the choice 2000

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interview: randall roden
photo of randall roden

Roden was a childhood friend of George W. Bush, and provides insight on Bush's early experience in Midland, Texas. He also speaks about the effect Robin's death had on George W. and on the family.
Can you describe your early memories of George W. Bush? What was he like as a child?

I don't remember the moment we met. Our parents were friends and neighbors, so my earliest memory is of playing together, but with other children in the neighborhood, playing in people's garages, playing in the street, really, riding bicycles and playing. George was always a likable, happy, or I guess outgoing person, so he made friends relatively easy. He was always-- he had this sort of pranksterish or impish side to him that was always there, although certainly when we were very small, I didn't think anything of it or notice it. But he was always friendly. He liked sports. Most of our activities were outdoors, playing things. We liked all kinds of games, sports. And that was mainly what we did.

Was it always clear that he was going to have such a successful political career?

People often do ask me, am I surprised at George's political success in his career, and it's a complicated answer, because most of my friends would say yes, they're terribly surprised, only in the sense that he was not a politico. He didn't show political ambition. He didn't debate partisan politics. He didn't talk about issues as a little kid. He was not one of these people who went to debate school and was always at Boys' State, the sort of Bill Clinton saga of the person that was always interested in that. George had the personality and the personal skills, so it's not surprising to me that he's ended up being involved in politics and being successful. But if you ask most of our friends, either from childhood or from high school, they wouldn't have said, "Yeah, I knew it all along." Because I don't think it was apparent, and I think that his interest in sort of regular guy activities like sports and business and other things made you think that he would have a more typical career, and that perhaps he would be a businessman.

So it wasn't that there was always a clear interest in politics, or a set path to a political career?

I think the interest must have always been there, and I think it's an interesting question of, when does someone decide to make that step. Some people never do it. I mean, there are probably people out there who have spent their whole life wishing they had run for office, but didn't do it. I think it takes a certain amount of courage, but it takes a certain amount of bravado. I think you almost have to be willing to undergo some unpleasantness. And it's certainly true now. I can't imagine why anybody would run for public office now, just because of the way we treat public figures, and what happens to your life. I think that's a nightmare, and that's not changing. The raising enormous amounts of money, the minute inspection of your personal history, your family. All of those things are awful.

George is probably more intuitive than impulsiveš what he trusts is his personal experience, not some study...  I think it was just a bit of a surprise that George suddenly decided that he really did want to do it. Once he started, I'm not surprised that he found that he thought he was good at it, that he could shake hands, make friends, people liked him, that he achieved some success. I'm not surprised that his confidence increased and that he thought he wanted to do it. That makes sense to me. But I'm a little surprised at the first step, because I didn't see it coming, and a lot of other people didn't see it.

Do you think that he got into politics because it was the "family business?" Did you sense that there was pressure from his parents to get into politics?

My own personal memory and belief about it, that is, that although they were active parents, and involved in his life and the lives of his friends, I don't think they guided him, controlled him. And I especially don't think George suffered from overguidance or management. I don't think he chafed at it. ...I think that the fact that George's parents were accomplished and admirable makes one assume that there might be this tension. George was the oldest child. I think he was respected, treated well. I think his self-confidence comes from having that role in the family, and from being the oldest son. And he was certainly encouraged, and he was allowed to do things. But I don't think this was a stage manager kind of thing, where people were guiding his development in the way they wanted it to go. And I think he was slightly rebellious. I think he was slightly sort of a rambunctious kid, who wouldn't have done well with a tight leash. I don't think you could have done that. But I think that he did, in fact, get to do what he wanted.

Now, the fact that he chose to do some things that looked like things that his family valued because his father had done some of the same things, I don't think that's surprising. Lots of us do that. We do it unconsciously. It doesn't mean somebody tried to force you to do it. It just means that you were paying attention, and that you noticed that what your culture and what your family values, or particular kinds of interests and activities. So I think he benefited from,...when he did decide to choose politics, certainly the fact that his father had had this career, and that George had been an observer and participant during the course of that. I'm sure he's benefited enormously from that experience. But I don't think he was directed from childhood to do that.

Watching his father has helped him in his own career?

I think that having a prominent father who's accomplished is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that you look up to your father, that you admire him, that you want to achieve things that your father did, I see that as a positive, and I don't ever sense that George suffered by comparing himself to his father and his father's accomplishments. And I think partly it's because George was already ... a young adult, almost, before a lot of his father's really successful things happened. He was not a little kid when his father was president, for example, and was in fact a trusted advisor, and talked to his father, which is an interesting thing. If young George is the lightweight that some people think, why would that have even made sense? And to me, it does make sense. Like I said, he's the oldest son. He has that position in the family. They are a close family. His father needs somebody to talk to. He talks to his oldest son. The oldest son learns from doing that, and grows. So I think it's beneficial to George, and I don't think he suffered.

I do think it is hard to figure out, if you are the son, what do you do that's going to distinguish yourself, or what do you do that's going to measure up? Some of those things you can't do... My own sense is that that's all positive, that that gave George purpose, things to want to do. I don't sense that he suffered and was insecure, and struggled with, how do I measure up? I think he did have the anxiety that young people have about, what am I going to do, and how will I distinguish myself? What will I be successful at? What will I be good at? And trying to find something that he was good at himself, perhaps, as opposed to knowing that he's not exactly his father, that he is a different person. I think there probably was some doubt on his part about what he was going to do, but I don't think it was his father's success and prominence that made that especially difficult for him. And in the long run, I would say that it was one of the things that helped him and made him successful.

Switching gears, can you talk about the impact that Robin's death had on George W. Bush?

It certainly had an impact on him. I know that he suffered as a result of it, in trying to sort those things out. You mentioned that Mrs. Bush has talked about it. She has said that they became closer during that period. I'm sure that that's true, and I think it was both because of his protectiveness of his mother, and her desire to be closer, and perhaps to protect him. But I think he survived that as well as anyone could. I don't remember having a conversation about, what does it feel like that your sister died? I mean, that's not the sort of thing one would say. But I certainly remember the event, and I remember the period afterwards, and that there was enormous sorrow, and there was this sense of the aftermath of something bad having happened. Not that it was dysfunctional family, or that people didn't continue, but that there was this major thing that had happened, and everyone was aware of it, and knew that it had an impact.

Did his personality change after her death?

One could become unfeeling, hardened to life, and I think probably everyone gets a little of that as you go along. That doesn't appear to have happened to George. He remained gregarious, outgoing, open to people, friendly, made friends. So he didn't wall himself off. He didn't shut himself off. I think the importance of family, and of having a family environment, is one thing one could say about how do you survive a great tragedy or a great difficulty. Well, one thing is, you sort of pull together, and you remain bonded to the members of your family, and you support one another. And I think that that's probably what you would say happened to the Bushes, and I think it's probably a lesson that George, looking back on, internalized, whether he knowingly concluded it... Sometimes in America there's perhaps too much emphasis on your own nuclear family as the only source of everything. But I think in a case like this, it's the ideal thing. It's when the family, if you have a strong family, and you have people who are compassionate and strong and caring, then that helps you get through it. And I think it probably did.

Bush is often described as being an emotional, sometimes even impulsive person. Can you talk about that?

George is very competitive, and can be slightly combative. He's committed to whatever it is... All I can say is that George was a very committed competitor, and I think that occasionally you can sort of see it in some of his dealings with the press, or talking to people, that he occasionally gets a little-- he's a little testy or impatient in dealing with whatever it is. ... I don't mean he was a hothead. But I mean in a really intense situation, I think he would be combative and committed. And I also think that he can get hot, that he can snap at someone. In the same way that he this quirky sense of humor, I think it's a personality trait. I think he can be angered quicker, the same way that he might make a joke quicker. I think he'd get angered quicker. I don't think that you need to be worried about it in terms of him being president. ... But in terms of, is that an element of his personality, I think there is some of that there.

...I suppose I would say that George is probably more intuitive than impulsive. I think you would not observe the wheels turning, and he doesn't have the sort of obvious intellectual, analytical approach. I don't know where the idea came from. The press is sort of giving George the Dan Quayle treatment, attacking him, being lightweight, all that stuff. And George is not an intellectual, and he's not overly studious. But I would say he must be paying attention. He's learning things. And he's just not talking about it, and he's not-- So it may seem impulsive, or it may seem to someone that these ideas come from nowhere. My guess is they come from personal experience, and that what he trusts is his personal experience, not some study, or not some course of a sort of mechanical problem solving of, let's put together a little program to solve this problem. That's probably not the way he looks at things. I think it's probably more intuitive than what we think is rigorously analytical.

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