The Inconvenient Sharon Bush

Divorce in America’s most powerful political dynasty.

Sharon BushAs Neil Bush went from one venture to another, tarnished by his role in the 1990 Silverado S&L scandal, his wife, Sharon, couldn’t understand why she had to worry about the grocery bills. Wasn’t he the son of America’s 41st president and brother of two governors? Then Neil divorced her last April to marry Maria Andrews, and Sharon struck back, alleging he had fathered Andrews’s two-year-old son. From the sexual, financial, and family revelations of the resulting legal battles, Vicky Ward discovers how a 23-year marriage withered in the shadow of America’s most powerful political dynasty.

At 11 a.m. on Friday, January 30, a petite blonde woman with large blue eyes and a nervous expression waited outside Houston’s old Cotton Exchange building, now used as an extension to the Harris County District Court system, as proceedings got under way in the 157th District Court up on the 11th floor. It’s a room one local attorney compares to a dungeon because of its low ceiling and cramped atmosphere.

Inside, Judge Randy Wilson heard a motion filed for the hearing of Cause No. 2003-49885 in the District Court of Harris County, Texas: Thomas Alexander Andrews v. Sharon Bush.

Sharon Bush, 51, was the woman waiting anxiously outside. Her snowy-haired veteran trial lawyer, David Berg, had told her she didn’t need the stress of the courtroom, even though the hearing that day would be rapier-quick, taking just over an hour. But Berg had a point. Sharon is both physically and emotionally the shell of the woman she was two years ago. Then she was a legitimate Bush—and all that that meant. She was known for her charity work, her winning smile, and her devotion to her three children, Lauren, 19, Pierce, 17, and Ashley, 15.

Last April, when her divorce was finalized, she had been married for 23 years to Neil Bush, 49, a younger brother of the president. Until her separation from Neil, nine months earlier, most people had described Sharon as a sunny, upbeat sort of person. One friend recalled her as “always so sweet and friendly,” the type of person to “ask me about my mother or sister or the children.”

That was then.

Now, as she hovered by the courthouse, she was being sued by Thomas Andrews, known as Alexander, a two-year-old boy whose Mexican-born mother, Maria Andrews, 41, had been a volunteer in the Houston literacy-foundation office of Barbara Bush. Following Maria’s amicable divorce from oil entrepreneur Robert Andrews, she had become engaged to Neil Bush. If all goes according to plan, they will have wed on March 6 at the house of Neil’s friend Jamal Daniel in Houston.

That Friday little Alexander (whose petition had been made on his behalf by Robert, though neither father nor son was present in court) was alleging that Sharon had gone around town speculating that Neil Bush might be his father. Sharon denied she had done this, but nonetheless had asked the court for DNA samples from Neil, Robert, and Alexander. The judge granted her request for Robert and Alexander, but let stand a pre-existing test from Neil.

A sprinkling of reporters had come to cover the proceedings, and the dueling lawyers had each promised a good spectacle.

Where’s the most dangerous place to be?” Andrews’s lawyer, Dale Jefferson, a trim, youthful, dark-haired man, had asked this reporter the week before. At the time he was sitting in his airy office in downtown Houston. Jefferson is known for having worked with the family of Anna Nicole Smith’s late husband, J. Howard Marshall II, during the dispute over his estimated $1.6 billion estate.

Jefferson grinned. “Answer: Between David Berg and a TV camera.”

The lawyers may have been enjoying the tussle, but at this point they seem to be the only ones with anything left to gain after as acrimonious a divorce case as anyone can remember.

As a result of depositions leaked to the press, we now know humiliating details about Neil Bush, the fourth of Barbara and George H. W. Bush’s six offspring, and they have served to darken his already tarnished reputation as the black sheep of the Bush family.

We know, for instance, that Neil has had extramarital sex several times with strange women who knocked on his hotel door during business trips in Thailand and Hong Kong for Interlink, a small investment firm. We also know that, despite an admitted ignorance in the field of semiconductors, he was hired as a consultant to the Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, a Chinese company, for which he was to be paid $10,000 for every board meeting he attended, plus $2 million worth of stock over five years. Grace was founded by Jiang Mianheng, the son of the former president of China, Jiang Zemin, and Winston Wong, the son of plastics magnate Wang Yung-ching, thought to be Taiwan’s top tycoon. Critics have been swift to point out how Grace might benefit from a relaxation in U.S. export laws. Neil has also been receiving a $60,000 annual fee from the Crest Investment Corporation, an investment firm run by Syrian-American businessman Jamal Daniel, a longtime friend of the Bushes’ who also happens to be a principal of New Bridge Strategies, which helps clients win contracts to rebuild Iraq. Neil’s duties are mainly, according to Neil, “answering phone calls when Jamal Daniel … called and asked for advice.”

In other words, Neil Bush is back in the public arena, reminding people that in 1990, while his father was president, he went from being a blond-haired, blue-eyed political hopeful—he is arguably the best-looking of the Bush men—to the family embarrassment, thanks to his position as a director on the board of the Silverado Banking, Savings and Loan Association. Silverado was a Denver-based thrift that went belly-up in 1988, accounting for $1 billion of the approximately $150 billion that the larger S&L implosion cost American taxpayers. Silverado collapsed partly because of two Denver real-estate tycoons, Ken Good and Bill Walters, who could not repay money borrowed from Silverado. The two had supplied virtually all the money for Neil Bush’s flailing oil-drilling company, JNB Exploration.

Along with other members of the Silverado board, Bush—then only 35—was investigated by the U.S. Office of Thrift Supervision, which found that he had engaged in “breaches of his fiduciary duties involving multiple conflicts of interest.”

Neil and 12 associates settled a separate, $200 million negligence lawsuit filed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation against the Silverado board and others for $49.5 million, of which Neil contributed $50,000. (Most of the settlement was covered by insurance.) He has consistently denied any wrongdoing, claiming that he was caught in a political battle, thanks to his father’s presidency, but his political aspirations were over. In 1990, posters of his face were pasted up throughout Washington as a symbol of all that was perceived to be corrupt in American business.

Sensibly, given the political ambitions of his two older brothers, George W. and Jeb, Neil kept a low profile.

In 1989 he began drawing a $160,000 salary as the head of Apex Energy, a gas-exploration company he founded with $2.3 million from two companies run by Bush-family friend Louis Marx Jr., heir to the Marx toy fortune. When Apex went broke, Bill Daniels, a cable-TV baron who had raised more than $300,000 in 1987 for George H. W. Bush, hired Neil at TransMedia Communications. The pay was $60,000, even though TransMedia president Dick Barron admitted that Neil’s first duty was to learn the business.

In 1993 or so, Nijad Fares, the son of another Bush friend, Lebanese deputy prime minister Issam Fares, employed Neil for a year selling oil-storage-tank covers. In 1994, Neil joined forces with investment banker Tim Bridgewater, a tall, charismatic, dark-haired Mormon who had grown up in a trailer park and is currently running for Congress in Utah. Together they ran Interlink, which acted as a consultant on deals, many between Asian and American companies; in addition, they sometimes invested in U.S. start-ups, such as the biotech companies EluSys and Sensatex, the brainchildren of a 37-year-old New York–based entrepreneur named Jeff Wolf. Under Interlink’s auspices, Neil also did several deals with one of Asia’s leading business dynasties, the Chearavanont family, which had made its considerable fortune in markets such as telecommunications and agribusiness.

Bridgewater says Neil tried to avoid deals that might look as though he was using his name. “He avoided doing a deal in Kuwait that people wanted him to do,” says Bridgewater. Throughout this period, according to Sharon, Neil’s annual salary ranged from $180,000 or so to, one year, more than $1 million. “We weren’t mega-rich,” says Bridgewater, “but we thought we did well.”

In 2000, when his brother George announced his candidacy, Neil was careful to state that he would resign from the board of EluSys if George won, because the company’s product—a drug to clean pathogens from the blood in just hours—may be bought by the army. But more recently he has not always managed to avoid getting into hot water.

In November 2003, Neil found himself embroiled in Taiwanese politics when James Soong, the leader of a Taiwanese opposition party, charged that Neil had been paid $1 million to meet with President Chen Shui-bian in New York. (Since relations between Washington and Beijing were normalized in 1979, formal meetings between American and Taiwanese officials have been prohibited.) Neil has denied that the meeting was set up by an intermediary, that he was paid, and that there was any official aspect to the discussion, but his photograph made its way into the Taiwanese press.

Meanwhile, critics in the American press were swift to point out how Neil is apt to put his foot in his mouth—citing a speech he made to the Jeddah Economic Forum, in Saudi Arabia, in the wake of September 11, in which he stated that the “U.S. media campaign against the interests of Arabs and Muslims and the American public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be influenced through a sustained lobbying and P.R. effort.”

The White House refused to comment on the speech, but Douglas Wead, a former special assistant to George H. W. Bush, acknowledges that the president has a way of signaling his disapproval. “Sure, they’re always getting a call. From [Karl Rove]—telling them not to do this, that, or the other. Rove has mixed up their names … calling Marvin Neil and Neil Marvin,” he says. (Rove did not respond to a request for comment.)

Wead adds, however, that all the Bush siblings are close, and that the others do not consider Neil a loser in the style of Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy (who was the subject of a 1977 book, Redneck Power, and who accepted $200,000 from the Libyan government), or Bill Clinton’s brother, Roger, who served more than a year in prison for dealing cocaine.

“The family has this rule that whoever is the lead guy, that’s the guy and you sacrifice your life for him,” says Wead, who points out that Neil refused to take his advice and write a book on Silverado explaining his point of view, because he did not want to do anything to detract from his father’s presidency or Jeb’s and George W.’s ascending political careers. “So Neil has gone on hold and he really can’t do anything with his life,” says Wead.

Any of the messy, personal details would never have surfaced to humiliate Neil and his family had Sharon decided to go quietly after he told her he wanted a divorce in a heartfelt e-mail written while he was on a business trip for his new company—Ignite! Learning—in Dubai in May of 2002.

“Your comment at our pool-side dinner with the kids that you and I should race to see who will make a million dollars faster, your belief expressed in different ways that I have not made adequate money, your belief that it was easy to make money and that Jamal [Daniel]’s plotting or Dad’s influence will be the magic answer to our financial woes all cause me consternation and reflect the bitterness and anger that has come from the loneliness you described Friday,” he wrote, adding: “It is very clear that we … are failing to meet each other’s core needs. We’re almost out of money and I’ve lost my patience for being compared to my brothers, for being put down for my inability to make money, and tired of not being loved. I’m sure you’ve lost your patience and that you have felt abandoned and a deep sense of loneliness.”

The marriage, according to almost everyone who knew the couple, had been happy for the first 11 years. Neil had married Sharon Smith in 1980, after a year’s courtship. She was a perky elementary-school teacher from New Hampshire, and they had met while he was campaigning there for his father. She had already been married once, briefly.

They were wed in the summer at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Kennebunkport, Maine. In her 1994 memoir, Barbara Bush, the former First Lady refers to Sharon as “darling” and remembers the wedding reception, held on the lawn at Walker’s Point, the Bush-family summer compound, as “a very happy time.”

Neil and Sharon moved to Colorado in 1980 in part because the plan was that Neil could build a political base there, while Jeb worked on Florida and George W. on Texas. (Marvin and Dorothy, known as Doro, the two youngest Bush children, opted out of the family career path. Marvin, 47, preferred a life under the radar as a businessman; Doro, 44, lives in Maryland with her husband, wine-industry lobbyist Robert Koch, and four children.)

In 1983 in Colorado, Neil formed JNB Exploration with $150,000 from flamboyant Denver real-estate developer Bill Walters, who was once described as the Donald Trump of Denver, $150,000 from a Denver oil company, and just $100 of his own money. Ken Good, another real-estate developer, invested $10,000 in JNB and obtained two lines of credit worth $1.75 million for the company from a bank owned by Walters. Later, he developed a plan to pump $5 million into the company by absorbing it into a Florida real-estate company he owned.

There were perks to being Good’s friend; for instance, the developer lent $100,000 to Neil to put in an investment pool. If the investment prospered, Neil would repay the loan; if not, he didn’t have to. (Neil stayed in the pool too long and lost whatever money he had initially made. In accordance with the deal, he never repaid the loan.)

The Bushes often appeared in the society columns, thanks, one Denver socialite thought, more to Sharon’s efforts than to Neil’s. “Sharon was a big deal in Denver,” says Houston public-relations man Rex John, Neil’s best friend in Denver back then. “The Bushes were like a golden couple.”

But once Silverado went bust, things changed. Neil was called to explain to an administrative-law judge his support of huge loans to Walters and Good at the same time they were investing in his company. According to Steven Wilmsen’s 1991 book, Silverado, Neil voted at a June 1986 board meeting to extend a $16.5 million line of credit for a Silverado real-estate subsidiary to buy raw land from Walters. In the same deal, Silverado lent Walters $18.5 million, $7 million of which was to be used to buy Silverado stock, upon the purchase of which Walters would immediately be paid $1.5 million in dividends. In another instance Neil sent a letter asking Silverado to extend a $900,000 line of credit to one of Good’s companies, Good International Inc., which was formed specifically to fund a plan by Neil to drill for oil in Argentina—a fact Neil neglected to mention in the letter. (Neil did abstain from the vote that approved the line of credit.)

Once the scandal broke, Neil maintained his innocence and tried to put a brave face on things, using the newspaper coverage as reading practice for his children. Outwardly, Sharon, too, behaved stoically, according to her friend Missy Mayne, but privately she found their new impecunity hard to accept.

“I just had a hard time understanding how the President’s grandchildren couldn’t have enough food,” she says in her deposition, explaining that she had to put groceries back on the shelf because she could not afford them.

She felt that the president should “maybe mail us some money so we could buy food for the children,” because “I assume we were in the spot … because of his father being President—it was a political thing.”

As the years rolled by and Neil found it difficult to recover professionally from the Silverado fallout, the marriage came under increasing pressure. “Money,” according to a friend of Neil’s, was the crux of the discord. “She didn’t feel that he made enough money. Didn’t think he was successful. So of course he felt bad himself.”

Sharon’s divorce deposition seems to confirm this. “The weak link,” she admitted having called him—although she also said it was a mistake to infer that she envied Jeb and George W. These two, she felt, were “engaged in the public arena to such an extent that they neglected their families.”

“I was frustrated that he wasn’t home … and he wasn’t making money,” she told the lawyers. “I said, ‘Why can’t you figure it out like Marvin has?’ ” (Marvin, the youngest Bush brother, runs a private-equity business in Virginia, and Sharon has described him as “very rich.”) “It wasn’t the money,” says Sharon now. “It was that he wasn’t home. What was he doing?”

Sharon’s deposition paints a picture of a family uncomfortably straddling two worlds. On the one hand, there’s no shortage of free hotel rooms, dinners, clothes, and holidays on other people’s boats. In the year preceding her divorce, Rick Flowers, Neil’s attorney, pointed out, Sharon had managed to travel—pretty much for free—on a Mediterranean cruise, to London, to the Bahamas, to Galveston, to New York, to Maine, and to Princeton, New Jersey. (Sharon says she uses frequent-flier miles to travel abroad.) Her hosts varied from financier Fouad Said, who invited her up to New York and onto his yacht in the Mediterranean, to Florida couple Nancy and Peter Brown, to Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the San Luis Resort in Galveston, to the Daniels and Texan socialite Theresa Ranzau. For lunch with this reporter in New York, Sharon arrived in a black stretch limo that “belonged to a friend.” It’s a phrase she uses often.

When in New York she often stays for free or virtually so at such hotels as the Waldorf-Astoria, courtesy of wealthy friends such as the carpet tycoon John Stark and his wife, Andrea. For Christmas she took her daughters to Palm Beach, where she stayed at the luxurious Breakers and was spotted several mornings breakfasting with Gerald Tsai, a 75-year-old financier. (Sharon denies she and Tsai are romantically involved.) Even Sharon and Neil’s $380,000 cottage near the Bush compound in Kennebunkport was bought for them by Jamal Daniel—at Sharon’s request. “There’s a family bungalow, and the families all get to stay there, but you rotate through. It’s hard to allot it, sometimes,” Sharon told this reporter. “So I said to Jamal, ‘I’d love to be able to have our own little place.’ … And so he said, ‘Why don’t I just buy something? That would be an investment for me.’ ” A friend of Neil’s says that Neil was embarrassed by Sharon’s “end runs” to his friends, to ask for things.

Sharon has also been sought after by a host of organizations, presumably delighted to get the Bush name on their invitations. Last year the American Ireland Fund hired her to put together a dinner. In 1997 and again in 1998 she was paid almost $50,000 by the Texas Alliance Against Alcohol Abuse to organize seminars in schools. And the Brae Capital Corporation paid her $36,000 in 1998 and again in 1999 to consult on selling products in gift shops.

Yet when Sharon returns from the free holidays and dinners, she turns the light on in a four-bedroom ranch-style house that is probably the smallest on the street in a pleasant residential area in Houston. There’s a swimming pool out back, and the interior is comfortable and homey. On the walls are plaques with religious mottoes, quotes about the value of children, and, mostly, photograph after photograph of the Bush family: Neil, Sharon, their three kids with their grandparents; with the president and First Lady; on Air Force One; meeting Michael Jackson—and on and on and on. Sharon says it’s because a real-estate agent told her the pictures would increase the value of the house.

Sharon says she feels robbed by the Bushes—not just by her ex-husband, but also by her in-laws, in particular her mother-in-law, who she feels rules the family with an iron fist. Sharon’s argument is that she gave up 22 years of her life to be a good family foot soldier, but when she faced a turbulent time with Neil, she maintains, they deserted her financially and emotionally.

Sharon has repeatedly told the story of how, when she asked her mother-in-law for help after Neil sent the e-mail requesting a split, Barbara declined, saying, “That’s for you and Neilsie to work out.” (Barbara and George H. W. Bush declined to comment for this story.)

At one point, Sharon says, George H. W. Bush e-mailed her that they would always be there for the grandchildren and that she would be the same type of relative as Billy LeBlond (Doro’s first husband) is to them. Sharon responded by stating that she was “insulted” to be put in the same class as LeBlond, who had been married to Doro for only seven years and had been arrested on drunk-driving and drug charges.

An e-mail she sent to her in-laws at the beginning of her separation from Neil shows how desperately she wanted to stay part of the Bush clan:

Dear Bar and Gampy,
This is a very difficult time in my life, as you know. But I would be remiss if I did not write you both to tell you the deep and abiding respect and gratitude that I have for you.… The past 22 years have been the most incredible years as a member of the Bush family, the best years anyone could hope for. I want you to know from me personally that I will uphold the honor and respect associated with the Bush name.

Slowly, she began to realize her longing to maintain a close connection was not being reciprocated.

The month after Neil sent the e-mail from Dubai, he asked Sharon to stay in Houston to talk things through. She turned up instead with the children at the Kennebunkport cottage. She says she was traumatized when none of the Bush family, including the president and First Lady, came over to see her. George H. W. Bush asked Lauren and Ashley to go look at his new hot tub.

Sharon knew Neil had fallen for another woman, and suspected that Pierce knew her identity. (He did, having inadvertently read one of his father’s e-mails.) Evidence given at the deposition in the form of Maria Andrews’s testimony and Neil’s letters to her shows that, though the two had met and felt an instant attraction, they had not slept with each other—mainly, according to Rex John, Neil’s good friend, because “Neil wanted to be honest with his children about that relationship.”

John says Neil didn’t trust himself even to see Andrews that summer or fall, which was why he ended up writing her frequent letters that have a teenage fervor.

The general tenor is as follows: “My heart is breaking with solitude. I can’t wait to be free to dedicate all of my passion to love you. I hurt to have you in my arms, to make love with you and to be a part of your life.”

The relationship allegedly was not consummated until January 2003, when Maria’s divorce had been finalized and Neil’s was about to be. They met in Las Vegas by chance, and one thing led to another.

Maria Andrews is a small, soft-spoken, dark-haired woman, who is described by a friend as “more comfortable with women than men.” Her marriage to Robert Andrews had in some ways been a lonely one. “She and Robert were great friends and great parents but lived completely separate lives,” says Laura Spalding, her attorney and one of her closest friends. “The break of their marriage was a very, very, very long time coming. Eventually they just called it quits.”

A self-made multi-millionaire who runs his own oil and gas exploration firm, Andrews Technologies, Robert, 48, is seldom seen on the Houston social scene. He was in financial trouble when Maria, who grew up in North Carolina, first met him in San Antonio. The couple married in 1988, and Robert turned his fortunes around by running an oil company that had dealings with Telmex, the Mexican conglomerate owned by that country’s biggest tycoon, Carlos Slim Helú. Maria worked alongside her husband, keeping the books.

They had two children—Elizabeth, now 13, and Robert junior (called Pace), 10—and ultimately Maria stopped working so she could spend more time with them. Robert was often abroad, frequently in Asia. By the time they had their third child, Thomas Alexander, in 2001, Maria was often left alone.

The family lived most recently in a $4 million mansion on Little John Lane, just two miles or so from Barbara Bush’s office and not far from Neil and Sharon’s home. It was humorously called Swankienda by some of their friends. Given its tall, black iron gates, security cameras, and infinity pool that flowed into a stream alongside a woodland trail, the nickname was apt. Maria spent $1 million decorating it in the French 18th-century style. (“She was heartbroken when they had to sell it because of the divorce,” says Spalding. “It was her dream house.”)

Maria started volunteering in Barbara Bush’s office and ran into Neil there, but the two did not really talk until one night in January 2002, when both were invited to a Houston fund-raiser for Jeb Bush at the St. Regis Hotel. “From what I understand, the sparks kind of started flying there, but it didn’t develop until much later,” remembers Spalding.

Pierce Bush, according to many people, is a “brilliant young man” with his father’s charm and his uncles’ ambition. Back in 1999, however, Pierce was having trouble in school. Neil and Sharon visited his teachers at the Kinkaid School and were aghast when they suggested, among other things, Ritalin. Neil in particular was reminded of his high-school traumas at St. Albans, a private boys’ school in Washington, D.C., where he struggled with dyslexia.

Not wanting to see his son suffer as he had, Neil decided he had to take a more active role not only in Pierce’s education but also in the educational system in general. In 1999 he decided to found his software company, Ignite!, which would help students who, like himself—and like Pierce—didn’t always respond to textbooks. Ignite!’s mission was to bring studies alive through animated and interactive programs.

With his new company Neil feels more energized than he has for years. Finally, he has told people, he is fulfilling his destiny. Even so, he chose a difficult time to do a start-up, with the market turning in 2000. Neil—and his C.F.O., Ken Leonard—occasionally stopped taking a salary when the business ran short on money. Inevitably, mistakes were made. “They went to a prototype of a pre-school product … and then realized there’s a bigger opportunity in the middle-school field,” says Kevin Moran, the former chief technology officer. They switched direction, says Leonard, choosing social studies as their first software subject. Fortuitously, that subject is not part of the testing program required by the No Child Left Behind policy instituted by George W. Bush. Otherwise, they’d be criticized for benefiting from White House policy.

“If the president’s brother was trying to do something just to benefit from some legislation … he would be doing something a lot different than what this company’s doing,” says Gary Bisbee, a Lehman Brothers education analyst. “He would be working on the testing and the system that tracks how the students do and who needs help at what.” Bisbee points out that some of Ignite!’s competitors are doing just that.

Ignite! has had four rounds of financing to date and has yet to break even. Its numerous investors include Jamal Daniel, Winston Wong, Tim Bridgewater, Les and Anne Csorba, Hamza al Kholi, Mohammed al Saddah, and Hushang Ansary. Many of these are Bush family friends.

Maria and Robert Andrews invested $100,000 in Ignite! after Neil paid a visit to their home in the spring of 2002 and lobbied both of them over dinner. Maria and Neil got to know each other better during a trip to Mexico in April 2002, to find investors for Ignite! Eventually the company struck a deal in which Grupo Carso, the parent company of Carlos Slim Helú’s Telmex empire, would take on many of Ignite!’s production duties. That weekend Maria and Neil also realized they were falling for each other.

In the spring of 2002, Neil moved out of the house to an apartment in Austin and in the fall went back to Houston to a small apartment lent by Nijad Fares. Sharon begged Neil’s friends, including Rex John, to get him to come home. John told Sharon that he could not in good conscience do that, since he’d seen how happy Neil now was. “It was a cruel thing to say to Sharon, but it was the truth,” John says.

Desperate to salvage the situation, Sharon embarked on some behavior that, she admitted in her deposition, she was later ashamed of—and that many people who have been through acrimonious divorces will perhaps recognize as the result of shock and depression. This included asking 13-year-old Ashley to steal her father’s keys when he came for a visit. Ashley was directed to leave them on a paint can in the garage. Sharon would then sneak in around midnight, get them, have them copied, and return them. (According to Sharon’s deposition, Ashley told her father, thereby foiling the plan.) Sharon says, “I needed to know what was going on.”

Sharon also tried to get into Neil’s apartment in late 2002 and, by her own admission, “lost it” when the security guard refused to admit her. Ashley, who was with her, burst into tears. “I’m not perfect,” Sharon says when asked about this. “I just wanted to fix my marriage.” Almost one year after the divorce was finalized, it’s hard to have a conversation with her about her marriage without her crying.

Sharon finally ran into Maria one morning when she walked into a smoothie shop and found her and Neil “all dressed up,” having breakfast. “I may have called Maria some names,” Sharon says now, admitting she went overboard during the scene that followed. According to her deposition, she called Maria a “Mexican whore” and “Mexican trash.” “I asked Maria, ‘How do you sleep at night, breaking up a family?’ She just smiled.”

On August 26, 2002, both Neil and Maria filed for divorce. Sharon hired Donn Fullenweider, a respected Texas lawyer, but after five months she replaced him with Marshall Davis Brown Jr., a conservative attorney, who claimed to be “unconcerned with the Bush family name.” Brown, in turn, approached forensic accountant Jeannie McClure, a dynamic and striking blonde who has been around the Texas divorce courts for 14 years and who admits she was nervous about “taking on the Bushes.”

In Texas, divorce is normally settled through mediation. When McClure met Neil on March 7, the morning of the first mediation, she found herself liking him. “I resented what all those guys got away with [in Silverado] because I was from West Texas, where blood ran in the street when banks closed and good people were put down. I very much resented what they got away with.”

She had been brusque with Neil in mediation, but when she was stuck in an elevator with him she decided to break the ice. “My tax returns better so not get audited,” she told him, and she remembers that he laughed before entering the parking lot. He stood beside her car and said, “I really want you to try and help Sharon, if you can. I really think you can do a lot for her.”

“He always struck me as somebody who really didn’t care if she got 75 percent of anything he might have,” she says. “I really didn’t get the idea Neil was trying to hide anything from her. I’m telling you, this is a guy in love who wanted to move on.”

In the first half of 2003 Neil, Ken Leonard, Maria, and Sharon all gave their depositions. The highlight of Neil’s deposition was the revelation of the three or four different occasions when during business trips in the Far East he had slept with strange women. The now infamous exchange, leaked to the press months later, went as follows:

Marshall Davis Brown: “Mr. Bush, you have to admit that it’s a pretty remarkable thing for a man just to go to a hotel room door and open it and have a woman standing there and have sex with her.”

“It was very unusual,” Bush replied.

“Were these prostitutes?”

“I don’t—I don’t know.”

According to Neil’s testimony, his marriage was by then loveless and already over in his mind.

Jeannie McClure was amazed that Neil testified about the women in the first place. In her experience, men in his situation volunteer only the bare minimum. “Listen, he never had to tell that.… Nobody had hotel receipts, nobody had flight plans.”

McClure was equally surprised by Neil’s candor about his business affairs.

“I’ve heard the best of them … make it seem like they have more business experience than they have.… He didn’t give any of that. Winston Wong was the first one that tried to legitimize what Neil was going to do for the company [Grace Semiconductor]. Neil didn’t try to legitimize it at all.”

When Brown observed, “You have absolutely no educational background in semiconductors,” Neil replied, “That’s correct.”

During the reporting of this piece, Neil Bush turned up for part of a dinner at a restaurant in Houston I had arranged with lawyers John and Laura Spalding. Laura has represented Maria during her deposition; John represents Neil in the defamation suit.

During the evening Neil refused to discuss Sharon, his children, or any aspects of the divorce. He was charming but wary. He pointed out that he had not sat down with a journalist since the Silverado fiasco. He has since agreed that I may report the gist of our talk, but without direct quotes.

Neil is attractive, trimmer than his brothers, and younger-looking than his 49 years. He seems comfortable in his own skin. He was wearing a navy blazer, gray flannels, a tie, and a starched shirt. He drank two glasses of Merlot and ate only an appetizer, since he’d already had his supper with Pierce—at McDonald’s. It was the night of the State of the Union address; Neil looked for a television in the restaurant, shrugged when he saw there wasn’t one, and carried on talking.

The conversation ranged over many issues in his life—and the world at large. He wanted to talk about who would be the Democratic nominee; he wondered what we had thought of Howard Dean’s overheated speech in Iowa the night before. We discussed the plight of women in Saudi Arabia (he believes we shouldn’t impose our values on the country), the current instability in Iraq, and the American education system. Neil was articulate and funny—and not afraid to disagree with his brother in the White House, particularly about the education system. (Tim Bridgewater describes Neil as a “very moderate Republican.”)

Neil was generally defensive about his business decisions. He says that if he could relive his Silverado years he’d do nothing different. He feels that he was offered up as the poster boy for the savings-and-loan implosion for political rather than ethical reasons. (Bridgewater says he thinks that Neil’s father “feels badly” about what happened to his son.)

At the first divorce mediation, Sharon was offered $1,000 a month in alimony, plus 75 percent of all cash and liquid assets, and residency in a house worth approximately $500,000. Sharon would also be given 75 percent of the proceeds of the sale of the current home, off Memorial Drive, likely to go for no less than $850,000.

According to Jeannie McClure, Neil didn’t have much to give her except the house. Several people suggested at this point that Sharon write a lighthearted book looking back on her life, giving little tidbits such as Laura smoking on the porch at Camp David.

McClure told Sharon straight-out that to do a full-on tell-all would seem opportunistic at best. “I said, ‘If my husband had cost the government $1 billion in a savings-and-loan failure, I guarantee he’d be in prison. Yours was not. You took advantage of all kinds of things. And now that he’s leaving, you want to tell all? I find that rather distasteful.’ ”

Sharon agreed with her, saying, “You’re the only one who will tell it to me straight.”

A few days later, Sharon changed her mind, doing something that was complete anathema to the Bush family. She hired New York public-relations man Lou Colasuonno, the former editor in chief of the New York Post and the Daily News. Colasuonno quite cheerfully admits he loathes President Bush’s politics and went to visit Sharon, hoping to facilitate a tell-all. However, he found her emotional and tricky to deal with. He told her quite bluntly to stop talking about Maria Andrews and her young son. “She was calling her a Mexican whore all over town,” he says. “I told her to stop that and to stop talking about the kid as if he might be Neil’s.”

Colasuonno listened to a tape Sharon had made of a phone conversation with Barbara Bush, which Sharon thought highlighted her mother-in-law’s cruelty, but which Colasuonno felt was an “embarrassment for Sharon.” In it, Sharon begged Barbara to prevail upon Neil to come home, but the former First Lady kept saying, “My husband and I have done everything we could for the children. Neil’s a grown-up. It’s between you. You’re two adults.”

Colasuonno advised her to write an outline for a book, as leverage for the next mediation. “Look, here’s a woman who’s been connected to the Bush family since 1980. I said, Jeez, she must know some shit. I mean just hanging around in Kennebunkport with your feet up and in shorts and a T-shirt—what do they all talk about?”

Colasuonno orchestrated an article to appear in The New York Observer on April 16, the day of the second mediation. There it was leaked that, “in addition to writing her own book,” Sharon had had lunch in New York with Kitty Kelley, who is writing a book about the Bushes due out in September.

In fact, literary agents Sharon and Colasuonno had visited were unimpressed. “I thought she was flaky,” says one of New York’s top agents. “All she wanted was money.” At times, says a publisher, she wanted to do a tell-all; at others, she felt she had to protect her children.

At the time of this writing, a friend of Sharon’s in Houston, Cindi Rose, has drafted a couple of chapters of a “self-help” book, with a promised blurb from spiritual writer Marianne Williamson. “We’re thinking of doing a book about women,” says Rose. “What happens when things don’t work exactly like you want them to.”

The day of the second mediation, emotions were running high, and initially the mediator, Judge Ruby Sondock, walked into the room where Neil and Rick Flowers were sitting and said that, given Sharon’s state of mind, nothing was going to get sorted out that day, and that she’d refund their fee. McClure, within earshot of Neil, begged the judge to reconsider, and the parties went back to the table, working until late that night. They came to a settlement that was significantly better for Sharon than the first offer. She would get $2,500 a month in alimony and for the next four years $1,500 a month in child support, plus 75 percent of the proceeds from the sale of the house and half of all other property—i.e., stocks.

Colasuonno felt that the Observer piece had worked. “Everybody agreed, it made a big difference,” he says.

That was that, or so people thought.

On April 28, 2003, Neil and Sharon and their lawyers met in the courtroom of Judge Frank Rynd in Houston and were legally divorced. Sharon stated that she did not want the divorce and that, furthermore, she wanted a DNA sample taken from Maria Andrews’s youngest child. The judge denied her request and told her she’d have to take separate legal advice on that matter.

She did. Several times over. Her first move was to hire a new lawyer, later claiming Marshall Davis Brown had lost a tape in which, Sharon says, Neil threatened she’d find herself in an alley (charges both Brown and Bush deny). She hired another Texas lawyer, Wally Mahoney, who presented a motion for a new divorce trial. The judge turned it down. But Sharon was not deterred. First and foremost, she said, she wanted to stay in her house off Memorial Drive, claiming it would be disruptive to move the children.

In June she faxed George H. W. Bush from the New York City offices of Elite, the agency that represents Lauren Bush, and asked him to lend her $467,000 to pay off the balance on the house’s mortgage. She believed the property would rise in value over the next four years to at least $1.5 million. At that point she’d sell it. From the proceeds, she would repay the loan, and then they’d split what remained.

Her former father-in-law wrote back saying that he “could not enter into any deal with which Neil did not agree, especially if it appeared to overturn an agreement already reached and approved by the court.” He continued:

I think the offer made by me and Jamal should enable you to find a very nice place for you and the kids. Several people I know have bought 3–4 bedroom houses at a cost of less than $300,000.…

Sharon, I know this divorce has been very difficult for you and for the kids, too. But the divorce is final, and in my judgment the best thing is for you to get on with your life. Close the unhappy chapter with Neil, find a job, and look to the future not the past.… I am sure you are thinking “This is easy for you to say, but it won’t be that simple, not that easy.”

No divorce is simple or easy. Often, lacking tons of money, people have to start over to find true happiness. I do believe the kids would happily adjust to a new house, even if it is not as grand a house as the one you are now living in.

He assured her that he and Barbara would always be there for the children if a special need arose, and concluded, “Sharon, I really hope your life ahead is full of happiness—I really do. Con Afecto.”

Sharon responded by appearing on the local CBS affiliate and saying that she really felt the Bush family was not living up to its family-values ideals.

Meanwhile, she was determined to prove that Neil was the father of Alexander Andrews. She did not believe the letters given as evidence in the divorce depositions that Maria and Neil had waited to have sex. Sharon called a friend of Maria’s so often, begging to meet, that she eventually ”couldn’t even answer her phone.” When they did get together for coffee at Starbucks, the woman was appalled when Sharon got out an envelope and some Q-Tips, and asked her to take a swab from inside the boy’s cheek so she could have his DNA tested. The woman immediately told Maria what had occurred. Sharon admits now the request was improper and says at the time she believed there was no way to do it through the courts.

By this time both Maria and Robert Andrews had had enough, and Robert took it upon himself to defend his son’s legitimacy. Back in March he had met with Sharon and told her to desist from “slandering” his son. He also told her to let Neil go and to move on with her life. She replied that she had “a hard time understanding how Neil could leave us with no money and move into his four and a half million dollar house with her.”

She claims she asked Robert if he minded that Neil would effectively be living off Robert’s money.

Sharon says his answer dumbfounded her. He said, “Whatever makes Maria happy.”

Over the summer, while visiting the Hamptons, Sharon met the Houston-based trial attorney David Berg, who looms large not just in legal but also in Democratic circles in Texas.

On the morning of September 3, Robert Andrews sued Sharon for $850,000 for defamation. “It was,” says his lawyer, Dale Jefferson, “a figure plucked out of thin air.”

By an extraordinary coincidence $850,000 was the same figure that someone had lent Sharon to buy her house. When she came up with the money, Rick Flowers says, Neil saw it as breaking the divorce agreement. At mediation, both sides had cited the $850,000 figure as the lowest price at which they’d sell it to an outside party, says Flowers. Sharon was hardly an outside party.

Sharon saw the lawsuit as a direct attack on her efforts to buy the house, although Jefferson points out that under Texas law it cannot be taken from her if she loses the lawsuit. Meanwhile, there are plenty of theories as to where Sharon procured the money for the house. One person thought it came from an advance for a tell-all book. Another thought it must be from Gerald Tsai. When asked, Sharon will say only that she has to pay the money back.

By this time, newspapers had started printing the embarrassing stories that came from Neil’s deposition. In addition to the details about the Asian women and Neil’s relationships at Grace Semiconductor, the Associated Press later ran a story scrutinizing a $171,370 profit Neil had made from a stock trade on July 19, 1999. According to Neil’s tax returns, he’d bought and sold stock in the Kopin Corporation, a company that manufactures display panels, on the same day that it announced a new client, JVC, a Japanese electronics company. Neil had previously brokered a deal whereby Telecom Holdings, another Asian company, invested $27 million in Kopin. Prior to July 19 he’d been awarded stock options by Kopin.

Neil stated to the A.P. that he had no inside information, and that he had been told by his financial adviser to exercise options that day and to sell some of the stock. “Any increase in the price of the stock on that day was purely coincidental,” he wrote to the A.P. in an e-mail, pointing out that he later lost $287,722 on Kopin.

After Sharon’s TV interview, the Bush team fought back: John Spalding told the Houston Chronicle that Sharon had been practicing voodoo. In an interview with this reporter, Spalding said that not only had Sharon pulled some hair out of Neil’s head one day as he was helping Ashley with her homework, but Neil had found a strange doll that had been placed under the bed where he used to sleep.

On January 30 in court, David Berg was triumphant when the judge agreed to test the DNA of Neil and both Robert and Alexander Andrews. “We got what we wanted,” Berg said. Even his opponents agreed. Spalding says, “Unfortunately, no one is thinking, Here’s this pitiful woman attacking the lineage of this two-year-old; instead, they’re thinking, Is Neil the father?”

Sure enough, the next day newspapers across America ran with headlines in the vein of the Houston Chronicle’s: dna test ordered for son of bush fiancée.

After the hearing, Spalding was standing in the lobby talking to Berg when Sharon approached the men. Spalding shook her hand. He noticed immediately that she’d lost weight.

“I just want you to know I pulled Neil’s hair out because I wanted to get it tested for cocaine, not because of voodoo,” she said coldly. Sharon says now, “I was worried about Neil. He was looking so thin and acting so weird. According to Sharon, the tests had come back “inconclusive.” Spalding says, “Accusing Neil of using cocaine is just as preposterous as accusing him of being Alexander’s father.”

Berg told her to wait a little ways off so the men could finish their “lawyers’ conversation.” As she hovered in the distance, Spalding, despite himself, felt sorry for her. At that moment he knew that Neil was traveling from London to Paris to see Maria, now living in France for a time. Once they got married, they’d be comfortably settled in Houston. Maria had already purchased a lot on the same street as George H. W. and Barbara’s home. Given the friendly relations between Maria and Robert Andrews, there’d probably be plenty more weekends at Andrews’s ranch in Brenham, an hour’s drive outside of Houston, where all three of them had spent Christmas.

In fact, Spalding need not have been so concerned: as this article was going to press Sharon told this reporter that she felt she was finally getting over her divorce. In February 2004 she had attended a counseling session with Ashley and Neil that was supposed to help Ashley deal with the new family situation. “Neil started yelling at me about the DNA lawsuit, asking me to apologize,” says Sharon. “As he was shouting, I suddenly thought, Thank God, I’m no longer married to you. I stood back and thought about my life. I thought, I’m dating, I’m blessed with three wonderful children, I’ve got my house, endorsements for health products are on the horizon, as is a speaking engagement … Life’s really pretty good.” V

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