The fourth-grade classroom in Midland, Texas, erupted in titters as George W. Bush, one of the class clowns, turned around and faced his friends. He had quietly used a blue ink pen to draw long Elvis Presley–style sideburns down his cheeks.
Frances Childress, the fourth-grade teacher, was a strong disciplinarian who believed that children should be seen but not bearded. She grabbed George by the arm, yanked him out of class, and marched him down the long outside corridor to the principal's office near the main entrance to Sam Houston Elementary School. "Just look at him," Childress told the principal, John Bizilo. "He's been making a disturbance in class." The next step was pretty obvious for anyone in the 1950s version of the West Texas oil town of Midland: Bizilo told George to bend over and then reached for his paddle, a long wooden device the thickness of a Ping-Pong paddle but narrower and twice as long. George got a standard three whacks, and his shrieks filled the office. "When I hit him, he cried," Bizilo later recalled. "Oh, did he cry! He yelled as if he'd been shot. But he learned his lesson."
So he did.
Many of the roots of Bush's policy and political philosophy as president—including his belief in "tough love" for juvenile offenders—seem to go back to his childhood. George W. Bush was born on 6 July 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut, while his father was an overachieving student at Yale, but the family moved to Texas just two years later, in 1948, settling in Midland in 1950. And while George W. packed an impressive family tree (he is a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth and a relation of President Franklin Pierce on his mother's side, as well as, of course, the son of the forty-first president of the United States, George H. W. Bush), none of this seems to have mattered much in Midland. His grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a senator from Connecticut, but neighbors were only hazily aware of that.
Midland, a conservative, up-from-the-bootstraps town that has grown from 25,000 when he was a boy to almost 100,000 today, mirrors Bush's optimism and his skepticism about government. While playing Little League baseball, or even sobbing in the principal's office, Bush absorbed values that many old friends say are central to understanding who he is today. "I think his political philosophy comes completely from the philosophy of the independent oilman," said Joe O'Neill, a fellow rapscallion in childhood. "His homage to his parents, his respect for his elders, his respect for tradition, his belief in religion, his opposition to abortion—that's the philosophy he grew up with here."
Even in the 1960s, people raised in Midland generally stood with the establishment rather than rejecting it. Very few seem to have been active in the civil rights or anti-war movements, and the generation gap was much smaller in Midland than in American cities. Midland also seems to have bred an optimism about and a faith in capitalism, in part because it rewarded so many people—like the Bushes—with wealth for hard work. For many young people, the moral of childhood was that anybody who struggled in the baking desert of West Texas had a good chance of striking oil, and that capitalism worked. Government was disdained, and churches and civic groups like the Community Chest looked after local needs. Business was what helped people, while government was usually reviled as something in the way.
"What's important for George W. and where he is today is that he was in an isolated environment where there was almost an anti-government streak running through the region," said Bill Minutaglio, a Texan who authored a 1999 biography of Bush. "He felt that people succeeded because they worked hard, they punched holes in the ground and won the lottery. The lesson lasted with George W. for years, and I think he truly believes that people can win the lottery if they work hard, that if they put their nose to the grindstone it'll all work out without government help or intrusion." The values of Midland sometimes seem to emerge in Bush's talk of "compassionate conservatism" and "faith-based initiatives"—that is what his childhood was all about.
Bush has often said that "the biggest difference between me and my father is that he went to Greenwich Country Day and I went to San Jacinto Junior High (in Midland)." That is an exaggeration of the younger Bush's populist credentials, because he is also a product of Andover, Yale, and Harvard. But there is still something to it. The father, chauffeured to and from the private school in Connecticut, suffered politically because of the perception that he was a blue blood who could not relate to ordinary people and their ordinary lives; a famous 1992 news story related Bush's perceived surprise at encountering a supermarket scanner. The younger Bush had a much more ordinary childhood, biking around in jeans and a white T-shirt, and it left him with a common touch that is one of his greatest assets as a politician.
Midland is not the kind of place, though, that generates a lot of postcards. Even its residents, searching for a kind analogy, think of "moonscape." Oil made it a boomtown, attracting ambitious businessmen like the elder Bush and many other out-ofstaters as well. Midland had a large proportion of geologists, engineers, lawyers, and accountants, and Ivy League college graduates were everywhere at the country club. George W. recalls it in Norman Rockwell pastels, and so do many other citizens. Kids bicycled everywhere on their own, crime was almost nonexistent, and if anyone suspicious—say, someone with a beard—showed up in town, then Sheriff Ed Darnell (known as Big Ed) would stop him, escort him to the edge of town, and tell him to get out.
Midland was also rigidly segregated in those days. The town was mostly white, but black children went to their own school rather than to Sam Houston Elementary. The bus station and train station had separate waiting rooms for blacks and whites, and there were different drinking fountains marked "colored" at the stations and at the courthouse. Racial slurs were routine, and Bush picked up the habit of using them as a boy. Once when he was about seven years old he let one slip in his living room in front of his mother, Barbara. She grabbed George by the ear, pulled him into the bathroom, and washed his mouth out with soap as he spluttered indignantly. "His family was probably the only one around that didn't use racial slurs," said Michael Proctor, who lived across the street. "I probably didn't realize it was wrong until I saw that."
By all accounts, life was idyllic, although there was one terrible interruption: in 1953, when George was seven, his younger sister Robin died of leukemia. The loss staggered the elder Bushes, and some writers have described the episode as a crucial turning point that profoundly shaped young George's personality, forcing him to be funny and goofy to help his family get over the grief. It is an interesting and plausible theory, but childhood friends do not remember it that way. They say that Bush recovered relatively quickly, seemed little changed, and in the long run was emotionally unscathed. He has spoken only rarely to friends about his sister's death.
In the summer after Bush finished the seventh grade, the Bush family moved from Midland to Houston, a wrenching transfer for young George. From the nurturing cocoon of rustic Midland, George found himself in the much more competitive world of urban Houston. Things started off poorly when George was rejected by St. John's, the best private school in the city. (During the 2000 presidential campaign, an older acquaintance recalled the rejection, but in an interview, then-Governor Bush said he knew nothing of this. Later, after checking with his parents, he went out of his way to confirm—without any apparent embarrassment—that he had indeed been rejected.) Instead, George W. attended the Kinkaid School, another top-flight private school, for the eighth and ninth grades.