"First Son is one of those very rare nonfiction books that captures the trifecta--wonderfully readable, impeccably reported, and revealing. Bill Minutaglio has captured that insane and marvelous state of mind called Texas. He has also captured the ups and downs of what it is like to grow up in the shadow of a very, very famous father. Surely an important political book on the man who may well be our next president, but also a personal and poignant one."
--Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights and A Prayer for the City
"First Son, the first biography of George W. Bush, is thorough, colorful, revealing, and compelling--certain to serve as an essential political bible for the 2000 presidential campaign."
--David Maraniss, Washington Post reporter and author of First in His Class
"First Son is an intriguing and illuminating portrait of the way an American family has wielded power and influence in business and politics for three generations. Any family--nuclear or otherwise--that wants to learn how the game is really played should study the Bush dynasty."
--Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather and The Last Don
November 3, 1998
From inside the Lincoln Town Car, all blue-silver like the river snaking through Willie Nelson's smoky rancho deluxe, it's impossible to miss the cloud cover beginning to burn off over the Texas Hill Country. It's a little after 9 a.m. on a slightly chilly day, and as the clouds are erased there are the soft bumps and shoulders, the same loping country that LBJ retreated to, bouncing along in his own Lincoln on the banks of the capricious Pedernales River . . . in the same bit of Texas that Willie Nelson and his aging coterie of snaggletoothed mad-dog musicians like to claim as their outpost.
Sometimes the Midland good old boys remind him: Back in '75, back then his West Texas friends would yodel and snort when they saw him. Here comes the Bombastic Bushkin, George W., that SOB . . . George Dubya! Back then, one night, he and Charlie had had some beer and had finally decided, hell, that it would be all right, important really, to walk onstage at the Ector County Coliseum with Willie and his band. And all the while Willie was vaguely aware of something happening behind him, all the while Willie kept staring in his usual goggle-eyed way into the cosmic otherworld and the band was going to be playing Whiskey River, take my mind.
His Lincoln is in downtown Austin now, and it's slamming hard off Lavaca Street and straight onto a sloping driveway. Wheels flashing, it's surging just inches from the still-opening automatic wrought-iron gate. It's rolling right to the rear entrance of the faded white governor's mansion. The building, Greek Revival-meets-southern-plantation stately, is crawling with splattered, callused remodelers, many of them Hispanic, dressed in soiled jumpsuits and hanging from a cobweb of scaffolding. They're smiling. And they're nudging each other: "Señor Suerte" . . . "Mr. Lucky," whispers one of the admiring workers, nodding toward the Lincoln.
He's riding shotgun, his right arm is hanging out the window as if he's in the lead car in the homecoming parade in Amarillo, as if he's gone cruising downtown Fort Worth in a T-Bird, as if there's somebody out on the drag by the University of Texas whose attention he desperately wants to get, as if it's Midland in the 1950s or Houston in the 1960s and the smiling mothers on the baking sidewalk are halfheartedly shielding their curious daughters' eyes. George W. Bush's brow is doing a Lone Star two-step up and down. It's election day. He's leading by an extraordinary margin and projected to be the first Texas governor ever elected to consecutive four-year terms. The numbers are huge, and in the shadowy piney woods creeping toward the Louisiana border, a woman comes up to him at an old-fashioned political rally and presses a jar of fresh Henderson cane syrup into his hand. Outside the weathered Camino Real Hotel in El Paso, an elderly Mexican immigrant grips his shoulders and won't let go as he stares into his eyes. In the soul of the new high-tech Texas, in Austin, computer billionaire Michael Dell invites him to his yawning hillside manor one Saturday in January; on Monday, the first thing George W. does is write a note, just like his father trained him to do, carefully scribbling notes by the thousands, shorthand-scrawled missives suggesting an intimacy, a lingering friendship: Dear Susan & Michael: Laura, the girls and I had a fine time Saturday at your party. We especially appreciated the tour of your home. It is great. I look forward to future visits. Sincerely, GW.1
Looking out the car window, he can see the little army waiting for him outside the mansion. It makes him laugh, he can't help it, and it makes him want to scream something out the Lincoln: "Hey . . . welcome to Reality Day!"
The driver brakes the car hard just short of the porte-cochere. The governor of Texas bolts from the car and takes a few strides to the back door of the mansion. Up close, the 142-year-old refurbished building looks like any one of a thousand fraternity houses, one of those older homes that the family of an iron-willed nineteenth-century industrialist donated to the local university-all Ionic capitals and ribbed columns, all stately and ghostly, a witness to twinkling soirees, toga party chants, and pregame rallies. Bush shoots the cuffs of the white dress shirt under his gray suit. The rolling amoeba of coffee-clutching reporters that has been waiting all morning for him begins to tumble in his direction. CNN, The Washington Post, Associated Press. He's winking at his boys, the fraternity of security detail men and the armed, white-hat-wearing Texas Rangers, who can't help but grin too as they line up outside the mansion's back entrance. The energy level out here is set at the usual, nice, rollicking pitch. He suddenly shrugs his shoulders.
"I'm glad Reality Day is here!" he yelps into the air. "Yesterday was Speculation Day. Today is Reality Day!"
He starts to bob in a bantam rooster strut across the hand-laid bricks in the circular driveway. His head is tilted back, all chinny defiance. He's done twenty-three press conferences in the last seven days: Dallas, Austin, Waco, San Antonio. His caffeine-sucking press handlers, saggy faces, bad skin, and droopy shoulders, are all dragging, but he's still up at 6 a.m., still crackling to jump on the King Air campaign plane: San Angelo, Wichita Falls, Sherman. There have been dozens of reality days, speculation days, one after another.
"Oh, it's been a long campaign!" he shouts, still beaming, still antsy.
For weeks, the first son had been on the phone, taking meetings in his cavernous second-floor office and debating the merits of the new slogan. It was, he and his advisers had decided, compact. Al Gore will deride it and the knuckle-draggers will complain, but it will really put some velvety distance between himself and Newt Gingrich, between himself and all those other soon-to-be defrocked bastards. And it was, though hopefully no one will notice it, the exact same slogan his father's closest aides had once devised to describe the elder Bush to Christian voters back when he was finally sure his 1988 presidential campaign was rolling forward: Compassionate Conservative.
This morning, the first thing was to call his father. They had been making these calls for decades, these election-morning calls. They talked about the same things they had talked about face-to-face several weeks before, during the annual, almost giddy August retreat at the ninety-six-year-old seaside family compound in Maine. In Kennebunkport, it was obvious. It was celebrative. The numbers were impressive. The crafty backdoor Democrats in Texas were still falling all over themselves for the first son. Jeb was going to win in Florida. His father had said he'd decided he would take Jeb's and George W.'s mother and go to Florida. He wouldn't be coming to Texas, where he had done all that grinding backroom muscle work to force the modern Republican Party onto its feet and out of that pockmarked landscape in oil-stained West Texas, out of that sickening humidity in Houston, every day his starched white shirt sticking to his chest like a moist blanket. He wouldn't be coming to Texas, where he had done all those things that had made it possible for his first son to become governor. More important, he said, that I go to Florida. The first son had agreed.
Exactly twenty-five years ago, he'd had a different conversation with his father. That night, he'd been drunk, and he was out driving with his fifteen-year-old brother, Marvin. After he had rammed through the garbage cans with his car and walked in the front door of the house . . . he was ready, if it was going to be that way, to fight his father. He was from Houston, Texas, he was beery, he had no real career, it was late, and for most of his life he, more than anyone in the family, had been measured against his father, his grandfather, the Bush legacy. That night, he'd stood in front of his father, in the den, and asked his father if he was ready to fight: "I hear you're looking for me. You want to go mano a mano right here?"
Now, this morning, he was happy his father was traveling to Florida and would be with his younger brother. Through five decades, there has always been a Bush as governor, senator, congressman, or president. Since the early 1950s, there have been only rare, random interludes when a Bush hasn't been in a prominent political office. This one, for the first time, is one the first son is going to claim on his own without all those losers, all those psychobabblers, who pretend to know him, who want to analyze him, who waste their time looking for some deep-rooted angst, some inner, complicated undulations . . . all those soothsayers from the Northeast . . . all the weak-willed products of the 1960s, the people who fell for all that claustrophobic, indulgent William Sloane Coffin guilt at Yale and Harvard . . . the ones who whisper that they can always see his father's shadow hanging, nagging, pacing off to the side.
All year, the extraordinary poll numbers have been delivered to that second-floor office at the State Capitol, the one with the collection of 250 autographed baseballs neatly arranged in a dark-wood display case, the Western painting with the lone rider that his Midland oil buddy Joe O'Neill III . . . Spider! . . . had loaned him, the rows of framed photographs on the counter behind his chair, the photos, staring at his back, of his stern grandfather and his misty-eyed father. All year he has led by pneumatic numbers in every poll, including the national prepresidential ones that say he's more popular than Colin Powell, Steve Forbes, and Al Gore. All year in Texas it's speculation squared: He had already made the calls to set Newt Gingrich's resignation in motion, hadn't he? Larry Flynt was investigating him, wasn't he? Hasn't a Texas reporter called up his press office and asked if the governor ever killed anyone?
Six years ago the Houston Chronicle ran the wrong picture of him. It was on a Su...