After graduating from Yale in 1968, Bush moved back to Texas and joined the Air National Guard. Bush has said that he wanted to learn how to fly, and the position had another merit: it kept him away from the war in Vietnam. There are many murky aspects to Bush's service in the Air National Guard, and critics believe that his family pulled strings to get him the position and that once in he did not complete his requirements. He denies the charges and insists that he applied for a program that could have sent him to Vietnam as a pilot; in fact, his plane was being phased out, and there was almost no chance that his application would be accepted.
What followed were what Bush has called his "nomadic years," when he partied hard, held a series of jobs, showed little ambition, drank too much, and worried his parents. In one incident, he drank before driving and—when reproached by his father—challenged the elder Bush to a fight. He applied to law school at the University of Texas and was rejected, but Harvard Business School accepted him. And so in the fall of 1973 he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and buckled down to study. This seems to have been a turning point, for afterward he seemed to settle down to some degree and worked reasonably hard in his studies.
After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1975—he is the first president with an MBA—Bush moved back to his childhood stomping ground in Midland, Texas, and entered the oil business. He worked hard, impressed people, and lived so frugally that, according to his friends,his bed was held together with an old necktie. Friends set him up with a young woman whom he had been dimly acquainted with in the seventh grade, Laura Welch, and after a whirlwind courtship, they were married on 5 November 1977. Instead of a honeymoon, they set off together on Bush's next project, to run for an open congressional seat.
Bush campaigned hard and did well in winning the Republican nomination against a prominent local man who had run two years earlier. But in the general election, Bush found himself matched against a popular state senator, Kent Hance, who was from the more northern populous part of the district and who portrayed Bush as an alien from Yankee country. At candidates' forums, Hance would tell the following yarn: As he was working in a field along a rural road, Hance saw Bush driving along in a Mercedes. Bush rolled down the window and asked for directions to a certain ranch. Hance gave Bush directions, telling him to turn right after the cattle guard (a metal grate, ubiquitous on rural Texas roads, that keeps livestock from straying). The yarn ends with Bush asking: "What color uniform is that cattle guard wearing?"
In retrospect, Bush ran an energetic but deeply flawed campaign. He chose a race that may have been unwinnable from the start, and then he muffed up and allowed himself to be portrayed to many voters as an overeducated phony out of touch with ordinary voters—ironically, a bit the way Bush supporters perceived Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign. For example, there was the television commercial Bush dreamed up to show how energetic he was: it showed him jogging on a track. In those days, joggers were about as common in West Texas as Martians, and the commercial reinforced the perception of Bush as an affable alien. "The only time folks around here go running," Hance told audiences, "is when somebody's chasing 'em."
The audio text of one of Hance's most effective radio spots is as follows: "In 1961, when Kent Hance graduated from Dimmitt High School in the Nineteenth Congressional District, his opponent George W. Bush was attending Andover Academy in Massachusetts. In 1965, when Kent Hance graduated from Texas Tech, his opponent was at Yale University. And while Kent Hance graduated from University of Texas Law School, his opponent"—the announcer's voice plunged—"get this, folks, was attending Harvard. We don't need someone from the Northeast telling us what our problems are."
When the election came, Hance defeated Bush by a solid 53 percent to 47 percent. The defeat seemed to cause Bush to lose interest in public service, but many years later when he returned to politics he remembered a lesson from that election. As Hance put it in an interview with The New York Times: "He wasn't going to be out-Christianed or out-good-old-boyed again. He's going to be the good old boy next door."
After the electoral defeat, Bush threw himself into the oil business. At first he called his company Arbusto ( arbusto is Spanish for "bush"), but when times grew difficult there were too many jokes about the company going ar-BUST-o. So he renamed the enterprise Bush Exploration. Any assessment of his time in the oil business would be mixed: he proved effective at recruiting investors, but had difficulty running a company profitably. Then as now, he was a brilliant fund-raiser, and through his family and father's friends he raised millions of dollars to drill for oil. But he never found much petroleum, and oil prices virtually collapsed, so that his investors—like many others—did poorly. Bush raised $4.67 million from his limited partners, but his company returned only $1.55 million in distributions (plus hefty tax write-offs). Meanwhile, Bush structured the deals in part to give himself certain financial advantages: His longtime friend and accountant, Robert A. McCleskey, says that his net worth rose from $50,000 in 1975 to more than $1 million by 1988.
But those were tough years for the oil business, and the strains showed in Bush's private behavior. He drank too much, and he often came across as more offensive than amusing. The "bombastic Bush-kin," as friends called him, sometimes seemed out of control. While visiting the family retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine, he was cited for drunken driving, and he also managed to insult an old friend of his parents, a prim, well-dressed matron who had recently turned fifty. He wobbled up to her at a cocktail party and, according to a relative, asked her by way of conversation: "So, what's sex like after fifty, anyway?"
It was a vintage Bush moment, the kind that made Bush's friends laugh and cringe at the same time. He could be hilarious company, but also often outrageous and childish. Some acquaintances were offended by what they saw as Bush's arrogance and immaturity, by his penchant for drinking too much and thinking too little. Even Laura wanted him to grow up, old friends say, and by some accounts she signaled that she was so sick of his boorish behavior that she might leave him and take his twin daughters with her. Bush himself has said that he does not know whether he was an alcoholic, and old acquaintances generally concur that he was a borderline case. But he did get drunk regularly, and while he was not a mean drunk, he could be loud and obnoxious.
These pressures, instead of breaking Bush, changed him. There is no neat one-sentence explanation for how he came to terms with himself. It was a gradual process, stretching from his arrival at Harvard Business School in 1973 until after his fortieth birthday in 1986. One turning point, by Bush's own recollection, came in the summer of 1985 when he met with the evangelical religious leader Billy Graham in Kennebunkport. Bush was inspired to begin reading the Bible daily, and back in Midland he began attending a Bible study class. Ever since then, Bush's Methodist faith has been a pillar of his life. Then in July 1986, the Bushes went with a half-dozen friends to celebrate their collective fortieth birthdays at the luxurious Broadmoor Hotel resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado. On one evening, they all stayed up late, drinking a bit too merrily. The next morning, Bush woke up feeling befuddled—and quietly resolved that he would never touch alcohol again. As far as anybody knows, he never did. After that, Bush worked harder and mellowed a bit, so that while he remained mischievous he was less likely to offend people. He did better at controlling his temper. He became a better father. He grew up.