Bush's character, beliefs formed in years at Andover, Yale

Knight Ridder NewspapersJune 10, 2007 

WASHINGTON—Seeing President Bush rally people with a bullhorn from atop the mound of rubble where the World Trade Center used to be reminded Tom Seligson of Bush in a more innocent time.

"When I saw him after 9-11 with the bullhorn, it fit," said Seligson, who attended prep school with Bush. "His response to terrorism was grabbing a bullhorn at Ground Zero, basically challenging us to rise above it. This was no different from the George—the cheerleader with a megaphone at Andover—of 40 years ago."

But the Bush known then by his classmates at the exclusive prep school and at Yale University and the Bush known now around the world are two distinct figures—one seemingly carefree and privileged, the other burdened by the pressures of the Oval Office.

Yet those early years—from Bush's entry into Andover in 1961 to his graduation from Yale in 1968—did much to shape his character and form beliefs that many said he took to the White House.

"Andover and Yale, in many ways, have a greater import in shaping the core personality of Bush than any other period," said Bill Minutaglio, the author of "First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty." "It not only shaped his worldview as an adult and his public policy as a politician. If Bush's policy is about going it alone, defining the world in black and white, you could say it started back then."

George W. Bush was called many things during his high school and collegiate days but future president of the United States wasn't one of them.

He was nicknamed "Lip" by Andover classmates for his wisecracking ways at the then-all-boys Massachusetts boarding school. He dubbed himself "Tweeds Bush"—after the infamous Boss Tweed of New York Tammany Hall fame—while others called him the "High Commissioner of Stickball" for organizing teams to play rollicking games on the usually staid campus.

His teachers called him an earnest but unspectacular student; he earned a zero on the first paper he wrote at Andover for using a word that appalled the professor.

Despite his family's political pedigree, few people saw any sign in young George of an ambition to end up in the White House. What they saw was a fun-loving fraternity prankster more interested in partying than politics, and a person eager to shed the shadow of his father.

Some Bush friends think that's overly simplistic. They say his affability overshadowed his intelligence and obscured the budding political skills that he employs today: an ability to get people to like and support him, a knack for organization and a fierce determination to stand firm in his beliefs.

"He's very street-smart, and people always underestimate him," said Lanny Davis, a Yale fraternity brother of Bush's who went on to help President Clinton through several White House scandals. "He was one of the friendliest, most down to earth, unpretentious people at Yale," said Davis, who likes Bush personally but loathes his policies.

Bush's path from adolescence to adulthood began in the same place as his father's: Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. The elder George Bush was a campus legend: senior class president, captain of the baseball team and a student who bucked the advice of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Andover's 1942 commencement speaker, and put off college to enlist in the Navy and enter World War II.

Bush the father was a man of New England, the son of Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut. Though George W. Bush also was born in Connecticut, he was very much a child of Texas, having been raised in Midland and Houston.

When the 15-year-old Bush arrived at Phillips in 1961, he found the transition from Texas to New England daunting in terms of climate and attitude.

"Andover was cold and distant and difficult," Bush wrote in his political biography, "A Charge to Keep." "In every way I was a long way from home."

Bush said he had to adjust from the "happy chaos" of the Bush household in Texas to Andover's discipline.

"We wore coats and ties to class," he wrote. "We went to chapel every day, except Wednesday and Saturday. There were no girls. Life was regimented. ... I missed my parents and brothers and sister. It was a shock to my system."

Bush also was struggling in class. For his first essay—on emotions—he wanted to impress his "eastern professors" by using "big, impressive words." Looking for a way to describe "tears" running down his face, he consulted the Roget's Thesaurus that his mother had given him. He replaced "tears" with the word "lacerates."

The teacher marked the paper with a zero so bold that "it left an impression all the way through the back of the blue book," Bush wrote.

Tom Lyons, who taught history and was one of Bush's favorite teachers at Andover, said Bush tried hard in class but struggled to keep up at the academically formidable school.

"He did not stand out," said Lyons, who retired in 1999 after 35 years at Andover. "He was just a solid kid who worked hard and did average work."

Outwardly, Bush didn't seem to dwell on his struggles, friends and classmates said. He was a larger-than-life figure, someone whom almost everyone knew and regarded as an outgoing, friendly guy who played sports but did not excel at them and enthusiastically served as head football cheerleader in his senior year.

"He was comfortable in his own skin, a straightforward guy who knew what he thought," Seligson said. "He never suffered the adolescent angst the way many other people did. He found his way there by being an outgoing, rah-rah cheerleader."

Bush also channeled his enthusiasm into stickball. The future owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team converted what had been a casual after-dinner activity at Andover into an organized, campus-wide league with himself presiding as the High Commissioner of Stickball.

While the title was lofty, the games were not. Bush made sure the teams included everyone who wanted to play, including the least athletic players. He even appointed a league psychiatrist.

"For me, stickball was a way of spreading joy, sharing humor, and lightening up what was otherwise a serious and studious environment," Bush wrote.

In his senior year, in 1964, Bush began weighing where he would attend college. He said Andover taught him the importance of high standards. He told an Andover dean that he was interested in Yale, where his father and grandfather had gone. Given his mediocre grades, the dean "tactfully suggested I might think of other universities as well," Bush wrote.

Yet Bush got into Yale—largely because of his family connections—and once again he was tracing his father's steps. Following his father's suggestion, he met Yale's chaplain, the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, who was a leader in the anti-Vietnam War movement and a contemporary of the elder Bush.

Bush's father had just lost his first run for Congress. Coffin told Bush: "I knew your father, and your father lost to a better man." Coffin has said he doesn't remember the conversation, but it left a lasting and bitter impression on Bush.

"You talk about a shattering blow," his mother, Barbara Bush, told a newspaper reporter in 1999.

Yale wasn't the comfortable cocoon for Bush that Andover had been, several of his friends and classmates said. The Vietnam War and America's domestic strife were spilling onto college campuses. Bush, by his own admission, wasn't an active participant in the social changes swirling around him.

"I was not part of the flower-child revolution," he told Knight Ridder in 1999. "I was concerned, but I wasn't marching in the streets. I didn't go to Woodstock."

Minutaglio said Bush "chose to isolate himself from the very complex issues of the day. It seems he deliberately, almost defiantly, withdrew into a world he was most comfortable with, almost a 1950s world."

Bush embraced the traditional college life—with gusto. He joined Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and, like his father, was initiated into Skull and Bones, a secretive, high-status campus social club.

Bush was arrested in 1966 on disorderly conduct charges arising from the theft of a Christmas wreath from a storefront to decorate the fraternity house. The charges later were dropped.

He got in trouble with the law again when he joined Yale celebrants in pulling down a Princeton University goal post after a football game. The offending students were taken to the campus police station, then sent home.

At the time, the frat lifestyle—with its heavy drinking and hazing high jinks—was under attack by the Yale Daily News. Bush told the paper it wrongly assumed that Yale "has to be so haughty not to allow this type of pledging to go on."

DKE had a reputation for hearty partying, and Bush was its president in 1966-67.

"There was a `draft Bush' movement because it was a job of being socially comfortable and attracting the best women on campus," Davis said. "He succeeded. DKE had the best parties."

Bush became known for an ability to move effortlessly among the different groups on campus. He began displaying a politician's knack for remembering names, faces and events that would enable him to talk to people he'd met months before as if it were only yesterday.

"I thought I was outgoing, knowing 65-70 people," said Livingston Miller, a Yale friend of Bush's. "Bush knew 700. He knew their names, their relationships and their pasts. He was good at connecting people to events. It's prodigious."

Though he praises Bush's partying skills at Yale, Davis said it was a mistake to think of Bush back then as strictly a Good Time Charlie. He said Bush was gifted with "analytical people skills" that allowed him to sum up someone quickly.

Bush also was sensitive. Davis recalled sitting with Bush and some other schoolmates in their dorm talking about people when one of them began razzing a male student, who he thought was gay, as he walked by.

"Someone made a snickering comment and used the word `queer,'" Davis said. "Bush turned and told the guy who made the remark, `Look at walking in the other guy's shoes.' I'll never forget that."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH-YOUTH

ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ATTACKS-BUSH-WTC

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