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My Father, My President: A Personal Account of the Life of George H. W. Bush


Chapter 1


"His mother was greatly responsible for much of Poppy's athletic success. He thoroughly enjoyed the battle and was always a true sportsman. Never a showboat nor a glad-hander --- in victory or defeat. His joy was in playing aggressively within the rules."

--- Dad's Andover schoolmate and lifelong friend
Frank "Junie" O'Brien

My name is Doro Bush Koch. My parents named me Dorothy Walker Bush, after my father's mother. No one knows exactly when I got the nickname Doro, but I've been called that as long as anyone can remember. And as long as anyone can remember, my father, George Herbert Walker Bush, has lived his life by certain standards, by a certain set of rules, and with a certain way of doing things that go a long way toward explaining the man he is today. As I set out to tell this story about him, and our family life together, it only seems fitting to start with the person who had the most influence on him: his mother and my namesake, Dorothy Walker Bush. My brothers and I called her Ganny.

Ganny was born in 1901, the daughter of George Herbert Walker, a successful St. Louis businessman and community leader who, among other things, helped organize the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. The Walkers valued faith, family, and friends, but they also believed in the old adage about public service, "To whom much is given, much is expected." In fact, it might surprise you to know that a century ago Dad's namesake was considered to be the power behind the Democratic Party in St. Louis, Missouri.

Ganny married my grandfather Prescott Bush on August 6, 1921, at the church of St. Ann's by the Sea in Kennebunkport, Maine; two years later, they moved from St. Louis to Columbus, Ohio, where my grandfather worked for the Hupp Products Company. He left a few months later, in November 1923, to become president of sales for Stedman Products of South Braintree, Massachusetts --- and seven months later, on June 12, 1924, Dad was born.

Dorothy and Prescott Bush raised their five children in Greenwich, Connecticut --- Prescott Jr. (Uncle Pres), Dad, Nancy (Nan), Jonathan (Johnny), and William (Bucky) --- with a strict set of rules. Dad's youngest brother, my Uncle Bucky, put it this way: "Mother was very hands-on, quite strict, but in a loving way. She got involved, and she participated. She wanted to make sure that you didn't sit around much. So if you weren't studying, you better be doing something physical or running around the house, because she didn't like idle hands."

My father and his mother had a special bond, and to read many of his letters home to her during World War II is to glimpse what his brother Johnny calls a relationship where "a lot of it was laughter, a lot of it was just joy." Still, she never made any of her children feel inferior in any way --- she loved them all the same.

"She made me feel like I was her favorite daughter-in-law," my mother said to me once. "Of course, I know I wasn't. But she made me feel that way."

To give you a better idea of what my grandmother was like, let me share a letter that Dad wrote about her for a school project in 1996 for my daughter Ellie:

Dear Ellie,

I am thrilled you are doing a paper on your great-grandmother. She was the most loving, kind person in the whole wide world. She never hurt anyone's feelings. She always tried to see the other guy's point of view.

So, first, her qualities of character were the best. She loved my Dad with a passion and she gave all five of us, her own kids, far more attention and love than we'd ever deserve.

She'd always go to games, and she loved to participate in the parents' games.

She was the pitcher and Captain of the mother's baseball team that played us when we were in Greenwich Country Day. She was a great athlete --- the best of all her friends. She would always hit a home run in those games. Then, too, she was the fastest runner --- she'd win the mothers' race every year.

Her best sport was tennis. At age 17 she was the runner up in the National Girl's singles tournament being held at the Merion Cricket Club in Philadelphia. But she never bragged about that.

Once in the 30 's her brother, my Uncle Louis, brought a very famous woman player up here to Maine. Uncle Lou set up the match for Mother to play her. Mother played her and beat her. At the end of the match Mum's feet were literally bleeding. She won all kinds of Club tennis championships at the Greenwich Field Club, the Kennebunk River Club, and others too.

She taught us all about sportsmanship --- some by bawling us out when we were bad sports, and some by example. She never complained or found excuses when she lost.

She was a fine golfer, too. A really good golfer --- with a great short game, and a competitive spirit to match.

Once, when she was little, she tied her brother, Herbie, to the stone posts out here at Walker's Point, for she didn't want him to follow her downtown.

She crewed for her father, your Great-Great-Grandfather G. H. Walker (Bert) on his 21' sailing boat, the "Giggle On." He'd make her get way up on the bow as ballast when the sea got rough during a race. She loved it.

Once she swam from the pier here at the Point all the way around to the boat club. Her Uncle Joe Wear followed her in a row boat just to be sure she didn't get a cramp and have to stop. She made it easily.

One time my friend Bill Truesdale, way back about 1935 , said something to me I'll never forget --- he said, "I wish my mother was like yours!" Isn't that something, Ellie? All my friends loved my mother and respected her too. She was so kind to them.

Once I used an ax --- Mum had told me not to do it. I cut myself on the leg --- a deep cut. I lied to her about what happened. But she knew I was lying. She didn't spank me and she got me to admit, on my own, that I had not told the truth and that I had used the ax when she told me not to. She explained to me about never lying. Now I am 72 . Then I was 6 or 7 . I have never forgotten.

Mum was always trim --- a fairly small woman, always in great shape though. And oh how she loved my Dad.

Oh, yes, when she was around 18 she was presented [as debutante] at the Court of St. James in London. A lot of girls did that in the old days. She had to curtsy to the king.

She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and her family came to Maine every summer.

Mum was religious, not pious --- but a Christian that knew her Bible and was lifted by her faith. She'd read to us the Lesson of the Day before our meals. She went to church without fail on Sundays. But more than that she lived her faith --- teaching not just family but so many friends, too, by her example, by the way she lived her own life. Once Billy Graham, near the end of Mum's life, went over to the Bungalow [in Kennebunkport] to have breakfast. They read the Bible together. She told me afterwards that those 45 minutes were about the "most glorious time" in her life. She admired Billy's commitment to Jesus and to God, and she loved his message.

Oh yes, she played the piano pretty well, too.

I saw my Mum a few hours before she died. I was President then. I flew up to Greenwich to see her one last time. She was breathing with great difficulty --- fighting "the good fight with all her might." But, Ellie, I knew for sure that she would go to heaven; and I also knew that she looked upon death not with fear but with joy. She told me over and over again that she knew she would be with my Dad in heaven. During that last visit she was struggling to breathe, struggling for life; but I knelt by her bed and literally prayed that God would take her to heaven right then.

I hope your presentation goes well, for you will be telling your classmates about one of God's truly special people.

I love you, Ellie.



As I read this, it's remarkable how alike Dad and his mother were --- both were captain of the baseball team, played tennis, and were religious but not pious. There was, however, one exception. While everyone in his family has been musically inclined, Dad can't play the piano or carry a tune. He claims that there was a "genetic power outage" in his case when it came to music. To this day, however, he still talks about his days singing in the "double octet" in grammar school --- usually comprised of sixteen voices. "Often we were undermanned," Dad once noted with great pride, but no one really believes that he sang.

"If he did, he mouthed it," Bucky confided recently, "and that was before his voice changed."

Dad's father, Prescott, was a successful businessman who later served as U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1953 to 1963. My grandfather, of course, was also an important influence on Dad, who describes his father this way: "Big. Strong. Principled. Respected by all who knew him. A leader. Wonderful sense of humor. Once, a guy told a dirty joke in the locker room at the club and Dad walked out on him. He loved my mother very much. He was a great example to everyone in the family, all Ganny's brothers particularly. He was a great golfer --- scratch handicap. Champion. Played tennis well. Had his own quartet until he died, almost. Singer in the Silver Dollar Quartet. He was just a wonderful warm guy. Now, he wasn't cozy like Mother. We felt close to him, but not in the same way. He was more the discipline guy."

Years later, Dad recalled, "Mother had gotten a call from a neighbor two miles away. I remember it well. The phone call came in, and Mother said, 'Did you boys do this?' We said, 'Yes.' She told my brother and me, 'Well, your father is going to have to handle this.' We walked into our den in Grove Lane, and he picked up a squash racket, and I thought, 'Oh God, this is it. We've had it.' And he threatened us with it, and said, 'Now, you go over to the Williams' house, you go over and apologize.' So we got out of there, scared to death. Ran as we started, then the closer to the Williams' house we got, we became very terrified and slowed down. We had to knock on the door and say that we were very sorry that we had paid their beautiful daughter ten cents to run naked across the floor. We got out with our lives on that one, but we were sixth graders at the time --- natural hormonal urges you get, I guess."

After graduating from Yale, my grandfather served as a field artillery captain in World War I before returning home to enter the business world. As a partner in the Brown Brothers Harriman firm on Wall Street, he took the train every day from his home in Greenwich to his office in Manhattan. During the 1930s, Dad remembers, his father would forgo drinks in the club car of the train with his contemporaries and, instead, go into town and serve as moderator of the Greenwich town meetings. Dad was a teenager by then, and seeing his father serve as unofficial mayor of Greenwich made a big impression.

"He led by example," Dad said. "He ran the meetings, and in everything he did he was the leader. He wasn't a power-hungry guy, it was just leadership. Because of his leadership, things gravitated to him --- people would ask, 'How will Prescott Bush feel about this? What'll he vote for?'"

Betsy Heminway, who grew up with my father in Greenwich, remembers my grandfather as "the most extraordinary man. If I ever thought of someone that looked like a statesman, it was Prescott Bush. He would walk in a room and there was a presence."

Dorothy, Prescott, and their five children lived in a big Victorian house on Grove Lane. Upstairs, there was a Singer sewing machine which Ganny used to mend the children's clothes, and a radio as well. There my Aunt Nan and Ganny would listen to the New York Philharmonic on Sunday afternoons, while the boys would play outside and my grandfather would nap. During the week, they'd also listen to Edward R. Murrow before dinner.

Dad's Greenwich years were filled with sports. A Ping-Pong table sat in the front hall, and a tiddlywinks game had a permanent home in the living room. The Bush children tobogganed and skied on the hilly front lawn in the winter, and in the summer they played catch and touch football in the backyard. For team games such as football and baseball, they'd squeeze through the hedge to the neighbor's bigger yard.

One Christmas, my Uncle Bucky received a labyrinth game --- a wooden box with a maze and holes on top, and handles on the sides to maneuver the marble. Because he was so young, however, Bucky had to stop playing with it that first night and go to bed at 7:00. Dad, who was fourteen years older than Uncle Bucky, came down to breakfast the next morning and spied the game.

"What's this?" Dad asked his younger brother, wanting to know how it worked. Bucky put the marble on top and proceeded to drop it twice through the first or second hole.

"Well, I've never seen anything like that before," said Dad.

"Want to try it, Poppy?" asked Bucky. (Dad was called "Poppy" because he reminded everyone of his maternal grandfather, George, who was known simply as "Pop.")

Sure enough, Dad ran the marble all the way to the end and won. Amazed, Bucky asked him to do it again. Dad even bet him a dollar he could do it again, and did. Later, Bucky told his older brother Johnny, "You know, I can't believe it --- the guy had never seen this thing before."

"Bucky," said Johnny, "he'd been up practicing all night!"

Dad's father attended Yale with a man named Neil Mallon, who went on to be a very successful businessman in the oil industry and whom the Bush children all called Uncle Neil. Mom said Mr. Mallon "was like Santa Claus" to my father and his siblings. To them, she said, "he was a big man" despite his small build.

One day when he was young, Dad and Uncle Neil were playing catch in the yard --- "no great athlete, Uncle Neil," Mom added --- when Dad accidentally threw the ball through the windshield of his father's new car. Uncle Neil turned to Dad and said, "Poppy, let's go tell your father."

Dad was scared, and when it came time to confess to the crime, Uncle Neil spoke up first: "Prescott, I made a very bad throw and smashed your windshield." Dad remembered it clearly, and said to me nearly seven decades later, "He was perhaps the nicest man I ever met." Later, when Dad went into the oil business, Uncle Neil would come to have almost as much influence on Dad as his own parents.

When he was thirteen, Dad joined his older brother Pres at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Located on a hilltop twenty-one miles north of Boston, the academy was founded in 1778, making it one of the nation's oldest boarding schools.

My Uncle Johnny told me of a time at Andover when a few of the senior boys were ordering the "preps," or new boys, around. They started picking on a smaller boy named Bruce Gelb, ordering him to carry a heavy chair up the stairs to someone's room.

"So Bruce is struggling to carry this chair, and they're laughing at him, and your father just walks across the place and says, 'Look, I'll take this side, and you take that side . . .'" Dad helped him carry the chair, and Bruce never forgot it.

Years later, after he became president of Clairol, Inc., head of USIA, and ambassador to Belgium, Bruce Gelb told a reporter, "They say there are no heroes for young teenagers in our society. But I can tell you, at age fourteen and a half, I had my own personal hero, a guy that hated bullies, and it was George Bush."

Andover "was a huge influence in my life," Dad told an interviewer years later, "more so than college." Frank "Junie" O'Brien, one of Dad's schoolmates at both Andover and Yale, agrees. He thinks that the faculty at Andover taught, advised, coached, and socialized with the impressionable high school age boys, while students at Yale were older, more independent, and had less interaction with their teachers. Junie O'Brien was so influenced by it he became a high school teacher himself, serving on the faculty at Groton School for thirty-two years.

When he was fourteen years old, Dad was confirmed at Andover and his mother gave him a small blue Bible as a confirmation gift. She wrote the words to an old hymn inside for him:

I would be true, for there are those who trust me,

I would be pure, for there are those who care,

I would be strong, for there is much to suffer,

I would be brave, for there is much to dare;

I would be friend to all, the foe, the friendless,

I would be giving and forget the gift.

I would be humble, for I know my weakness;

I would look up, and laugh and love and lift.

Andover's school mottoes were Finis origine pendet, "The end depends on the beginning," and Non sibi, "Not for self." Those philosophies fit with my grandparents' emphasis on honesty, loyalty, generosity, modesty, sportsmanship, and becoming what the students there called an all-rounder.

That family philosophy was spelled out in a letter that Dad came across a few years ago. Generations later, it reminds me that the values of our family have remained the same. The letter was written by my great-grandfather George Herbert Walker as he was steaming out of New York Harbor past the Statue of Liberty on a ship to France. It was dated May 22, 1920, and addressed to his four youngest children. To me, it clearly spells out our family's creed --- one that my grandmother and her siblings embodied throughout their lives:

Please remember now each and every one of you that Father counts on you to do your best and he knows you will . . . Always remember too, my dear boys, that you are gentlemen and not muckers and that your word is your bond and inviolate.

I am very proud of you all, for I see you all developing along the right lines. Thanks to your own good sense and to your dear Mother's teachings. Go on and you will live to become useful men and good citizens. Use your heads. Be good losers and winners too, play fair, and if in doubt, give the other fellow the benefit of it, and you will also grow to be good sportsmen, than which there is nothing finer. Give me a man who is one, and I will show you a man of high character and principles.

I did not mean this letter to be a preachment and nothing that I have said is either original or new, but it is the truth and it is the unmutable law . . .

Herbie, you have come along in fine shape and I know you are going to continue.

Jim, you have always been gentle and you too will continue to come along.

John, my boy, your character is in the making and a great part of your future depends on how you control yourself now. Make your mind control and think before you act and I am sure that you too will come along.

Louis, you are still too young to judge, but remember this, old man, no boy will ever be what I wish him to be unless he knows what the truth is and sticks to it, through thick and thin.

I love you all dearly and I am proud of my boys. I send to each of you a heart full of love, ever yours through trouble and through life. Devotedly, Father.

My father forwarded this letter to all of us when he came across it a few years back --- thinking we'd get "a great big kick out of it." Reading it brought a smile to my face. I particularly liked the part about not being "muckers." My Uncle Louis, the youngest one listed at the end, turned out to be the wild one of the bunch --- and also gave our family many warm and funny memories.

For example, after my grandfather Prescott had graduated from Yale, he continued to be active in the Yale Glee Club Associates. They had an annual dinner at which they'd all sing. Uncle Louis couldn't carry a tune, but he considered the dinner a big deal and was dying to attend. According to Uncle Johnny, Lou kept pestering my grandfather to bring him to the dinner --- but to no avail.

"Absolutely not, Lou," my grandfather firmly stated. "It's for former Glee Club members only."

The night of the dinner came, and at one point a waiter tapped my grandfather on the shoulder to offer him a drink. Prescott turned around to find Uncle Lou in a waiter's suit, working at the dinner!

Years later, in 1940, while Dad was in his junior year at Andover, he got a bad staphylococcus infection in his arm that nearly killed him --- there was no penicillin available in those days. According to his sister, Nan, Dad would have graduated at age sixteen but for his six-week stay at Massachusetts General Hospital and a long recovery afterward.

The headmaster called Dad's parents and suggested he repeat the year, so Dad spent a fifth year at Andover and graduated at age seventeen. This gave him more time for sports, as well as an easier year in terms of his classes. Dad became captain of the baseball team and of the soccer team, and was manager of the basketball team. (That is, until one day when he was shooting baskets and the coach, Frank "Deke" DiClementi, turned to Dad and said, "Forget being manager --- I think I can use you on the team.)"

"That year was the making of George, a changing point," Aunt Nan said years later. "It was a brush with death, brush number one. It was also his fifth year at Andover, where he was the great man --- not The Great I Am, but he grew into this great leader on the campus. He was captain of soccer and captain of baseball and did wonderfully in his studies. People admired him. I was terribly popular for a while --- everybody wanted to come to our house because they might run into George."

By the way, what Aunt Nan means by "The Great I Am" is a sort of family shorthand we have. "Nobody likes the big I Am, George," my grandmother would say to him. "Don't be talking about yourself." Or, "There were too many 'I's' in that sentence."

Once, Dad told his mother that he'd scored three goals in soccer. She replied, "That's nice, George, but how did the team do?" This grew out of a New England Yankee sense of modesty, and in Dad it evolved into a reluctance to speak in the first person, and eventually into a revulsion against appearing to brag in any way or make himself the center of attention.

It's why, years later, he's never written his own memoirs.

Excerpted from MY FATHER, MY PRESIDENT © Copyright 2011 by Doro Bush Koch. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group USA. All rights reserved.

My Father, My President: A Personal Account of the Life of George H. W. Bush
by by Doro Bush Koch

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446579904
  • ISBN-13: 9780446579902