A Shrub Grows in Midland

They keep getting shorter. Prescott Bush, the investment banker and senator from Connecticut, was 6’4″ and aristocratic looking. His son, President George H.W. Bush, grew to a handsome 6’2″. The man they once called Junior, who currently serves as governor of Texas, is barely six feet, and cute.

The Senator has been portrayed as an imperious man, the President as a somewhat likeable snob, and the Governor alternately as a jokey guy with a temper (pre-1994) and a nice guy with a gift for remembering names (1994-?). Scanning down that bosky line of descent, however, one notices certain similarities of form and function among the Bushes – for instance, in their provincial exploits as young men.

Each felt some impulse to reenact the American rise to riches, to make his own fortune. So in 1922, after Yale and a brief tour of duty in France, Prescott took not a penny of his father’s railroad money but instead signed on with the Simmons Hardware Company of St. Louis. Twenty-six years later George H.W., after graduating from Yale, set out in a red Studebaker for West Texas (“We wanted to make our way, our own mistakes, and shape our own future,” he later recalled) to work for a friend of his father’s. He eventually started his own oil company in Midland, and George W. spent his early youth there. The younger George would return to Midland – perhaps driven by the congenital will to succeed in business, or perhaps attracted by the familiarity and ease of his childhood home, the path already trodden by his father. In all likelihood it was a little of both. This was 1975, as W. closed in on thirty: with Yale, the Air National Guard, a couple of party-boy years in Houston, and Harvard Business School behind him, the shortest Bush took the advice of his father’s old friends and moved back to West Texas. He was a good-looking single guy with a political lineage and fancy degrees and not much of a résumé, and $20,000 left in his trust fund.

The elder George had come to Midland for the first Permian Basin oil rush, and George W. arrived just in time for the second, as did a number of Sons of Oil. “It was the time for reinvestment in the oil industry,” says second-generation oilman and gubernatorial friend Joseph I. O’Neill III, “and there were twelve or so of us, who all moved back out here at the same time. It was a boom type atmosphere.” President Bush had begun his career sweeping warehouses for a drilling supply company; George W. started out as a landman, studying deed records at the courthouse and buying and selling leases. He set up shop on the fourth floor of the Midland National Bank Building, where he shared an office with landman F.H. “Buzz” Mills, Jr. “George did a little bit of everything,” Mills says. “We would sometimes discuss what we were doing, but George didn’t need a lot of help…. With his dad’s background, he knew something about the oil business, and in Midland all of his friends, or most of them, had been in the oil business.”

The price of oil rose 800 percent from 1973 to 1981, and money blew over the city like a sandstorm. According to one estimate, during the boom’s later years one of every forty-five Midlanders was a millionaire. In what became a local overture to the upper-class excesses of the eighties, residents collected Lear jets and Rolexes and Rolls Royces – but Bush, say those who remember him, did not take part. “The jet set here was a generation ahead of us,” O’Neill says. “We were raising kids. There was a nucleus of friends that had backyard barbecues and that sort of thing.” George Bush, he recalls, “had a crappy old Buick – he was not one taken with the rich accoutrements.”

He had a reputation as a cheapskate, and he seemed to pay no attention to his clothes. “He would always wear the same black pants, and a white or blue sports shirt,” recalls Bobby Burns, the current mayor of Midland, who back in the early eighties would occasionally drop by Bush’s office to talk politics. “He had the most plain, most uninteresting office. Not a thing on the wall, that I can remember.” This hardly made Bush a strange character; on the contrary, says Burns, “He seemed like one of us.”

He fit right in, because for all the romance of oil and opulence, Midland was still Midland: a plain, isolated city whose two growth spurts, in the fifties and then in the seventies, coincided with forgettable moments in American urban architecture; whose notion of public art is a downtown mural of oil pump silhouettes; and whose favorite colors are brown, tan, and beige – to judge by just about every building. If those of us born after 1960 have at times doubted whether the dull, conformist culture of the fifties could have existed in the monochromatic form given to us in books, Midland suggests that it did, and maybe still does. Poppy Bush once called it “Yuppieland West” in a letter, while in 1969 D. W. Meinig, a scholar of geography and culture, called the city’s unbearable whiteness of seeming “perhaps the purest example of the ‘native white Ango-Saxon Protestant’ culture in Texas.” (Incidentally, a brief visit to Midland more or less puts to rest any curiosity you might have about Bush and controlled substances. A certain craving for hallucinogens sets in shortly after you drive away from the airport – so if George W. succumbed to the urge, who could blame him?) In Midland, the percolating national curiosity about the man’s possible past indulgences seems like a desire to fill in a blank that may not be fillable. Just as the textbook picture of the fifties adheres to this city more than others, sociologist David Riesman’s label of “other-directed man,” for that era’s creature of the crowd, may fit Bush even better than it fits other politicians.

In the spring of 1977, within the space of a few months, Bush married, incorporated a company, and declared himself a candidate for Congress. “He’s always made quick decisions,” says O’Neill. “He met the right girl, the seat happened to open up, it all dovetailed. There was no great transformation.” O’Neill and his wife introduced George to Laura Welch; the hyperkinetic businessman and the reserved librarian were “total opposites” but engaged within six weeks. Bush incorporated Arbusto Energy in late June, and, in July, announced he would run for the Congressional seat left vacant by the departure of forty-three-year incumbent George Mahon. He would spend the next fifteen months stumping in the Nineteenth District – which stretched from the scrubby desert of the Midland-Odessa region northward into the farming country around Lubbock.

It was not an exciting campaign. Bush ran against Kent Hance, who was then a state senator and a conservative Democrat. The two candidates agreed on almost everything. (Hance has since switched parties and left politics for greener pastures; he donated $20,000 to Bush in the last governor’s race.) Bush was the underdog, and Bush lost. Yet if the race revealed anything about the future Governor, it was that Midland loved him. “Bush did an astonishing thing,” says Gene Garrison, a Democrat who has long been active in West Texas politics. “He carried as close to 100 percent of Midland as you can get. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“On the whole West Texas is a strongly conservative political area, with a form of conservatism which very directly reflects the more general history and character of the region,” wrote Meinig in his book Imperial Texas, “…a combination and blending of the provincial, rural, folk conservatism of the native Texan-Southern tradition with the strongly ideological economic conservatism of the newer wealthy class.” Ivy-league frontiersmen like George H. W. Bush brought Republicanism to Midland long before the rest of the state fell for the G.O.P., and as it turned out oil and Goldwater mixed quite well. Author Larry L. King, who went to high school in Midland, described the city for the Observer in 1964 as “where the oillionaires and neanderthal Republicans with low, sloping foreheads and angry John Birchers (in full tremble over flouridation of drinking water and impeaching Earl Warren) play, and the skies are not cloudy all day – so long as … boom-time does not bring in any more of those Undesirable Democrats….” The same year that sentence was written, Midland elected Frank Cahoon to the Legislature, where he was the only Republican. Republican Tom Craddick replaced him four years later.

In the Nineteenth District as a whole, the Democrat still had the advantage, thanks both to Lubbock (though the conservative city was already voting Republican in some state and national races) and the little rural towns like Plainview and Hereford and Dimmit. Though their numbers were falling, the cotton and grain farmers and the ranchers who scraped their livings off the windy high plains could still outvote Midland’s yuppies. Year after year the farmers had re-elected Mahon, a conservative Democrat who’d held his seat in Congress since 1934 when the District was first drawn, and who wielded considerable influence as the head of the Appropriations Committee and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. It was his power more than his party affiliation that had kept him in Washington: “Mahon was good for constituent services, and he had pretty much run on a personal structure as opposed to depending on the Democratic Party,” because his views ran to the right of the party mainstream, says Neale Pearson, a professor emeritus of political science at Texas Tech. The district, meanwhile, had voted 58 percent to 42 percent for Ford over Carter in the 1976 Presidential election.

So it was not impossible for a Republican to win the seat. “Once [former governor and Nixon Treasury Secretary] John Connally switched parties [in 1973] then everybody kind of started switching,” says Otice Green, a Lubbock political consultant and Hance’s campaign strategist. Former Odessa mayor Jim Reese, a Republican, had challenged Mahon in the 1976 race and won 45 percent of the vote. Two years later, “Republicans were taking over,” says Green. “It was a big turnover year.” (It was also the year Bill Clements, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, was elected.) In fact, one obstacle for the Bush campaign was the existence of a core group of Ronald Reagan supporters in the district, who would not support George W. Bush for fear of indirectly helping his father, then a Reagan rival.

Reese, who’d moved to Odessa in the fifties to work as a television sportscaster, declared again for the primary race in ’78, facing Bush and a third candidate who forced Bush and Reese into a runoff. “George W. and I agreed on most of the issues,” recalls Reese, now president of an Odessa oilfield supply company called T-Rex Technologies. “I don’t know that there were any philosophical differences.” Yet newspaper accounts from the time make it clear that Reese posed as the harder-line conservative. He denounced Bush’s father for his affiliation with the C.I.A. and the internationalist Trilateral Commission, and at one point brought in two obscure Republican operatives from Oklahoma to help paint Bush as a softie. Reese also sent out a letter complaining that Bush had “Rockefeller-type Republicans such as Karl Rove to help him run his campaign.” (Forced to reply, Bush valiantly announced his opposition to one-world government, suggested that the views of the two gentlemen from Oklahoma were irrelevant to the campaign, and denied that Rove, who is now his chief strategist, was involved in the race. Rove “is a 27-year-old guy who works in my Dad’s office in Houston…. He has had nothing to do with my campaign,” Bush told the Midland Reporter-Telegram, adding that “I doubt he even supports Rockefeller.”)

The Democratic primary was equally colorful: Hance easily defeated Morris Sheats, a charismatic preacher recently returned from a sojourn to Jerusalem, where he reportedly had been advised by none other than God himself to run for the United States Congress. In the Republican runoff, Reese took sixteen of seventeen counties, but Bush prevailed strongly enough in Midland (4,787 votes to Reese’s 1,278) to become the Republican candidate. The Bush campaign moved its headquarters to Lubbock: if he was to have a chance at winning, Bush needed to chip away at Hance’s base of support in the northern part of the district.

The seventies saw major changes in the way campaigns were conducted across the country. In its 1978 elections roundup, Time magazine would assert, “Money, computers, polls, and image makers continued to change the face of American politics into something that would have been unrecognizable to the candidates even a few years ago.” With O’Neill as his finance chairman, Bush would raise just shy of $435,000 (compared to Hance’s $314,000, and Mahon’s $124,000 in the previous race against Reese), and both candidates used computer-assisted poll analysis to fine-tune their strategies. Still, the art of running for Congress was not yet as media-driven as it is today, and Bush “was a tireless campaigner,” recalls Mike Weiss, a Lubbock resident who volunteered to work for Bush after meeting the candidate in a shopping center. “He would do breakfast in one town, lunch in another, gatherings in the evening.” He knocked on doors and attended coffees, barbecues, living-room receptions.

According to Gary Ott, who was then a reporter for the Plainview Daily Herald, Bush stopped by the paper’s little office “maybe five or six times. He’d sit down at my desk; he was a fun guy. He was very outgoing, very friendly, and we would argue politics since I was a liberal. We’d argue over Carter policies.” Bush criticized energy policy, federal land use policy, subsidized housing, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“a misuse of power,” he said), and he warned that Social Security would go bust in ten years unless people were given a chance to invest the money themselves. None of this really distinguished him from Hance, though, so in the end Bush simply argued that a Republican could better represent the district: “If you want a chance in the way Congress has been run, send someone who will be independent from those who will run the Congress.”

It was the differences in their backgrounds that set the two candidates apart. Lana Cunningham, who covered the Bush-Hance race for the Reporter-Telegram, recalls that in Midland, “oil prices were going up, people were moving in, a lot of young professionals. George had so many supporters, all these young professionals getting jobs in the oil business.” Hance, meanwhile, was “the West Texas storyteller,” says Cunningham. He’d been raised in Dimmitt; he’d taught at Texas Tech and served in the Legislature; and his campaign emphasized Bush’s East Coast connections and Ivy League education.

“Bush was into oil…. He didn’t know anything about farm country,” says Ott. This, along with his lack of campaign experience, got him into trouble on at least one occasion, when he spoke before a large political science class at Texas Tech. “He started to talk about his views, his policies,” recalls one West Texas attorney who was a student in the class. “It was during the time of the grain embargo with the Russians, and a substantial number of people up here were more interested in selling grain than fighting Communism.”

“George Bush said that he would strongly fight for the elimination of the embargo, and then for whatever reason, he decided he needed to talk about how evil Communism was, and how the Cuba embargo needed to be kept in place.… I kind of got the impression that he was saying whatever people would like to hear.”

Aware that Cuba received heavy subsidies from Russia, the student raised his hand. “I said, how do you justify the contradiction there? And he just looked at me for the longest time and didn’t say anything, and just stared.” Other students started tittering, recalls the attorney, and “it was like he was trying to make the wheels spin but they would not. It’s about that time that I figured out that
George Junior is no mental giant.” Finally, Bush replied that “there were going to be a lot of hard questions and stuff he hadn’t figured out yet,” the attorney says.

One thing he never figured out was how to gain enough ground in the north, and in November Bush lost 53 percent to 47 percent. There are several theories as to why. One hinges on a letter that friend-of-Hance George Thompson III sent to Lubbock churchgoers in the waning days of the campaign. An announcement had appeared in a student newspaper at Texas Tech, advertising a “Bush Bash” with free beer – and Thompson accused Bush of trying to buy off young voters with alcohol. (Was the ad itself actually placed by a Hance-sympathizing double agent? Ruth Schiermeyer, who was Republican Party Chairwoman in Lubbock County at the time, now claims, “His [Hance’s] campaign manager, on a flight years later, bragged to me that the young man who’d volunteered for me, who put in the ad, had really been working for him.” Responding to that charge, Green is a bit evasive: “We had organizations at Tech – so naturally they might get the idea – but it did not come through my office.”) At any rate, it’s not clear whether the letter, sent to a couple thousand Lubbock residents, gave Hance his 6,700-vote edge.

The second theory is that “Kent really won that election in the last ten days” – as former Midland mayor and Republican National Committeeman Ernest Angelo puts it – with advertisements that “pointedly, but lightheartedly, made George W. out to be a carpetbagger.” In particular, Hance accused Bush of getting most of his money from outside the district.

Both cities ultimately voted for the local candidate, says Texas Tech’s Pearson. “In Midland, the Reporter-Telegram said in an editorial to ‘vote for Bush because he’s one of us,'” says Pearson. “And in Lubbock, the paper said, ‘vote for Hance, because he’s one of us.’ After the election Bush complained that Lubbock just voted for Hance because he was the local boy, but that’s what a big thrust of the campaign was…. It was a friends and neighbors vote.”

Finally, there are those who say that no matter how hard he worked, Bush the Republican novice simply couldn’t have overcome Hance’s advantage as a popular Democrat who’d been in the state Senate, and whose Senate district largely overlapped with the Congressional one. “It was a long shot, and he made it close,” says O’Neill. “It wasn’t like we were running against Elmer Fudd.”

Looking back, the precise reason for Bush’s loss seems less significant than the fact of the loss itself: in a race between a yuppie Republican and a good ol’ boy Democrat, the old-fashioned Texan prevailed. If the election were re-run today, who would win? Bush is now running for President, while Hance’s political career foundered in the eighties. The rural voting bloc that once went to bat for Hance has shriveled, and the bulk of next year’s Presidential campaign will surely be tailored to the sport utility vehicle crowd. Hance may have been that lousy sort of populist who never let his roots get in the way of his ambitions (and who pushed for Reagan’s tax bill while in Congress, served as an Oilman’s Friend on the Railroad Commission, and ended up part owner of Waste Control Specialists, a.k.a Nuclear Waste Enthusiasts). Yet now that the “populist” mantle has been passed on to a Washington pundit, a Dallas billionaire, and a professional wrestler – and now that George W. Bush is staging his interminable national coming-out party – there might be a few nostalgia ballots cast for him in the imaginary re-run of the ’78 race.

Though he spent well over a year as a “tireless campaigner,” his friends now say that Bush was not unduly hurt by his loss in 1978. No one seems to remember his having been particularly upset by his subsequent lack of success in the oil business, either – though he is described as having worked very hard at it. Yet to spend a dozen years in Midland, not succeeding at things, must have been a little frustrating.

According to the man who stymied Bush that day at Texas Tech, he saw the candidate again after class. “I guess I felt a bit superior,” he recalls. “It had snowed in Lubbock quite a bit, and I was sitting out in front of the Beta House on Broadway Street with a couple of Betas. And George came down the street,” with a couple of his campaign workers.

“I started to heckle him, and laugh, and I called him an idiot. He said something back that I didn’t understand, and then I decided to throw a snowball at him. I threw two or three, and one hit him in the chest.

“Then he started across the street to come whup my butt. He didn’t back down,” the lawyer says. “But then his handlers held him back.”

Maybe it was in Midland that he began to learn to hold back, to contain his frustrations, to avoid specifics, to keep smiling and shaking hands. Maybe he picked up some of that relentlessly optimistic spirit which prompted writer Sally Helgesen to call Midland “the apotheosis of the booster village.” That sort of hoorayism is nicely illustrated in a passage from Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights. It’s 1989, and presidential candidate George H.W. Bush gives a speech at Midland’s Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, full of Reagan-variety boilerplate about values, optimism, community, and so on. Even though oil prices had plummeted and the S&Ls were failing, and “the economy of Midland-Odessa had fallen apart during the Reagan-Bush administration,” Bissinger writes, Bush “created an image of the country that was still as good, as fundamentally sound as it had been in the fifties, when Bush and thousands of others had watched the American Dream blossom before their shining, ever-hopeful eyes.” The oilmen ate it up. In Midland, a city built by the uprooted upper class, the virtuous-capitalist mystique remains strong. If George W. Bush is a native Texan, then dewey-eyed boosterism is his native tradition.

Four and a half years after he was first elected Governor, everyone is still asking who George W. is. The mystery lies not so much in the man himself, but in how the path to power can also be the path of least resistance, as it seems to be in his case. As for George W. Bush, he’s like his father – same brand, but new and improved. More of a people person, we hear. More Texan. For surely the former President never said, as George W. Bush reportedly did, that he’d like to be buried in Midland.

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