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Son Shines Bright From This Old West Texas Home

George W. Bush and his blue-blood family lived in a modest Midland house in the 1950s. Now, local leaders and family friends have restored it.

April 11, 2006|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

MIDLAND, Texas — Virginia has George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation. New York has the Hyde Park estate of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yorba Linda embraces the modest farmhouse that was Richard Nixon's childhood home. And Hodgenville, Ky., has Sinking Spring Farm, where Abraham Lincoln was born.

Today, this dry, dusty town in the aging heart of the West Texas oil patch is bidding to join the select list of communities that bask in the glow of history -- and in the golden tide of tourist dollars that may come with it. Midland, after all, was the home of not one but two American presidents: George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush.

Yet the local leaders and Bush family friends behind Midland's bid for the spotlight are struggling with a problem: Just what, exactly, is the story they want to tell?

Most sites associated with the early lives of future presidents have unmistakable story lines, clear symbolic messages that help visitors understand the figures associated with them. The rude log cabin at Lincoln's birthplace -- one cramped room with a dirt floor -- underscores the humble origins of one of America's greatest presidents. The classical lines of Mount Vernon suggest the Roman virtues of the man who became the father of his country. The stateliness of Hyde Park bespeaks the noblesse oblige that moved sons of aristocrats to public service.

The house at 1412 W. Ohio Ave. in Midland is certainly a landmark. A half-century ago, it was home to the future 41st president and his wife, Barbara, the future first lady; their eldest son, George W. Bush, who became the 43rd president after serving as governor of Texas; and their second son, Jeb Bush, now governor of Florida.

And the Midland house was modest: 1,400 square feet, three bedrooms, no garage -- just a shed in back.

But promoters of the house as a historic landmark acknowledge that defining its particular story line has not been easy. Although the house itself suggests modest beginnings, the young couple that occupied it belonged to one of the most powerful families in contemporary American history, combining the wealth and power of Wall Street with a record of high public office.

George H.W. Bush's father, Prescott Bush, had been a U.S. senator from Connecticut, for instance, and the family tree included an original partner of financier J.P. Morgan. In some ways, the family compound on the ocean at Kennebunkport, Maine, may be a more authentic symbol of who the Bushes are.

"We've understood throughout the project that we cannot portray them as coming from a lifting-yourselves-by-the-bootstraps background with no resources," said Bill Scott, a Midland real estate broker and one of the organizers of the Bush home project. "We do not want to portray them as coming from humble backgrounds."

Instead, in addition to honoring the family that -- perhaps more than even oil and high school football -- put Midland on the map, developers suggest that this is where the Bush family may have learned Heartland values.

Though he had been educated at Andover and Yale, returned from World War II a hero and had Wall Street behind him, George H.W. Bush was one of thousands of young veterans striving to build a family and make his fortune in the booming oil fields of the Permian Basin.

And although the elder Bush became vastly more successful than most, his early years in Texas suggested the kind of 1950s family portrayed in "Leave It to Beaver" or "Father Knows Best." His son would tap into that sentiment.

"It is here where I learned what it means to be a good neighbor," George W. Bush said during a 2001 stop in Midland on the way to his inauguration. "At backyard barbecues or just chatting across the fence, it is here in West Texas where I learned to trust in God. It seems improbable now, but in that little house on Ohio Street, [sic] right down the road from here, it was hard to envision then the future of two presidents and a governor of Florida."

Dealey Herndon, a Bush family friend whose Austin-based project-management firm coordinated the Midland restoration, said: "I didn't really expect the simplicity with which they lived when they moved to West Texas, and the purity of it. It's a small house on a small lot in a neighborhood of small houses."

Nor could family wealth and position protect the young family from tragedy. It was while living in Midland that the Bushes' 3-year-old daughter, Robin, died of leukemia.

As the elder Bush built a fortune and launched his political career, the family eventually settled in a suitably elegant home in Houston. But something of Midland did seem to stick, and it could have contributed to the younger Bush's ability to communicate to many voters a feeling that -- despite his blue-blood antecedents -- he was one of them.

More than any of his political opponents, opinion polls have shown, George W. Bush was the candidate Americans wanted to have a beer with. And they appreciated the idea that he was "plain-spoken."

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