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TURNING POINTS

George W. Bush

A legacy reclaimed

Children in Midland, Texas, are taught the town motto: "The sky's the limit." It fits a desert place where trees don't grow to block the heavenly view, and for a time - when oil was pumping so much wildcatter wealth and opportunity and optimism into this out-of-the-way spot - it captured Midland's spirit, too.

 

But in the mid-1980s, when a gregarious George W. Bush was wheeling, dealing, and working hard to duplicate his famous father's big success in the Midland oil fields, the can-do atmosphere abruptly changed. Oil prices went into a free fall, deals collapsed, banks failed, and men who had grown up together believing the sky was the limit suddenly lost their jobs and fortunes.

"There was quite a bit of pain," recalls Donald Evans, one of Bush's closest friends in Midland and finance chairman of his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. "People were trying to sort out their futures and figure out where they were going to go."

Almost 40, Bush had a particularly deep midlife crisis. Not only was his oil-exploration company struggling and his professional world crumbling, but alcohol was taking a toll. His drinking, excessive at times, was hurting his marriage, sapping his strength, and threatening to minimize his campaign role as the family geared up for Vice President George Bush's 1988 run at the White House.

Summoning the discipline to get his life in order - and the resolve to finally capitalize on his talents and birthright - was the most powerful and personal of life turning points for Bush, a transfiguration that included his re-discovery of the place of God in his life. As a husband and the father of twin daughters, Bush was overdue to grow up and get on with things. As the eldest Bush child, George W. still had to prove himself in a competitive family and to a role-model father who had achieved much more by the time he reached middle age.

"I think when he quit drinking, he got a lot of confidence out of that," Laura Bush, the Texas governor's wife, said in an interview. "A number of things came together for him - our life, having little girls, his dad thinking about running for president. Drinking was the one thing George hadn't been that disciplined about, and he really wanted to be."

Indeed, the brash, wisecracking son who joked about being the black sheep in the family moved past his epiphanic moment to play a pivotal role as his father's most trusted aide-de-camp in the 1988 campaign. And when that job was successfully completed, the "Bombastic Bushkin" - the popular cut-up who loved cruising Midland in hand-me-down clothes and an old jalopy - returned home from Washington determined to buy into a Major League Baseball team, to find fame and fortune, and to build his own career in Texas politics.

If it had never been stated directly, the expectation had surely been that George W. would follow his grandfather and father into public service. But his spur-of-the-moment run for a US House seat in 1978 had been a failure. And it long appeared that success in business - the other important measure in the Bush family - would elude him, too.

"People don't fully appreciate how much pressure was brought to bear on George W., or what the impact was of growing up in this particular family was," says Bill Minutaglio, whose biography, "First Son," chronicles how Bush often felt he fell short, from his average grades in the Ivy League, to his enlistment in the Texas Air National Guard, and his bad luck in the oil business.

And the drinking, Bush said in a recent interview, "crowded out my energy level and competed for my time and affection."

"It's pretty clear that stopping drinking was a real turning point for Bush, because it gave him the energy to study politics at the highest level, and it alerted him to his own political possibilities," Minutaglio says. "It changed him. He realized that if he straightened up, the sky was the limit."

Since his fraternity days at Yale, bourbon and beer had been things he enjoyed too much, Bush wrote in "A Charge to Keep," his autobiography. "It magnified aspects of my personality that probably don't need to be larger than they are - made me more funny, more charming (I thought), and more irrepressible," Bush wrote.

Those weren't the qualities that endeared him to his family or Laura, either. In the summer of 1985, the family invited the Rev. Billy Graham to be their weekend guest in Kennebunkport, Maine, and George W. walked and talked privately with the evangelist. "Something was missing in my life, and Billy Graham stimulated my heart - I would like to say planted the mustard seed which grew, and started me on a journey, a walk, to recommit myself to Jesus Christ," Bush said in a recent interview.

Back home in Midland, Bush recalls that his behavior began to change. He started reading and studying the Bible, he explored new ways to save his business, and he tried to stop drinking. "It's hard to describe, and I don't necessarily feel really comfortable talking about it," Bush says, "but the Lord works in mysterious ways."

The parable of the prodigal son is a big part of Bush lore. It started with Bush's oft-repeated admission that "when I was young and irresponsible, I sometimes behaved young and irresponsibly." And - though questions about how much Bush drank and whether he ever used illegal drugs dogged him early in this campaign - the story, as the family tells it, had a happy ending when Bush found religion and was born again in Christ.

Bush already had been a regular at the local Methodist church, a Sunday school teacher, and active in charitable causes. What friends believe Bush got from Billy Graham, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was inspiration to live a more purposeful life, centered on God and family.

"It wasn't like George had been walking in spiritual darkness. If he had strayed from church, it hadn't been very far," says Don Jones, a Midland oil executive who helped get Bush involved in a men's Bible study and support group. "Why did he stop drinking? Apparently he felt it had gotten the better hold of him. It's tough to pray to the Lord every night with a snootful."

Jim Francis, a Dallas businessman and GOP activist who has known Bush since 1970, credits Laura Bush with having a "profound influence" on her husband's maturation. Mrs. Bush, a soft-spoken librarian who married Bush when she was 31, has denied she delivered her husband a "Jim Beam or me" ultimatum. But, she said, "I thought he was drinking too much, and he knew he was."

It couldn't have been clearer than on that Sunday morning after the Bushes, the Evanses, and several other Midland couples jointly celebrated their 40th birthdays at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colo. Bush awoke with a throbbing head and an awful feeling that he wouldn't be able to complete his regular three-mile jog.

"This run was different," Bush wrote. "About halfway through, I decided I would drink no more. I came back to the hotel and told Laura. . .`I'm quitting drinking.' I'm not sure she believed me at first." Bush says he has not touched alcohol since.

Whether the reason was God, or Laura, or the sudden sense of mortality that often comes with turning 40, it seems no coincidence that the decision came as Vice President Bush was about to make his White House bid. "I have a hunch that George gave up drinking because he was afraid he might embarrass his father someday," says Joe O'Neill, a childhood friend who introduced Bush to his future wife.

Bush disagrees, but concedes he is not a man of deep introspection, and has not reflected much on his midlife transformation. "I don't sit around and psychoanalyze myself all the time. I am much more of a doer," he says. "I do remember having a definite sense of purpose in the campaign to help my dad. I developed a reputation as a fierce warrior for George Bush, and rightly so. He is a man I love a lot."

This time, George W. couldn't let his dad down.

"This was a coming of age for Bush, a realization that all the talent in the world - and he always has had tremendous talent - doesn't win games if you are out of shape and don't have a game plan," says Ron Kaufman, a GOP committeeman from Massachusetts who was a top aide in Bush's 1988 presidential campaign. "At 40, George W. got focused on what he wanted to do with his life, eliminated those things that were counterproductive to his business, politics, and family, and he moved on."

In early 1987 Bush packed up his family and moved to Washington to become his father's right-hand man, his eyes and ears inside the presidential campaign. Culturally and generationally, George W. was perfectly suited to be the bridge between his polite Yankee family and the late Lee Atwater, the profane, take-no-prisoners campaign strategist from South Carolina. He also served as unofficial chief of his father's loyalty police - not heavy-handed or quick-tempered, Kaufman insists, but a team builder trusted as "everybody's shrink."

"A candidate really needs someone to be unquestionably, unquestioningly his person, and for Bush, that was his son," says Chase Untermeyer, who has known the family for decades and worked in the Bush administration. "And it was very clear that George W.'s entire, consuming passion was his father's politics."

It was also clear that the son harbored some political ambitions of his own. Tougher, more charismatic, and endowed with keener political instincts than his father, George W. observed the 1988 presidential campaign from the inside and learned a lot about grass-roots organizing, fund-raising, media and advertising, and the importance of reaching out to ethnic groups and religious and social conservatives that the elder Bush never comfortably embraced.

Bush considered putting the experience to work in the 1990 Texas governor's race. By then, Dallas-based Harken Energy Corp. had agreed to buy Spectrum 7, Bush's debt-ridden oil company, and compensate him with $600,000 in stock. But neither the resume nor the man was fully formed, and he decided against running. Only when the president-elect's son got an opportunity in late 1988 to put together a partnership to buy the Texas Rangers baseball team did he prove his mettle.

"What really changed his life was his decision to buy and run the baseball team," says Betts, a Manhattan sports and entertainment executive who became a major investor in the Rangers franchise. "So much of what he had done before mirrored his dad. This was the first time he had really departed from the script and the life his father had led, and he was extremely successful at it."

Bush was good for baseball, and baseball was good to him. "He wasn't all flash and no substance," said Dallas lawyer Tom Schieffer, a former president of the Rangers. "To him it was more than a business. Bush was passionate about baseball, and he made it a public trust."

With business acumen, political savvy, and a famous name, Bush took what Texans generally agreed was a sad-sack franchise and boosted it into a popular pennant contender. He also engineered the building of a dazzling new ballpark, financed largely by the city of Arlington through a half-penny hike in the local sales tax.

Financially, Bush hit a home run: His $600,000 investment in the Rangers in 1989 returned him $14.9 million when the team was sold in 1998. As important as the money, the public exposure, political contacts, and confidence he built through baseball made Bush a credible GOP candidate for governor in 1994.

Still, it looked like a fool's errand. Incumbent Democratic Governor Ann Richards was popular and particularly deft at needling the Bushes with her homespun wit. But by now Bush had found the religion and self-control not to be bedeviled. Studiously avoiding the mistakes of his father's failed reelection race in 1992, Bush stayed focused and pulled off an upset. Four years later he was reelected with 68 percent of the vote.

"Nobody thought he could be successful against Richards," said Michigan Governor John Engler, one of 25 GOP governors helping Bush in the upcoming state primaries and caucuses. "To run in the face of knowing you don't have a chance, to resist the tit-for-tat name-calling, showed extreme confidence. It also showed that George W. Bush is extraordinarily serene and comfortable with who he is."

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