President George W. Bush and Barbara Bush

Duration: 30Mins 26Secs
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Uncorrected Transcript

Note: Original audio recording captured with interview already in progress.

Interview with:  George W. Bush, Barbara Bush  
Interviewed by:  Jim McGrath          
Date:  July 2009


JM:        . . . It was actually in World War II.

GB:      World War II.  I was down there, sent down there to try to get my wings at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station and did not really get to Houston at that time but I did go in and out of Corpus itself and really enjoyed it.  So that was the first connection.

JM:        Then you served on the San Jacinto during World War II.  Did you meet any real live Texans on board the ship?

GB:      Well, they flew the Texas flag when we were in combat, and the captain was a Texan.  I forget his name.  But that was a good connection with Texas and, of course, San Jacinto – there is a great history there.

JM:        In the late 1940s, you were a couple on the move.  You graduated, finished school at Yale and you were married and had a baby son.

GB:      That’s right.

JM:        You talked about farming as a vocation when you were mapping out your plans, didn’t you?  That didn’t pan out?

BB:      Well, it turned out that if you wanted to be a successful farmer, you had to have a little money to buy the farm and to supply it.  We were rather naive a little bit but it seemed like fun, and that George, having been overseas and in the war, I think he wanted to get back to something natural.  I know he did not want to go . . .

GB:      Do you remember the definition of the farmer?

BB:      A man not standing in his field.  That’s funny.  But anyway, he wanted to do something other than ____ [1:26].  He wanted something you could touch or . . .

GB:      Different than what my father had successfully done and my uncle who was a big ____[1:41] from Austria.  Didn’t want to do that.  I did not know I did want to do but I did not want to do that.

JM:        So you ultimately decided on the oil industry?

GB:      Well, we were offered a job at Dresser Industries.  A friend of my father’s, Neil Ballen (sp?), one of our closest friends in life, and he said, “You ought to not go in the east, don’t stay in the east.  You ought to go to Texas.  You ought to go to Odessa, Texas.”  We said, “Where is that?”  We did not know where Odessa was and down we went.  The rest is history.  We loved it ever since.  We loved West Texas where we lived for 12 years or so and then, of course, we loved Houston.

JM:        You started on the ground floor – salesman, sweeping the shop floor.  You had a little stint in California.

GB:      That was for like a training program for selling lot bits in Bakersfield and helping build pumps.  I remember the steelworker’s union in Huntington Park, California at _____[2:46].  So we did different jobs at different Dresser companies and learned every step of the way.  We had a great diverse experience in where we lived.

JM:        Eventually moved back to West Texas, had a successful company there.  When did the seed get planted that you would come to Houston to launch Zapata Offshore?

GB:      We had already launched Zapata Offshore but to run an offshore company, you really need to be in Houston for something like that.

BB:      How far offshore can you get?

GB:      So, we were in Midland.  That did not seem like a good place to run the company from so I was CEO, you might say, of the company and down we moved, and have been very happy ever since.

JM:        You knew of Houston then by its reputation as kind of a mecca center for . . .

GB:      It was.  Tulsa claimed to be the oil capital of the world but then they have been eclipsed by Houston.

JM:        You had known in Midland and West Texas, you kind of had the idyllic . . . you talked about it . . .

BB:      He loved Midland but, having said that, the minute we got to Houston, we loved Houston.  Maybe we are smarter than some people but Houston is a great city.  It is a city that you can bring up your children, diversity . . . I mean, wonderful hospitals, universities.  It is just a wonderful place.  Great businesses.  And we had friends there that moved there from Midland, moved to Houston.

JM:        About the same time?

BB:      Well, they came a little earlier.

GB:      Some came a little earlier.

BB:      Some later but Hugh Ligby (sp?), they came earlier.  They went to Pennsylvania and then came back to Houston for Pennzoil.

GB:      I am not sure if Hugh went to Houston before he went over there.

BB:      No, I think he went from Midland to Pennzoil.

GB:      That’s right.

BB:      But Fred Chambers . . . we met a lot of very close friends.

JM:        All the way from West Texas to Houston?

BB:      We knew Bob Mosbacher, didn’t we, after we moved?

GB:      Yes.

BB:      But, you know, I am one who believes the friends you make in the first 6 grades are the friends for life.  They are the friends for life if you are compatible but we made more best friends in Houston, Texas, more generous people and more wonderful friends.

GB:      That’s right.

cue point

JM:        And you arrive with a young family, growing family . . .

GB:      Growing was the right word.

BB:      We had 4 boys when we arrived and Houston was good to us – they gave us God’s gift of the _____[5:37].

GB:      How many were born in Houston?

BB:      One.

GB:      Just Dorothy.

JM:        Just Dorothy?  Shortly after you arrived there.  Jumping from family and business to politics, 1961 was a fairly momentous year for Republicans in Texas.  You had John Tower, who probably picked up the Senate seat.  I am wondering . . . around that time, you made a decision to run for Harris County Chairman and the Harris County of the 1960s was not the Harris County of the 1990s where Republicans were dominant . . . what led you to enter in on that . . .

GB:      Well, I forget how it came about but the Party was not a tiny party and had always been interested in politics but somebody came to see me and said, “You ought to run for County Chairman.”  In those days, we had the Birch Society, the real Right-Wing nasty people and so, I took them on.  It was interesting and I am glad I did it.

BB:      What we didn’t know was in those days and maybe still, Harris County had something like 289 precincts, so it was goodbye to George Bush.  He went every night to precincts and he really won . . .

GB:      Grass roots.

BB:      That’s right, and made a lot of friends that way.  He would always say, “My wife is the one sitting in the back doing knitting.”  Of course, I was doing needlepoint but anyway . . .

JM:        So you hit all 289 precincts or many of them?

GB:      Almost.

BB:      I think you did.

GB:      And from there . . . of course, your dad had famously run for the Senate in Connecticut after serving as town moderator, and you made a similar jump from Harris County Chairman to running for the Senate in 1964.  What led you to make that . . .

JM:        Well, Peter O’Donnell was the State Republican Chairman.  I think they were desperate to get somebody to run and we made the case that helped to get the money which was a lot but nothing like it is today, and so I was intrigued by it, got in and gave it my all.  Bard (sp??) did the same.  We got killed.  We got beat by 57-43, maybe.  Maybe not quite 43.  But anyway, we got beat badly but I got the bug and decided to try again a couple of years later for the Congress.

JM:        The 1964 election, was that liquor by the drink or was that 1970?

GB:      1970.  That is Lloyd Bentsen.

BB:      That was Barry Goldwater against Lyndon Johnson which was . . .

GB:      That was 1964.  I got more votes than Goldwater did in the state but was killed nevertheless.

BB:      For some reason, Goldwater would go to Fort Worth or someplace and speak up against the airplane factory that was there.  I remember he went to Florida and he spoke against any help for older people.  I mean, his timing was a little off.  He was a wonderful man.

GB:      _______[8:53].

JM:        In 1966, you did throw your hat in to Congressional District 7.

GB:      Against Frank Briscoe.  He was a very popular district attorney at that point.  They never had a Republican elected in the 7th  District of Texas.  We worked hard.  We had a lot of grass roots people out in the neighborhoods passing out leaflets and knocking on doors.  So I think we won a pretty good victory then.

BB:      It is hard to believe but some of those same volunteers are at the Office of Volunteers in Houston now.

GB:      As we speak.

BB:      As we speak.  That in itself would make running for office great.

JM:        So, 1966 was the dawn of the Bush Belles or did you have them in 1964, too?

GB:      I think we had them in 1964, yes.

JM:        O.K., and, as you say, many of them are still with you.

GB:      Still ringing.

JM:        1967 was an interesting time in your political career.  You had the Open Housing Bill that came down in April.  You had the King assassination, I think, the week before.  That was kind of a turbulent time not only in Houston but across the country, and you cast a hard vote and came back to face the constituents afterwards and managed to turn them around.  Talk about that, that period of time there.

GB:      Do you remember the details?  I do not remember the details.

BB:      Well, you flew down and went to a high school, I think.

JM:        In Memorial?

BB:      In Memorial, to a very angry group.

GB:      Angry constituents.

BB:      That’s right, because they really thought that your voting for open housing was terrible and you felt that people who serve a country . . .

GB:      Yes, the veterans that came back could not get any place to live.  But I think it turned out to not be that momentous of an occasion but I just think we had to take charge there and we did, and people supported me at the meeting actually.

BB:      That’s right.  They cheered when he left.

cue point

JM:        They jeered when you walked in and cheered when you left.

GB:      Maybe they were glad to see me go.

BB:      No, that’s not right.

JM:        Were there any other issues that stand out from your days in the House?  I know you enjoyed serving under President Ford’s minority leadership.  Anything else that stands out?

GB:      Being a freshman member, the first one in history, I think, of the Ways and Means Committee, working under the leadership of Wilbur Mills, for whom I had great respect.  Wilbur Mills got in trouble because of Fanne Fox in the Tidal Basin.  He was a great man, and I learned from him. One thing I learned from him is to show respect to everybody on your committee or, in my case, everybody in your government.  Give them time.  He did that.  He would wait and everybody else would leave and I had my chance to question Walter Reuther or something like that – all because of the courtesy of Wilbur Mills.  He knew more about tax law than anybody else, so I learned a lot from him, and I ended up feeling very, very close to him.

JM:        And, of course, in the 1960s, it was a little bit different than it is these days.  It seems most House members get an apartment and keep their house in their district or where they live.  You got the house but you were still commuting back and forth.  What was that like?

BB:      I think the government paid them for 2 or maybe 4 trips back to Houston.  George went every weekend.  But it was worth it.  He was unopposed when he ran again which is amazing and the children were dragged around Washington going sightseeing.  I remember standing outside the White House watching Nixon’s church light up and the children, their little faces.  I never thought we would live in the White House but we did that.

JM:        Then, 1970 came along and you made a famous pilgrimage to the LBJ Ranch and you went to go visit with the former president and seek his advice.  Talk about that encounter.

GB:      Well, I thought we were going to be running against Ralph Yarborough, and he gave me good advice.  He did not like Yarborough.  I think he would have been happy to see me win.  He could not and would not endorse me.  But then, Lloyd Bentsen got in the race.  Lloyd was a very attractive, nice, experienced person.  I still thought I would win Barbara Jordan who was very popular in Houston, and “If Bentsen wins the primary against Yarborough, you can go to the Senate.  Pick out your seat.  You will be in.  Everybody that was on the other side will be for you.”  Well, that never materialized either.  Bentsen did a great job in bringing and keeping people together.

BB:      And liquor by the drink.

GB:      Well, then, they had this liquor by the drink in East Texas.  It was kind of a mandate on the ballot.  And huge flocks of people, Baptists and others, came to the polls and they were not our constituency.  In those days, a Republican did not do well in East Texas.  They just did not carry East Texas, did not make a showing in East Texas.  It was Dallas, Houston, West Texas and, to some degree, San Antonio.  That really killed me when they had that liquor by the drink stuff, but Bentsen was a good campaigner and a thoroughly decent person.

JM:        The 1970 campaign brought you together with 2 other Houstonians that would be by your side during your ascent – Jim Baker and Bob Mosbacher. Secretary Baker served as your Harris County Chairman and I think Secretary Mosbacher helped you on the fundraising and other matters.  Talk about that partnership as it grew out.

GB:      Well, just from that, from those early political days, we became the fastest of friends and both served in the Administration – Baker as Secretary of State and Mosbacher as Secretary of Commerce.  Both did outstanding jobs and both were experienced.  Baker was one of the most experienced lawyers in Houston and Mosbacher, a highly successful oil guy. So, I was very lucky not only for their friendship but for having them at my side in those political battles.

JM:        O.K.  After the 1970 campaign, you received a series of high-level appointments that took you to a number of different cities – New York, Washington, China.  Did you keep in touch with friends in Houston?  Did you make it back to the town often?

BB:      As much as we possibly could.

GB:      Oh, yes, we stayed in touch.  Definitely.

BB:      And our Houston friends came to Washington, of course.

GB:      We kept our house then.

BB:      No, we kept the . . .

GB:      We had a house over on Longmont.

BB:      Jack Fitch sold us that property and then we stayed at the Houstonian, I think.  We got ridiculed for that – both for the property which they said was small and we would never build on, and we built on; and the Houstonian was a really great place to stay.  A lot of exercising, and the location was good.  I hated that we sold our house on Longmont.  Oh, Longmont we did during the Congress _____[16:29].  We had that _____.

GB:      It was very nice.

BB:      It was very nice.  We loved it.  We came home for Christmas.  All the vacations we took.

cue point

JM:        In 1977, after the inauguration of our 39th president . . .

BB:      Carter?

JM:        President Carter.  You came back to Houston and you dove back into life there and you were an Adjunct Professor at Rice University?  Is that true?

GB:      True.  I did not teach many classes there but I enjoyed it very much.  I asked what “adjunct” meant and they said it means you don’t get paid, and some thought I was being overly compensated but nevertheless, I learned a lot.  Rice is a great institution.  It is right there in Houston.

JM:        It wasn’t too long after you got back . . . I read in Secretary Baker’s book that it was right after his run for Attorney General of Texas that you gave him a call and said, “Let’s get going.”  And you got T’d up in 1980 and you had an office, I believe – I think you pointed it out to me at one point, it was right off the West Loop there right up on 610.

BB:      That’s right.

GB:      Right.

JM:        And you started off as an asterisk famously.  There was another Texan actually, Governor Connally, who had an office in Houston and whatnot, and, as Secretary Mosbacher tells it, a lot of people came up to him and said, “Well, Connally is the star.”

GB:      “It is his turn.”  I remember one of the great families there said . . .

BB:      She was a Democrat who became a Republican.

GB:      That’s all right, I mean, you need that, but they said, “It is his turn.”  Well, I didn’t look at it like anybody gets a turn to run for president.

BB:      Well, and Nixon liked him very, very much.

GB:      Oh, very high.  Nixon was very, very high . . .

BB:      He really wanted him to go for president.

JM:        Also contemplated putting him on the ticket after Agnew.

GB:      He definitely wanted to be president.  Nixon, in my view, wanted Connally to be president.

JM:        So you started off, gained traction, got the name out there, mounted a serious challenge against Governor Reagan but at the end, the delegate count went his way.  You came back to Houston and I think that is when you bought your lot from Mr. Fitch.

BB:      No, we had that for years.

JM:        You had that already?  O.K.

BB:      That is when the people stood on the lot and said, “They’ll never build here.”  We had it for about 16 years.  It is pretty tiny.

JM:        And that is when you made plans I think to finally construct but then fate interceded once again.  I guess before you went to Detroit, you started with some plans to build and then in Detroit, fate interceded once again and you are on the ticket.

BB:      You know, we should go back a little because, really, we bought this house knowing George was out of office when he lost to Reagan the presidential.  So, we sold the grey house across the way and bought this, thinking he would go out and work and make money.  Well, as it turned out, we were lucky.  We sold our house in Houston that we loved, the grey house, so we could afford this.  Wasn’t that the way it sort of went?

GB:      I think so.  I am a little vague on details.

BB:      Yes, I think that happened.  And then, after . .  . lets see, who was elected?  It must been Clinton . . . that we came down and built on our lot. We built our house in _______[20:14] and it was up in no time at all.  It was a wonderful house.  Very happy in that wonderful neighborhood.

cue point

JM:        But when fate interceded in 1980, it took you away from Houston again for roughly a 12-year stretch.  Of course, you had the vice-president’s office in the Federal Building downtown run by Jack Steele.

GB:      Oh, yes.  And a lot of the same people that helped me in that office, volunteered, still help me now in our Houston office as volunteers.  It is amazing.  Just wonderful people.

BB:      They were there in the 1960s, too.

GB:      Never got a dime.  Just dedicated.  Never properly said thank you.

JM:        You would obviously make frequent visits back as vice-president.

GB:      Oh, yes.

JM:        And then, as president, you, on 2 occasions, chose to really bring the world to Houston.  You brought the ____[21:15] summit.

GB:      That was a big one.  Bloody hot, but we brought them.

JM:        July in Houston!

GB:      Micherant (sp?), Thatcher.  I don’t think the Soviets were there.  Maybe they were.

BB:      Canada.

GB:      Oh, yes, _____[21:31].  Great meeting I think for Houston but certainly good for those leaders to see Texas.

JM:        And, of course, the 1992 GOP Convention.

BB:      _____[21:43]

JM:        July and August but still, I heard it was unseasonably cool that week the convention was in town.

BB:      It was.  You know, it was funny . . .

GB:      It was cool to me.

BB:      I know it was cool to you, but do you remember the slogan – I think maybe Jack Steele thought of this – “Houston is hot.”  That is what the slogan was.  Volunteers cleaned that city.  I mean, what a city.  Even on the routes that the G7 people weren’t going to take.  But they cleaned the city.

JM:        It is remarkable the loyalty that you show to Houston, your hometown, and bringing that kind of local attention, and there was an economic benefit as well.  And it just helped to furnish the city’s reputation.  You moved to Houston in the late 1950s.  Thirty years on, you had seen it grow into a truly international city.  Talk about the growth of the city it had experienced.

GB:      Well, it is so firmly writ in the annals of history but it grew not just on oil and gas but farming, rice farming and many other . . . petrochemicals, ship channel burgeon.  It was amazing growth and benefitted the people of Houston.

BB:      ____[23:09].  It was unbelievable the growth.

JM:        When you first moved to Houston, your office with Zapata Offshore was downtown or was that on the west side?

GB:      The First National Bank Building – the old First National Bank Building.  And then, later on, they had one there in what is now the Houston Club Building.

JM:        And then, of course, famously after the 1992 elections, some people speculating you might stay in the East but you did what you always did – you came back to Houston.

BB:      Isn’t that funny?  People would say, “We don’t think of you as Houstonians.”  I said, “Well, we have been there a long, long time and we chose to live there because we love it.”  Never thought of going anyplace else.

JM:        Built your house.

BB:      We love our house.

JM:        But you have also helped to build other things and Celebration of Reading is one of the most popular and successful events that is looked forward to every year in Houston.

BB:      That is largely volunteers, I might add.  I take very little credit except that I was married to the President and the name it was given but people are unbelievable in helping.  George certainly has worked at M.D. Anderson and wanted to.

GB:      M.D. Anderson Hospital, they had a little _____[24:36].

JM:        And you have also helped . . . served on referendums to build stadiums to help improve the community and whatnot.  What drive do you . . . you could retire.  You have done your part, you have given so much to the community and the world but you still turn out for the Astros games, you still . . .

BB:      We like them!

JM:        You still support so many causes.

GB:      The Astros games are just shear pleasure and we are grateful to Drayton McLane for getting to sit with him in the owner’s box there.

BB:      And the Texans.

GB:      And the Texans.

BB:      We love that team.

GB:      Bob McNair.  And we are hoping that that team will make the playoffs this year and I hope the Astros come alive.  They will.  They have a good lineup, they are just not getting quite the pitching they need and the hitters are doing pretty well.  But we follow these things.  We like the Rockets.  We have not gone to that many games but I like what Les Alexander has done for Houston and the Rockets.  Yao-Ming, Battier and some of these others are just great guys.

BB:      But in answer to your question a little bit, the reason that we support so many . . . we are retired, but just to go to a dinner and speak and raise money for something you are very interested in, that is . . . we are retired.

cue point

GB:      Yes, but you have to _____[25:57].  “We’d like to honor you. _____ show up so we can raise money.  We understand that.  We are not coming in here on a watermelon _____.  And so, we are glad to try to help but I cannot stay awake through a long dinner.  People understand that.  “Just show up.”  And we are glad to do it.  One of my favorites was this year when they had Dana Carvey speaking at one of these things.  I am so glad we went.  We had a nice visit with Dana and we just walked out and surprised guests.  You can do fun stuff like that without overtaxing the body.  But I am 85.

BB:      I am much younger.

GB:      A much younger woman.

BB:84.  There are certain things . . . and it is not because we are so great or so good, it is just easy to do and we are very interested in United Way or Methodist Hospital – I am picking them because they have had me quite a lot this year.  But there are just so many wonderful universities, medical centers.  People are great.  I mean, really great in Houston.  And the most generous people I believe.  Everybody says to me, “I can’t believe you raise so much money for _____[27:08].”  I say, “Yes, people there care and _____ and they are willing to _____.”  And the same is true for ____.  I can’t think of the names now – of the homeless – Star of Hope.  People really want to help.  And it is easy for us.

JM:        They seem to have appreciated your efforts.  You have a couple of schools named for you.  An airport.

BB:      That is a big thing.

GB:      That is a big honor.

BB:      George has so many things named for him but the big national one, I think, is the Intelligence Center, George Bush Intelligence Center.  I think that is a great honor.  It is there nearly almost 1 year.  That is pretty good.  They named it after him because, number one, he brought the morale back and he used it as president and vice-president.  He listened.  Maybe that is his greatest job.

JM:        Let’s close by talking a little bit about family.  You brought your young and growing family to Houston, you saw them grow and start on their own paths.  You’ve got how many grandchildren?

BB:      I say 19.

GB:      19 or 17?

BB:      Well, you don’t count Henry and Mandy because they are in-laws but I count them.

GB:      You told them that you count them with the grandchildren?

BB:      They know it.

GB:      Henry is Jenna – one of the twins’ husband.  We love him but I don’t think of him as a grandkid.  She does.

BB:      And Mandy who is a brilliant lawyer – George P’s wife.  I counted her.

JM:        George P is?

GB:      Jeb’s boy.  Governor Jeb Bush’s oldest son.  A Texan through and through.  He did live in Fort Worth but he is technically living in Austin, I guess.

BB:      Well, I think he is going to go back to Fort Worth.  It is just a business thing.  But anyway, we are very, very lucky . . .

GB:      Neal?  Neal still lives right across the street from us in Houston.  A great, great son. He gives us more pleasure than you can imagine and his family, his oldest son works in Houston.  Pierce.  The daughters live elsewhere.

BB:      But we see them a lot and that is very important.  And they will all be up here soon but they were in Houston not too long ago.

JM:        So if you were to think about Houston in 50 years, where do you think the city will be?

BB:      Well, I don’t know.  I haven’t done any demographic studies but it will be big and it will be vibrant, it will be moving with the optimistic.  It will be a great city, a great place to live, too.  You can ask somebody else about traffic and that kind of thing.  Fast rail and all that.  _____ to get into all of that.

JM:        Mr. President, Mrs. Bush, than you for your time.

BB:      Thank you.

GB:      Jim, you have done a heck of a job here and we appreciate you being with us in this tough setting but somebody had to be here.  It is 104 down in Houston.  It is about 72 here.

BB:      Those people can’t get out _____[30:00].

GB:      Let them out.