the choice 2000

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interview: clay johnson
photo of clay johnson

Johnson attended Andover and Yale with George W. Bush and was one of his DKE fraternity brothers. He speaks about the experience of being one of only a few Texas boys at Andover, and provides insight on Bush's role within the "family business" of politics.
What was it like, in the mid-1960s, to be a Texas boy at Andover?

Well, it was very foreign place. The days were shorter, the architecture was different. It was a beautiful, beautiful place, but it was very hard, very disciplined, very rigorous. I came from Ft. Worth, the governor came from Houston. We were used to being the top of our class and the belle of the ball and the smartest and the brightest and so forth, and then we went to a place where everybody was much better prepared than we young men from Texas. And all of a sudden we were at the bottom of the hill, not the top of the hill and everything was a foreign land.

Once you got to know George W. Bush a bit, did you have a sense that he was also experiencing the same kind of culture shock?

He was upbeat, effervescent, outgoing, energetic, and so he's a can-do kind of always outgoing guy and always surrounded with people and not one to openly sort of fret over his situation. But he...was challenged as much as the rest of us.

What was he like at Andover? Was he an athletic star? The best student?

I think if you did a poll of our class, there were 240 or so students in our class at Andover, and you asked them, "Name half a dozen of the most memorable students, the people that have stuck in your memory the longest," I'll bet a large number of them would list George Bush in that group. It's not because he was the Phi Beta Kappa student or the best athlete or the longest runner or the greatest musician. He was involved in everything. It was his energy, his verve, his interest in people, his friendships, his just involvement in the school that was so distinctive.

And he probably had more friends there than anybody else, and not just in his class or not just in the sports he played, but classes older and classes younger. This was also true at Yale. He was involved in athletics. He likes competing. He likes physical activity. He studies hard and then he'll go get involved in a touch football game or he'd go get involved in a game of bridge or Frisbee or some prank or another, or a pool game or something. Always, always on the move. Lots of friendships, always upbeat. Lots of laughter. But to a very memorable degree. Very memorable degree.

Is there a single quality to which you would attribute his ability to be that kind of leader, that well-known?

No, I think it's a combination of qualities. I think the qualities to me that were distinctive about George at Andover were qualities that he exhibited at Yale and qualities that I see him benefiting from today, which are energy, and interest in people, a facility with people. A sense of humor. An upbeat, glass-is-half-full, let's get going, let's not reflect on what's not happening. Let's get upbeat. Let's get going. Very upbeat. Energetic. People-oriented person. George's interest in people is exceptional, and it's not a people skill, it's not a developed ability to remember names. I think it all comes from a real live, deep-seated interest in people.

The qualities  that were distinctive an upbeat, glass-is-half-full, let's get going, let's not reflect on what's not happening. When he campaigns, he insists on being able to get out and be with and mix with the people in the crowd. In fact, it's one of the big political problems they have in scheduling him because when he goes in and does an event, most candidates would go in, give a speech, wave a couple of times into the cameras and then adios. George is much more comfortable making his remarks, fielding his questions and then getting out and working the crowd. Mixing and mingling with the people, shaking hands. And if you'll notice the way he works the crowd, it's not the casual looking over the person's shoulder, looking for the next hand, looking for the door getting out. There's paying attention. He's listening. He's genuinely interested in them. It's very hard to do. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of time, but that's what he likes doing. And he's very, very comfortable doing that and it gives him great energy and strength and it's a way he has of communicating to the people there in that room.

One hears that over and over. That's not something he necessarily worked on and developed because--

"This will help me politically," no. He was that way at age 15 before anybody in his immediate family was involved in politics.

Did you have a sense that George had certain expectations imposed upon him by his family?

No, I didn't. He was doing his thing, I was doing my thing. There was no reference to "my dad," or "my grandfather," or "I've got to do this," or, "I've got to do that." I mean, he was doing his thing. My sense about the Bush kids is that they have been raised to be very independent of their parents and very independent of each other...His mother and father have stayed very much out of his schooling, his living, his marrying, his professional pursuits...

My whole experience with him since age 15 is that there is this very independent relationship between him and his parents and between him and his siblings. That has been fostered by his parents. And has nothing to do with, you know, not measuring up. It's just the way his parents have raised their kids and it seems to have taken. I mean, because they all are doing their individual things, are relatively independent of their parents, have their own individual identities, don't tie their identities to who their parents are and are independent of each other as well.

You also knew George W. at Yale. What were your impressions of him during that time?

The first day that I remember was arriving in the plane and you got suitcases and you get in the car and it takes you to New Haven, and getting out, and there was no one there. And so I started looking around. I saw that George's luggage was there, and I went around and sort of exploring the campus. I had never seen the Yale campus before, so I was exploring the campus and I went into an eatery there on the campus and in the back of the eatery in a big booth was George and eight or ten people. There was a kid from Oklahoma City and some people from Houston and some people from other states. George already seemed to be in the middle of it, surrounded by people. It's an image that [is a] very vivid image because it was the first time I ran into anybody that I knew at Yale. It was one of my roommates and he already was surrounded by eight or ten people...

George was involved in a lot of things. He always liked being active. He liked playing sports. He played intramural football in the fall and he played I think intramural basketball in the winter. And he played freshman baseball in the spring. And then he played rugby, varsity rugby-- I think it was a club sport at the time, in his last couple, three years at Yale.

He was a hard working student. Probably was in the middle of his class at Yale, which was quite an accomplishment. I say that because that's where I was, and I had to work hard to get there and stay there. Again, lots of people, lots of friendships. People older, people younger. That was a noteworthy part of his experience at Yale... He was not a politically active person at Yale. There were Young Republicans and Young Democrats and Young Communists and Young Martians, and there were lots of different political groups there. George was not involved in any of them. I don't know that he went to hear any of the political people that came on campus to speak. I don't know that he went to any of those. He just exhibited no interest at all in politics at that time.

You also pledged Deke( DKE)with him. Do you have any stories about that period?

I remember the first time they gathered all the new pledges together. There were 50 of us, and they sat us down in this one big hall and they were telling us that we were the sorriest bunch of pledges that they had ever heard of, that normally most pledge classes are very tight and very supportive of one another, and we were 50 individuals and were not interested in each other and there was no unity in our class. And they said it was really quite deplorable.

To make this point to us, they started calling on people to get up and name their fellow pledge members. And they called the first person, and he named four or five. And then he didn't know anybody else's name, and they told him what a sorry human being he was and how little he cared about his pledges. Then they called on somebody else and he named eight or ten but didn't know anybody else.

Anyway, the third or fourth person they called on was George. He got up and named all 50. There was this hush that fell over the room. It was really remarkable and it wasn't that he had studied the 50 names beforehand. He probably knew 35 or 40 of the people before rush ever began and met the other 10 or 15 the previous week as they were all going through rush. His relationships had spread out over his class to where he just knew all the people. And again, it wasn't a study deal. It's just that he had that much interest in knowing everybody, and everybody knew him and it was really incredible. The members of the fraternity decided they would come up with some other exercise to tell us how sorry we were and not go with the how-many-people-do-you-know trick anymore.

George Bush Sr. ran for the Senate during this time and lost. Do you remember what G. W.'s reaction was?

What I remember is, it was the first time that I ever saw George do anything that directly reflected the fact that his father was interested in politics. He left school for the weekend to go home to Houston, was home through the election night. He was in Houston for like four nights, and he came back the next day and commiserated for about a second and a half over the fact that his dad had lost, and then it was business as usual. There wasn't a lot of hand wringing and a lot of "Oh, woe is us." It was, "Okay, off we go to the next whatever." And I suspect-- What I've understood his-- What I've read about his father's reaction to that defeat and his father's reaction and mother's reaction to defeat in '92, it was very, very similar. "Let's don't hang out heads. Let's get on with it." And George's reaction was very similar to that.

He certainly seems to be protective of the family name. Some might even suggest defensive?

George is protective not of the name, George is protective of the people. When you attack people that George loves, you're attacking him and he's very territorial about his parents. And was the attack dog in whatever it was, '88, when he was working in his dad's campaign in Washington. And took great offense at critical remarks made about him by members of the press. And it's not a protection of the name, of the aura, of the family. It's a protection of those individuals. His mother, his father...

[But] let me make one more comment. The reaction to the defeat in 1964, none of George's self-worth was tied to his father's political fortunes. Who his father was, or he wasn't. Who he was in business, who he was in politics. George had his own thing going. George Bush from Houston, Texas. And so whether his father succeeded or not had little to do about whether George succeeded or not. I never have ever seen any attempt by either George's parents or George himself to link up who he was and who they are. That gets back to that independence that engendered him, within that family.

Do you have the sense that his running for president has always been part of his plan, that it's something he's always wanted?

No, no. When he decided to run for governor, I don't think he had any thought at all about running for president. He wanted to be a real good governor. When he decided I think it was towards the end of his first term as governor, that they were doing some polls about likely presidential candidates four years hence and I was in the room when Karen Hughes as communication director came in and said, "Governor, you're not going to believe this. They've got this poll out about likely presidential candidates and you're in the lead. You're the favored candidate for four years from now." And there was just total disbelief and it appeared to me that the thought had never entered his mind until there started to be some feedback from the populace that they wanted George W. Bush to run for president.

So as it became more and more real and more and more a possibility and more and more plans being made to run or not, a lot of people tried to talk him out of it. Very close personal friends of his and Laura's tried to talk him out of this. And one woman in particular, a good friend of theirs for many years, just pleaded with him not to run. It would so irrevocably change their lives that she just asked them please not to run. "Don't do this to yourself." And his response to her was, "Look, I share your concern. But if I don't run, who else is there? If not me, who? Who do we want-- Who are we going to be pleased with as our next president? We-- I would love to think that there's somebody else out there that we could all get behind, but I don't know who that person is."

My take on that was that there is this calling, this sense of there's a need there and I, George W. Bush, have some of what it takes to satisfy that need. He has no misconceptions about Washington is equal to Austin. That what he has been so successful at working with people here in Austin, he can be equally successful in Washington. But I guarantee you that he has a sense that he can be much more successful than some recent presidents have been and bring some of that bipartisan relationship and a focus on end results and depoliticization of it. But I think he's fully aware of what the differences are between Washington and Austin. And believes that much of what-- In the same sense that he has brought great, positive change and a great track record to Texas, he can bring similar progress and change and accomplishment for the country. Not for him, but for the country.

And does not believe that there's anybody else out there that could do that in his absence.

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