The Republic of T.

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The Myth of a Bush Recovery, Pt. 1 of 3

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series bush recovery

I wasn’t going to say anything about this, because I’ve said it before. I’ve heard the stories that president Bush is drinking again and I’ve seen the pictures. Whether he is or not isn’t my concern here (though it is a very important question). I feel there’s something that must be made clear. George W. Bush, according to what I’ve read, was a heavy drinker from 15 years old until he turned 40, at which point he stopped drinking. But he has not “fallen off the wagon” because he was never on the wagon to begin. George W. is not a recovering alcoholic.

He is a drunk who just stopped drinking, and that’s something different.

I should say that I’m writing this as a recovering alcoholic myself, one who went through a recovery program, “worked the steps,” and has some 5,123 days of sobriety (that’s about 14 years and 11 months). And I don’t think I’m taking the president’s inventory by saying here that he’s what we called in AA a “dry drunk.”

Dry drunk is a term used, often disparagingly, by members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and by substance abuse counselors who subscribe to the AA theory of alcoholism to describe the recovering alcoholic who is no longer drinking but whose thought processes are considered to continue to be distorted by the thought patterns of addiction.

This person is not thought to be truly sober, and thus, a distinction is made in AA between being dry, or abstinent from alcohol consumption, and being sober, or living a life of abstinence based on the principles of AA. In AA, sobriety is a state that can only be obtained by both abstaining from alcohol and working the twelve steps of AA because, according to the AA Big Book (page 64), alcohol(ism) is only a symptom of the underlying spiritual disease directly addressed by the Twelve Steps. If that malady is successfully treated, its symptoms (including, but hardly limited to alcohol consumption) cease to be a concern.

Of course, that’s if you subscribe to that particular understanding of alcoholism, that the drinking itself is simply masking underlying “thought processes” that are part of the “pattern of addiction.” So a drunk who stops drinking is not in recovery but is a “dry drunk” or, to put it more politely, an “untreated alcoholic” as opposed to an “active alcoholic.” What thought processes? They were pretty accurately described in this Counterpunch artidcle a few years ago, particularly as applies to Bush.

Ordinarily I would not use this term. But when I came across the article “Dry Drunk” – – Is Bush Making a Cry for Help? in American Politics Journal by Alan Bisbort, I was ready to concede, in the case of George W. Bush, the phrase may be quite apt.

Dry drunk is a slang term used by members and supporters of Alcoholics Anonymous and substance abuse counselors to describe the recovering alcoholic who is no longer drinking, one who is dry, but whose thinking is clouded. Such an individual is said to be dry but not truly sober. Such an individual tends to go to extremes.

First, in this essay, we will look at the characteristics of the so-called “dry drunk;” then we will see if they apply to this individual, our president; and then we will review his drinking history for the record. What is the dry drunk syndrome? “Dry drunk” traits consist of:

* Exaggerated self-importance and pomposity

* Grandiose behavior

* A rigid, judgmental outlook

* Impatience

* Childish behavior

* Irresponsible behavior

* Irrational rationalization

* Projection

* Overreaction

Clearly, George W. Bush has all these traits except exaggerated self importance. He may be pompous, especially with regard to international dealings, but his actual importance hardly can be exaggerated. His power, in fact, is such that if he collapses into paranoia, a large part of the world will collapse with him.

The article goes on to explain how Bush’s behavior has exemplified each of the traits above, traits that wouldn’t necessarily be categorized under one definition except that Bush has made so much of his past excessive drinking and his abstinence from alcohol since. And then, he didn’t go into recovery so much as he simply exchanged booze for religious belief.

The anxiety, in a child like that, is usually about their own destructiveness and also about being humiliated. His father was a star. His mother was cold and distant. His sister—he was the first born and his sister died; there was no mourning. There was no discussion of her death. And so, he was sort of left on his own.

There are lots of different ways of managing anxiety, and, there are several of them that have come out since he stopped drinking. But, of course, the first way to manage anxiety is through alcohol. But, by being a born-again Christian, he can also manage anxiety by being connected to God, by feeling that he’ll be saved in any kind of a rapture, by feeling that he’s always on the side of the Good.

That anxiety can probably be traced back to the death of his sister three-year-ole sister Robin, who succumbed to leukemia when Bush was just seven years old, and how her death was handled by the family. According to several reports, including Justin Frank’s recounting in Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, the Bushes never told their oldest child what was wrong with his sister. They simply told him not to play with Robin any more, and never explained the constant trips east with Robin during which the consulted specialists, while George was left behind (alone at first,and then with three-month-old Jeb). Finally, during one last trip, Robin died in NewYork after an operation, a story recorded in a Vanity Fair piece about Barbara Bush.

In the spring of 1953, Robin, then the Bushes’ only daughter, was diagnosed as having leukemia. “You should take her home, make life as easy as possible for her, and in three weeks’ time, she’ll be gone,” the doctor told the Bushes.

But this was not their style. Instead they flew Robin to New York, where George’s uncle was a big wheel at Memorial Hospital, and where doctors from the Sloan-Kettering Institute agreed to treat her aggressively. They managed to gain seven months of life.

At almost exactly the time of Robin’s diagnosis George had begun a new business partnership, hugely increasing his business stakes, and the demands of his work presented a welcome escape. It was Barbara who sat with Robin every day in the hospital, she who was a daily witness to her daughter’s pain, the torment of treatment with drugs and needles. She laid down the law: no crying in front of the girl, who was not to know how sick she was. Thomas “Lud” Ashley, a Yale friend of George Bush’s, was then living in New York and saw a lot of Barbara during the ordeal. “It was the most remarkable performance of that kind I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It took its toll. She was very human later, after the death. But not until then.”

Only twenty-eight years old, she was alone when she made the final decision of her daughter’s life: while the prognosis was hopeless, the doctors offered a chance to arrest the internal bleeding caused by all the drugs Robin had been given. It was a risky operation, but might buy more time. George, who was on his way to New York, couldn’t be reached.

George’s uncle advised against the surgery, but Barbara decided to go ahead. Thirty-six years later, she cried when talking to a reporter about this lonely decision. Robin never came out of the operation, though George reached the hospital before she died.

According to Barbara Bush’s own account, they next day the Bushes went golfing.

We called our families and told them the news and went to Greenwich for a memorial service. (There would be no funeral; we had signed papers giving Robin’s body to research.) Those few days were a little vague, but several things come to mind.

The day after Robin died, George and I went to Rye to play golf with Daddy, at his suggestion. As we drove out to on the parkway, I was shocked to see that the leaves were at the peak of their beauty. I remember realizing life went on, whether we were looking or not. I also remember changing my shoes in the locker room and seeing my childhood friend, Marilyn Peterson.We talked briefly, and I did not mention Robin. I wondered later if she thought it was weird that we were playing golf the day after our baby died. I, for one,was numb.

And then they came home to tell seven-year-old George.

On a fall day in 1953, George and Barbara Bush drove their green Oldsmobile up the gravel driveway at Sam Houston Elementary School in Midland, Tex., looking for their oldest child. George W. Bush and a friend from second grade were lugging a Victrola from their classroom to the principal’s office when he spotted his parents’ car. He was sure his little sister was in the back seat.

“He went running back to the teacher and said, ‘I’ve got to go. My mother and father and Robin are here,’ ” Barbara Bush, the former first lady, recalled in a recent interview.

“I run over to the car,” said George W., remembering the same moment, “and there’s no Robin.”

“That’s when we told him,” his mother said. “In the car.”

Two days earlier, Pauline Robinson Bush – “Robin” – had died in New York of leukemia, two months shy of her fourth birthday. Her big brother had known she was sick but never dreamed she was dying. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Bush repeatedly asked his parents, and for years the question would resonate in the Bush family.

At age 7, Bush found himself surrounded by bewildering grief. His parents were not even 30 years old, trying to move past a devastating loss while raising George W. and his baby brother Jeb.

You don’t have to be a child psychiatrist to imagine how being emotionally abandoned at a moment like that could cause anxiety in a child, especially at an age when he still to some degree only understands the world in relation to himself, so anything that happened must have some connection to him or must have somehow been caused by him. But no one told him anything was wrong — though the child surely sense something from his parents emotions, their frequent absences, and forbidding him to play with his sister — and nobody told him it wasn’t because of him. Maybe it was the way things were handled back then, or just the way they were handled in the family’s social set, but for whatever reason the seven-year-old George Bush was emotionally abandoned by his parents when he needed them most. His father returned to his business, and George was left to tender mercies of a mother since nickname “the enforcer” by members of her family and “the nutcracker” by her sons.

Ladle on top of that the relationship with the father, and there’s plenty more sources of anxiety for a kid with learning disabilities (Barbara was still drilling Dubya with flash cards with at 13), especially one who’s saddled with (and named for) a father who excelled in academics, sports, and business; a kid who followed in his father’s footsteps and failed at every turn.

To this day Bush retains the emotional imprint of failure. Returning from their 20th reunion he described to Johnson the big red zero on top of his first English paper and the teacher’s admonition: See me immediately. He had written a story about the death of his little sister, Robin, and followed his mother’s instructions not to repeat the same words but to look for synonyms in the thesaurus. Having used the word “tear” once, he wrote about “lacerates” running down his cheek. His teacher obviously judged the sophomore’s mistake as one of ignorance. It may have been something very different—a hint of possible dyslexia.

“[It suggests] he really didn’t understand the language,” observes Sue Horn, former president of the Maryland branch of the International Dyslexia Association. According to Horn, Bush couldn’t distinguish between the word “tears,” meaning to rip, and “tears,” meaning crying.

From various sources, including his own biographies, Bush started drinking heavily around the age of 15 and stopped drinking around his 40th birthday. There are definitely stories of his drinking in his twenties, including a booze-soaked sojourn on the Senate campaign of a family friend, who is said to have given George a job on the campaign as a favor to the Bushes, who were finding their eldest son’s drunken behavior in Houston increasingly embarrassing. His behavior during the campaign wasn’t much better.

The break happened not long after a boozy election-night wake for Blount, who lost his Senate bid to the incumbent Democrat, John Sparkman. Leaving the election-night “celebration,” Allison remembers encountering George W. Bush in the parking lot, urinating on a car, and hearing later about how he’d yelled obscenities at police officers that night. Bush left a house he’d rented in Montgomery trashed — the furniture broken, walls damaged and a chandelier destroyed, the Birmingham News reported in February. “He was just a rich kid who had no respect for other people’s possessions,” Mary Smith, a member of the family who rented the house, told the newspaper, adding that a bill sent to Bush for repairs was never paid. And a month later, in December, during a visit to his parents’ home in Washington, Bush drunkenly challenged his father to go “mano a mano,” as has often been reported.

That’s about 25 years of heavy drinking or active alcoholism. From what I was told in AA, and everything i’ve read about addiction since, when substance abuse begins — whether alcohol, cocaine, etc. — it stunts emotional development emotional development. Or, as it was told to me,”At the point where you started drinking heavily, you stopped maturing. Now that you’ve stopped, you’re emotional development is still pretty much where it was when you started.” It made sense when I thought about it. If you think of maturing as basically a process of learning to cope with the regular ups and downs of life, and consider that for an addict using or drinking becomes not only a substitute for learning to cope, but also means of avoiding coping at the same time.

In Bush’s case, then, we have in the Oval Office a 61 year old man with the maturity level of a 15 year old. And not just any regular 15 year old, but an obstreperous 15 year old from a wealthy, powerful family, and whose parents (and, via various political connections, their friends) shielded him from the consequences of his actions pretty much for his entire life.

Series NavigationThe Myth of a Bush Recovery, Pt. 2 of 3

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