Letters from Houston law firm outline Bush’s business acumen

FILE - In this Oct. 18, 1971, file photo, U.S. Ambassador George H.W. Bush gestures as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly during the China debate. He denied the U.S. formula was either a "Two Chinas" or a "One China and one Taiwan" plan. Bush died at the age of 94 on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush. (AP Photo/File)

HOUSTON — Never-before published personal correspondence from George H.W. Bush in the archives of Houston law firm Baker Botts capture a period in the late president’s life that is often overshadowed by his political accomplishments: his career as a risk-taking entrepreneur who helped revolutionize the offshore oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Houston Chronicle reports Baker Botts represented Bush and his company from his days as a young wildcatter in West Texas through their expansion into offshore drilling to Bush’s entry into public life. The more than 100 letters and other correspondence from roughly the early 1950s into the mid-60’s underscore Bush’s reputation as a prolific letter writer who used his flair for writing, sense of humor and ability to empathize to forge connections that lasted a lifetime.

Even routine legal work — for which Bush was paying, of course — would prompt a thank-you note. An Oct. 10, 1955 letter to Baine Kerr, a partner at the firm who, with his wife, Mildred, would become close friends of the Bushes, was sent ostensibly as a thank-you to acknowledge the receipt of some legal documents. But the letter soon shifts to the personal, showing graciousness with a bit of lighthearted banter.

“The Bushes agree that Saturday’s trip to Galveston was good fun, so pump a few Dramamine pills into Mildred and we will take out for the good ship Nola I on our next visit,” Bush wrote in the signed note.

The Nola I was a drillship used in the Gulf of Mexico by Bush’s company, Zapata Corp., which was created in 1953 to explore for oil in the Permian Basin and named after the movie, “Viva Zapata!” starring Marlon Brando.

Shortly after the company was formed, Bush and his business partner, J. Hugh Liedtke, created an offshore arm. Liedtke ran the onshore business, which later became Pennzoil; Bush operated the offshore where he employed the newest technology to explore the Gulf of Mexico.

Legal documents in Baker Botts archive outline Bush’s adoption on the what were then the latest innovations, such as jack-up rigs, which have legs lowered to the ocean floor from the platform, and floating rigs, which are sometimes tethered to the sea floor

“This mobile drilling platform is designed to permit operation in waters as deep as 80 feet and constitutes a complete self-contained unit capable of moving from one location to another when drilling is completed,” according to documents on March 31, 1955 that were related to Zapata’s first stock offering.

The 1950s were pivotal for Bush, who had turned his back on a potential career on Wall Street that could have been bolstered by his wealthy and well-connected family on the East Coast. Instead, he sought to make it on his own in the oil business. Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power” (1991), said Bush was a risk-taker at the forefront of the post-World War II energy boom, helping to invent the offshore industry, which only began around 1947.

“He was kind of a frontiersman when it came to America’s booming oil industry after World War II and he was willing to take chances,” Yergin said. “He wasn’t playing for safety.”

Bush, in addition to his charm, could be very businesslike, the Baker Botts letters show. Following a lawsuit in 1957, Bush sent Kerr a letter on Zapata stationery reminding him to discuss a small settlement with the firm Andrews Kurth:

“Dear Blaine: Just a reminder to ask you to call Andrews Kurth and try to settle the bill. Anything you work out will be satisfactory. My frank feeling is that the $1500 is too high, but if we can do no better I guess we had better pay for it.”

But Bush never seemed to miss an occasion to say thank-you — or needle a friend. He sent this letter to Kerr on Dec. 17, 1956:

“We Zapatas have been tremendously dependent upon your good advice during the past year and it is sufficient to say that Liedtke and I . are tremendously appreciative of the good counsel you have given the company,” Bush wrote. “I plan to be in Houston this week. Wayne (Dean) tells me there is to be an office party Friday afternoon and I will stay over for that. Please plan to attend if you are still sober.”

Bill Kroger, who leads the Baker Botts’ energy litigation practice and acts as the firm’s historian, said this period was crucial to forming the political leader that history will remember. Bush’s letters show that he remained kind, gentle polite and caring even as he dove into the fiercely competitive oil business, where fortunes could be lost as easily as won.

“He had so much experience running a company and dealing with all the issues you have in oil and gas exploration, with new technology, working with people, working with the bankers and the lawyers,” said Kroger. “That time of his life is underappreciated as his business acumen and business skill.”

By the early 1960s, Bush was making is transition from wildcatter to politician. In 1962, Bush became chairman of the Harris County Republican Committee. In September 1963, Bush decided to run for U.S. Senate against the incumbent, Ralph Yarborough, at time when Texas was still dominated by the Democratic Party, as was much of the South.

He sent a typed letter to Dillon Anderson, who was a managing partner of Baker Botts and had served in the Eisenhower Administration. Anderson supported Bush during the campaign.

“Dear Dillon: About Wednesday of this week I plan to announce as a Republican candidate for the United States Senate. Since this has been recently discussed with you, I wanted you to know that it will soon be official.”

Bush included a handwritten note, asking Anderson to “keep your fingers crossed” and “give me plenty of sound advice.”

Bush had the backing of powerful Republicans in Houston, including Roy Cullen, the wealthy industrialist and philanthropist who at the time was Harris County Finance Chairman. Cullen on Sept. 18, 1963, wrote to Anderson that he had opened an account for Bush’s campaign fund. Following Cullen’s note, a flurry of letters were sent out seeking donations for $200 or more, including one sent to James Baker, who would later become Bush’s friend and confidant.

Baker Botts was founded by Baker’s relatives, but during the 1950s and 1960s there was a strict rule forbidding nepotism so Baker couldn’t get a job there.

A letter from Anderson written to Houston Country Club is among the documents supporting Bush’s membership. While at HCC, Bush became close friends and tennis partners with Baker; the two even won the doubles championship at the club one year.

Baker Botts’ archives also include a never-published letter from Richard Nixon, dated Oct. 29, 1964, four years before Nixon would win the nomination for president. “Because of my conviction that George Bush is a young man that Texas and our nation needs in government, I am anxious to do everything I can to help him achieve his victory on Nov. 3,” Nixon wrote, adding that he would attend a dinner in Houston in Bush’s honor on Oct. 23.

Bush lost the election in 1964, but kept his close ties to the firm. His son, George W. Bush, had his first job in the 1960s in the mailroom of the firm, working for a man named Chester Woodard, the first African-American hired by Baker Botts and a son of slaves.

Baker joined the firm after Bush’s defeat to President Bill Clinton in 1992, and worked there for 25 years.

Bush died Nov. 30.