Initial success: the promise of Neil Bush's middle name


DENVER -- What's in a name? Fate, perhaps, if the name is Neil Mallon Bush.

Many of those who have followed the savings and loan scandal think Neil Bush's last name opened doors in the Denver business community, eventually landing him a seat on the board of directors of the doomed Silverado Banking, Savings and Loan


His family thinks his name drew the attention, unfairly, of federal regulators, who accused him of conflicts of interest after Silverado collapsed.

"It's darn unfair that they're only doing it to hurt George Bush . . . and they have succeeded," first lady Barbara Bush told wire service reporters recently.

The tale of Neil Bush's troubles has been aired at length and will be again Tuesday when the president's 35-year-old son appears at a public hearing in Denver to answer the charges lodged against him. But there's another part of the younger Bush's name that has been largely overlooked.

It, too, tells a story. It's a reminder of George Bush's path to success, a road paved with connections and influential friends, the same course Neil Bush tried to follow with very different results.

It has been said that everyone in the Bush clan is named for somebody else. The president was named for his maternal grandfather, George Herbert Walker. Even Millie, the family dog, is named for an old friend, Mildred Kerr from Texas.

All the Bush children, save one, have inherited family names. The exception came in 1955. George and Barbara Bush broke the pattern that year by making their third son the namesake of Neil Mallon, a Dallas industrialist who helped convert George Bush from a Connecticut Yankee into a Texas oilman.

Like George and his father, Prescott Bush, Mr. Mallon attended Yale and was inducted into Skull and Bones, the school's most prestigious secret society.

Thanks largely to Prescott Bush, a New York investment banker, Mr. Mallon landed a job as president of Dresser Industries, an energy company with operations throughout the Southwest. And on his board of directors, Prescott Bush served for decades.

Mr. Mallon returned the favor in 1948, when George Bush graduated.

"Neil invited George to come down and start with Dresser and said, 'You'll have a chance to run it someday,' " Prescott Bush Jr., the president's brother, once told a Los Angeles Time interviewer. George accepted.

For many years, the president and his political supporters perpetuated the myth that he had begun from scratch to become a millionaire in the Texas oil business.

"I went down to Texas and rolled up my sleeves and went to work in a supply store down there," candidate Bush told an interviewer in 1979. "I made it on my own, without family money."

In fact, sizable infusions of cash from friends and family members, particularly Mr. Bush's uncle, Herbert Walker, an investment banker, were crucial to the future president's business success. According to various accounts, family sources tapped investors for between $300,000 and $800,000 to help Mr. Bush get off the ground as a promoter of oil deals in the early 1950s.

His ability to raise the money to finance drilling ventures was what helped set Mr. Bush apart from others struggling to pump the oil from beneath the barren West Texas soil.

"Connections were the whole game," C. Fred Chambers, a Texas oilman and Bush family intimate (they named a dog after him, too) told a magazine interviewer in 1986.

Just as George Bush followed the career path of his father, who became a U.S. senator, most of his children have patterned their lives after his. The eldest son, George W. Bush, went to Yale, started an oil company and made an unsuccessful bid for a Texas congressional seat. Another, Jeb, is a Florida businessman regarded by Republicans as one of that state's future political stars.

"The president adored his father, and in many ways his father was a real role model for him. And I think that's the situation with the boys," said former Democratic Representative Thomas L. Ashley, who has been close to George Bush since they were at Yale.

Neil "in many respects is not unlike his father," added Mr. Ashley, a banking lobbyist who is advising the family on Neil's S&L; problems. "He has a fine sense of humor. He's independent. He likes to be in charge of himself."

Neil Bush, who has lowered his profile in recent weeks and declined interview requests for this article, did not initially set out along the same road traveled by his famous father. Hampered by learning disabilities, he had to struggle to graduate from a private Washington high school.

At Tulane University in New Orleans, where he received undergraduate and graduate degrees during the 1970s, he lived off-campus and did little to attract attention. He may even, humorously, have tried to avoid it; the Tulane yearbook for his sophomore year, 1975, carries a picture of a long-haired, mustachioed Neil Bush under the fictitious name "Whitney X. Branglebush."

But by age 25, Neil began to fall into the family pattern. He moved to Denver and, like his father before him, went to work for an energy company as a way of learning the business before going off on his own. Neil joined Amoco Production Co., the region's biggest oil company, and was put to work assembling drilling deals.

At the time, the fast-bucks atmosphere in the Rocky Mountain capital, fueled by high petroleum prices, must have seemed like an updated version of Midland, Texas, the boom town that had lured his father three decades earlier.

"Denver was a go-go town," recalled Mike Asher, a 38-year-old oilman who also came to town about that time. "It was booming. The economy was going to go on forever."

Neil and his wife, Sharon, joined the boards of civic organizations, including the Boys Club, the opera and the Children's Museum, in much the same way that George and Barbara Bush had dedicated themselves to the YMCA, local theater and other good works in Midland.

In 1983, Neil left Amoco and started his own oil company, JNB Exploration. At the time, the boom had started to go bust, and money was no longer so easy to find, recalled former partner Evans Nash Jr.

"We were selling deals when a lot of people didn't get anything sold," he said in an interview. "Because Neil was who he was, he had inroads into companies, in part because he was the son of the vice president."

Neil Bush, then 26, invested only $100 in his own company; but others put up much more. Among them were two prominent local developers: Bill L. Walters, whom Neil met in Republican circles, according to Mr. Nash, put up $150,000 and received an ownership share of JNB; and Kenneth M. Good put up $10,000 and arranged for JNB to get a $1.7 million line of credit at a bank he controlled.

It was also Mr. Good who made a $100,000 investment in 1984 for Neil that the president's son did not have to repay. Mr. Bush, who delayed reporting the loan to the Internal Revenue Service until this year, has conceded that this "incredibly sweet deal" looks "a little fishy" but insisted that there was nothing improper about it.

Meanwhile, in 1985, Neil Bush was invited to join the board of directors of Silverado Banking by its chairman, Michael Wise, who had met Mr. Bush at a dinner party a few months before. Despite his lack of knowledge of the banking business, the 30-year-old Mr. Bush agreed; he has said that he considered the $9,000-a-year director's job "an honor" and a form of community service.

For serving as a rubber-stamp for Silverado's management, as one officer of the thrift has described the outside directors, Neil Bush now stands accused of "the worst kind of conflict of interest" by federal regulators investigating the institution's 1988 collapse, rated one of the most expensive failures of the S&L; crisis.

One count says Mr. Bush "engaged in unsafe business practice" by failing to disclose his business connection with Mr. Walters while voting to approve $103.4 million in Silverado loans for his partner. The second count and third counts say Mr. Bush failed to disclose his relationship with Mr. Good when he asked the board to approve a $900,000 line of credit for the developer and when Silverado was considering Mr. Good's request to forgive $11.5 million in loans.

Mr. Bush has vigorously denied any wrongdoing. Denver oilman Mike Asher, who describes himself as a close friend, says that Mr. Bush simply "was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Neil Bush says he would like to continue in his father's steps and run for political office someday. That may not be possible, unless he manages to persuade an administrative law judge at this week's hearing that the case against him is without merit.

Even if he beats the conflict-of-interest charges, he still faces a $200 million civil lawsuit against Silverado directors filed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. on Friday.

"If this boy was trying to be like his father," concludes Fitzhugh Green, a boyhood friend of Barbara Bush and a biographer of President Bush, "it sort of backfired and blew up in his face."

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