has written, "a symbolic passing of the torch."
Clearly, the father was attempting to connect the son tosomething that had come before and that might sustain himin the days ahead. All families are defined by their stories. Itis the oft-repeated tale that fashions the family culture and,if the stories are inspiring enough, fashions the family senseof purpose. The Bush heritage contains stories of the kind tofashion a sense of destiny, and if we are going to understandthe faith of George W Bush, we must first consider how hisfamily history may have shaped his beliefs.
* * *
It is hard to say what part of the Bush legacy most inspiredGeorge W., but there is certainly fuel for the imagination inthe tale. There were, for example, the dreamer/adventurers.Obediah Bush of Vermont is one of these, a man who lefthis home during the War of 1812, became a schoolmaster,then caught gold fever and left for California during theGold Rush of 1849. Two years later, he tried to return hometo reclaim his family and take them west. He died in theattempt, though, and was buried at sea, leaving his wifeand seven children alone in Rochester, New York. Thoughhis dreams were unfulfilled, he left the legacy of a visionaryromantic for those who bore the family name.
There were also philosopher/poets in the Bush saga.The second of Obediah's seven children was one of these, achild named James who was born so sickly the doctor toldhis mother, "You better knock him in the head, for if helives he will never amount to anything." The child'smother, Harriet, was in a grand tradition of stubbornnessthat would survive her, and she determined to nurse thechild to health. She did. Sixteen years later, the boy had notonly lived but also developed into the kind of man YaleCollege eagerly wanted to admit.
There is a description of James Bush while he was atYale, and had it not been written in 1907, one might suspectthe author of reading the characteristics of laterBushes back into the lives of their ancestors. "His classmatesspeak of him," wrote William Barrett, a familyfriend, "as tall and slender in person, rather grave of mien,except when engaged in earnest conversation or good-humoredrepartee; ever kind and considerate and always agentleman-still, very strong in his likes and dislikes. Hemade many friends. Anxious to make the most of hisopportunities, he ranked high in his studies. Fond of athletics,he achieved considerable reputation as an oarsman,rowing stroke in his class crew. He was also quite noted asa high jumper."
James was possessed of a deeply spiritual nature anddetermined to become a Presbyterian minister. The needs ofhis family prevailed, though, and to support them he decidedto study law. He was admitted to the bar and opened an officein Rochester. Not too long after, James fell hard in love with awoman of renowned beauty, Sarah Freeman, and she agreedto marry him. Their happiness did not last long, however, forshe died of fever a mere eighteen months after the wedding. James was devastated, and, as often happens with thegrieving, his mind turned to the spiritual. He decided to giveup the practice of law and become an Episcopal priest. Intime, he was ordained by the bishop of New York and tooka parish in New Jersey, where he served for ten years. Love came twice for the Rev. Bush. He met and married awoman with the same name as his mother, Harriet. She was adescendant of the Samuel Prescott who rode with Paul Revere,and the editor/poet James Russell Lowell said of her, "She possessedthe finest mind and was the most brilliant youngwoman of my day."
James' romantic soul had absorbed his father's sense ofadventure, and when an opportunity came his way to serveas chaplain on a risky voyage to South America, he eagerlytook it. The story is told in Rev. Bush's paper "The Trip ofMonadnock," which he read before the Concord Lyceum in1886. The episode is worth recounting here because it gavethe Bush family their guiding motto.
During the voyage, a fire started near the magazine,where the explosives were kept. The captain, Mr. Franklin,leapt into the hold to put the fire out despite the horribledanger of being killed along with all on board. A crewman,moved by the captain's bravery, shouted after him, "Mr.Franklin, you're a brave man; you shan't go to hell alone." The captain's courage and his success at putting the fireout so inspired Rev. Bush that he challenged the ConcordLyceum, "Is it not by the courage always to do the rightthing that the fires of hell shall be put out?" With thesewords, "Do the Right Thing" became the Bush family mottoand has been passed from generation to generation.
Rev. Bush continued his pastoral work first in SanFrancisco and then at Staten Island. His ministry seemed tobe flourishing, yet a year later he resigned his pastorate. Itwas a crisis of theology that led to the break, and it had beenlong in coming. Some years before, a friend had quoted linesfrom Emerson's "Problem," a poem in which Emersonexpressed his doubt about the clergy and his preference for amore naturalistic faith. James recognized Emerson's sentimentsas his own, and this set him in tension with his orthodoxEpiscopal vows.
Rev. Bush wrestled with his conscience for years untileven a friend could note, "He was by nature and constitutiona Liberal, but did not know it, until his own moral naturehad grown strong enough to break the shell of automatichabit." When the shell finally broke, James resigned his postand moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived thelife of a latter-day Thoreau, delighting in nature and belovedby his neighbors, until his death in 1889.
There were also in the Bush line men of industry and civicvision. Of James' four surviving children, one seemed to havebeen possessed of that amazing combination of giftedness andgrace that has a way of surfacing in some families. His namewas Samuel, and he lived an astonishing life. He was a baseballand tennis star, sang with the finest of baritones, and wasthe vice president of the student body at Stevens College,where he majored in mechanical engineering. After graduation,he married a descendant of Robert R. Livingston, thePuritan dissenter who came to America in 1673.
Samuel became a leader in Ohio politics, ran a railroad,organized the first War Chest drive during World War I at therequest of the famed financier Bernard Baruch, and foundedthe golf course that would become the training ground forJack Nicklaus. He believed in civic duty, in giving back to thecountry that gave him a chance to succeed. The descriptionwe have of Samuel from William Barrett might well describemany of the men in the Bush line: "Mr. Bush was above theaverage, about six feet, rather slender in build, of gracefulcarriage. He had a fine, strong, handsome face, with a kindlysmile and charming grace of manner. His chief characteristics,it seems to me, were a nature free from guile, and a gentlecordiality of manner refreshing to see. Pure and unspottedfrom the world, he was in the truest sense a spirituallyminded man. Possessing strong opinions, he never wasoffensive or aggressive in asserting them."
Clearly, Samuel Bush was an exceptional man of personalvirtue and civic mission, son of a broadly spiritual man of literaryand philosophical depth, who was in turn son of a boisterousadventurer and warrior. These are the men who bringus more directly to our story, for Samuel's son was PrescottBush. We have already met him. He was the large man at theairstrip in Corpus Christi, Texas, the one who gave histwenty-year-old pilot-son the cuff links. He is the father of thefirst President Bush, the grandfather of George W. Bush, andhe is the moral fire of the twentieth-century Bush family.
Prescott Bush was born on May 15, 1895, and in manyways he continued the pattern of the Bush men. Heattended Yale like James Bush, could sing like Samuel Bush,and, when World War I began, he rushed off to serve in theEurope of General Pershing with a hunger for adventure thatwould have made old Obediah proud. After the war, he marrieda feisty beauty by the name of Dorothy at St. Anne's bythe Sea, a small church in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Prescott went into business, prospered, and quicklyearned a lifelong reputation for high character when heexposed a profit-skimming scheme that was draining hisfather-in-law's rubber company. His gifts landed him on WallStreet, where his success was legendary, and when World WarII began, he was a powerful enough figure to be entrustedwith the chairmanship of the USO (United ServiceOrganizations). He gained nationwide recognition as he traveledthe country raising millions for the National War Fund.
During his rise to fame, Prescott and Dorothy had fourchildren. The first, Prescott Jr., was born in 1922. The secondwas George. He came into the world in 1924 in a Victorianhouse the Bushes owned on Adams Street in Milton,Massachusetts.