June 24th, 2020


Presidents in Their Youth: George W. Bush

George W. Bush was born into a family that had prospered in past generations. His great-grandfather Samuel Bush was a railroad and steel executive. His grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a wealthy Wall Street investment banker and US Senator from Connecticut. His father George H. W. Bush had been an oil executive, a Congressman, Ambassador, CIA Director, Vice-President and President. When George W. Bush was born on July 6, 1946 in New Haven, Connecticut, his father was a 22 year old Yale undergraduate who had returned home from the second world war, after nearly losing his life when his plan was shot down by Japanese fighters over the South Pacific. A timely rescue from a submarine saved him from being a Japanese prisoner of war. His mother, the former Barbara Pierce, was a 22 year old debutante who experienced a difficult pregnancy with her first born child. It is said that the 43rd President's delivery into the world was hastened when Barbara Bush's mother-in-law suggested that she take some castor oil to help to hasten the delivery. Apparently the advice helped.

His parents called him "Georgie" and when he was two years old, his family moved to West Texas, where his father sought to make his fortune in the oil business. They first moved to Odessa, and then in 1950 the family made its home in Midland, where George W. Bush spent his formative years. Though political opponents would seek to paint him as an eastern city slicker and an Ivy League elitist, Bush proudly recalled his time as a student at Sam Houston Elementary School in Midland.

One of the most somber periods of George W. Bush's childhood was the time leading up to the death of his younger sister Robin from Leukemia in early 1953. George and Barbara Bush sought advanced medical care for Robin in New York City, while George and his baby brother Jeb were cared for by family friends. After spending seven months in New York, Robin died. When his parents returned home, they took George out of school to break the news to him. According to his mother, he was stunned by the news and repeatedly asked her "why didn't you tell me?", meaning why hadn't they told him that Robin's condition was as serious as it was.

After Robin's death, George H. W. Bush began working longer hours. Barbara Bush's hair had turned white from the stress of dealing with Robin's illness, and George W. took on the role of consoling his mother. Barbara Bush later recalled this period, telling an interviewed, "I must say, George junior saved my life." Friends recalled that he would absent himself from baseball games, telling friends that he had to go home to take care of his mother.

In his memoir, Bush wrote that he "picked up a lot of mother's personality", sharing the same sense of humor and penchant for blunt and direct speech. Bush once said "I have my father's eyes and my mother's mouth." Unlike the elder George Bush, who was driven to be a high achiever, his eldest son grew into a cocky and fun-loving teenager.

In 1959 the family moved to Houston where George H. W. Bush's oil interests were in offshore drilling operations. George W. Bush attended Kincaid, a local private school, before being shipped off to New England to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, the prominent prep school that his father had attended. He recalled that his friends in Texas saw this as some sort of punishment. Bush himself recalled being unhappy at Phillips. In one anecdote, he was asked to write an essay about a significant emotional experience, and he chose to write about Robin's death. He wrote about the tears he cried and, not wanting to repeat the use of the word "tears", he consulted a Thesaurus before writing "the lacerates ran down my cheek." He received a failing grade and was cruelly criticized by his teacher. It was also the beginning of his reputation for malapropisms.

Bush made it his goal to instill a sense of frivolity into his school experience. He made friends easily and became Andover's lead cheerleader. He organized a stickball league with registration cards that had false ages that could be used as fake IDs in local bars. His grades were not outstanding and the school dean was skeptical of his plans to apply to attend Yale. The dean underestimated the significance of the Bush family's history at the institution.

In his senior year at Yale, Bush became a member of Skull and Bones, the exclusive Yale secret society that both his grandfather and father had belonged to. Before that, he belonged to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, known as a home for athletes and parties. Bush organized the fraternity's first toga party. He had a reputation for organizing campus pranks. The theft of a Christmas wreath from a local hotel resulted in a charge of disorderly conduct that was later dropped. He was unpopular with some faculty members because of his father's support for Barry Goldwater, who had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When his father won a seat in Congress and supported the war in Vietnam, this added to George W. Bush's unpopularity among campus liberals. For many years after, Bush harbored a grudge against what he called the "snobs" at Yale and refused to donate to college fund-raising activities.


Bush graduated from Yale in 1968 as the Vietnam War was reaching its peak. The previous spring he had taken a pilot's aptitude test with the Texas National Guard and enlisted in the Guard's 147th Fighter Group. Members of the guard were exempt from assignment to Vietnam unless they volunteered. Other members of the guard at the time included the sons of Governor John Connolly, Senator John Tower and Representative Lloyd Bensen, as well as seven members of the Dallas Cowboys. Bush's admission into the National Guard would become an issue in his subsequent presidential campaign when he ran against Al Gore, who had served in Vietnam.

Remembering Grover Cleveland

On June 24, 1908 (112 years ago today) Steven Grover Cleveland, who was both the 22nd and 24th President of the United States and the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey at the age of 71. Cleveland ended a 16 year string of Republican Presidents by winning the presidential election of 1884 and in 1892 he won back the White House after losing it in 1888. Although he lost his bid for re-election in 1888, he still won the popular vote for president all three times that he ran for President. He and Woodrow Wilson are the only two Democrats to be elected to the presidency in the era of Republican political domination dating from 1861 to 1933.

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Cleveland was born on March 18, 1837, in Caldwell, New Jersey to Richard Falley Cleveland and Ann Neal Cleveland. His father was a Presbyterian minister, originally from Connecticut and his mother was from Baltimore. Grover Cleveland, the fifth of nine children. He was admitted to the New York state bar in 1859. When the Civil War broke out he hired a substitute to serve in his place, as was permissible at the time. He served as Sheriff of Erie County, Mayor of Buffalo and Governor of New York before winning his party's nomination for president.

Cleveland was the leader of the pro-business Bourbon Democrats who opposed high tariffs, Free Silver, and subsidies to business, farmers, or veterans. His fiscal conservatism made him popular with other conservatives of the time. He won election in 1884 in spite of a scandal that alleged that he had fathered a child out of wedlock, something he never admitted to, even though he paid the child's mother to support the child. (He claimed he did this to protect his good friend Oscar Folsom, who may have been the child's father.) In spite of this, he attracted support that crossed party lines because his opponent James G. Blaine was the subject of suspected financial scandals.

During his first term in office, Cleveland married Francis Folsom, the daughter of his friend Oscar Folsom and a woman 28 years younger than him. He lost his bid for re-election in 1888 in a very close election with Benjamin Harrison, in which he won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote. When the Clevelands were leaving the White House, his wife promised the staff there that they would be back. That is in fact what happened, as Cleveland won the rematch with Harrison, getting elected President in the 1892 election.

In the summer of 1893, Cleveland had surgery aboard the yacht Oneida to remove a cancerous tumor inside of his mouth. The surgery was successful but was kept from the public until after his death.

Cleveland intervened in the Pullman Strike of 1894 to keep the railroads moving. This angered labor unions. His support of the gold standard and opposition to Free Silver also alienated the agrarian wing of the Democratic Party. When his second term began, the Panic of 1893 produced a severe national depression, which Cleveland was unable to reverse. The crisis divided the Democratic Party between gold and silver supporters, and the Republicans captured the White House.

Cleveland attended the inauguration of his successor, William McKinley on March 4, 1897. Ever the gentleman, he even held McKinley's hat while the new president delivered his inaugural address. After leaving the White House, Cleveland retired to his estate, Westland Mansion, in Princeton, New Jersey. For a time he was a trustee of Princeton University, and was one of the majority of trustees who preferred Dean West's plans for the Graduate School over those of Woodrow Wilson, then president of the university. Cleveland consulted occasionally with President Theodore Roosevelt but turned down an offer to chair the commission handling the Coal Strike of 1902. Cleveland remained vocal on some political issues. In a 1905 article in The Ladies Home Journal, Cleveland criticized the women's suffrage movement, writing that "sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by men and women in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence."


Cleveland's health had been declining for several years, and in the autumn of 1907 he became seriously ill. On June 24, 1908, he suffered a heart attack and died. His last words were "I have tried so hard to do right." He is buried in the Princeton Cemetery of the Nassau Presbyterian Church.