"He just said, 'I don't need this in my life. It's robbing me of my energy. It's taking too much of my time,'" one childhood friend remembers

By Sean Neumann
Updated May 04, 2020 11:00 PM
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George W. Bush and Laura Bush
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A new two-part episode of the PBS documentary series American Experience examines George W. Bush and his unlikely transition from college partier to president of the United States, including his pivotal decision to quit drinking after his 40th birthday.

"He woke up hungover," childhood friend Charlie Younger remembers in the documentary's first episode, which premiered Monday night on PBS and continued Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET. "He'd overdone it the night before and he didn't feel good. I think Laura [Bush] told him he could've behaved better. He just said, 'I don't need this in my life. It's robbing me of my energy. It's taking too much of my time.'"

So, he quit drinking cold turkey, starting an evolution that would lead to him becoming the 43rd U.S. president about 15 years later.

"I quit because at times I thought I like to drink too much," Bush explains in his own words, in an older interview shown in the documentary. "Somebody said, 'Can you think of any day you hadn't had a beer?' And I couldn't."

Bush's drinking days as a Texas bachelor are well-documented and thoroughly revisited in the opening American Experience episode about the two-term president.

"He was kind of drifting," Younger says. "I don't think he had focus on where he was heading."

Other childhood friends interviewed for the program didn't mince words.

"He'd drink too much and he could really be obnoxious when he drank too much," Bush's lifelong friend Robert McCleskey explains. "For lack of a better word, he could be a real a------ when he drank."

Journalist Wayne Slater says the younger version of Bush was more of a "good-time Charlie" who was a "wonderfully engaging friend and fraternity brother that you've met a thousand times."

"What he wasn't, at least to my mind," Slater says, "was someone who would emerge as governor of Texas or president of the United States."

Bush's drinking got so bad that family and friends worried what he'd do with his life when he began approaching his 40th birthday, former speechwriter Michael Gerson explains in the episode.

"He drank too much and he had very little direction," Gerson says.

George W. Bush with his twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, in 1981.
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By the summer of 1985, Bush began to slowly change after discovering spirituality and religion.

Rev. Billy Graham "planted a seed in my heart and I began to change," Bush told the Washington Post in 1999.

The future president began attending weekly bible study sessions, the program explains, and New York Times political reporter Peter Baker says Bush began searching for meaning in those weekly sessions.

"He's looking for something, right? He's seeking out direction, meaning, understanding," Baker says. "Religion begins to give him that definition and that path forward."

He soon transitioned "from a church-goer to a Christ follower," Younger explains in the doc.

"[He] wanted to emulate the tenants and teachings of Jesus Christ," Younger says. "He made a definite transformation there."

By the morning after celebrating his 40th birthday, Bush was ready to give up alcohol for good.

The Post described Bush's birthday celebration as "a loud, liquid night at the venerable Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs." Former First Lady Laura Bush wrote in her 2010 memoir Spoken From the Heart that she, her husband and their friends had a "wild drunken weekend and it was no different from any other weekend."

Regardless, Bush had had enough and called it quits.

"He beat drinking and he did it just overnight," director Barak Goodman told NPR. "I mean, he really displayed a level of discipline and decisiveness that people don't often attribute to George W. Bush but was very much part of his character. He was able to marshal this, you know, quite a bit of inner strength. And this was an example. He just — he stopped cold."

President George W. Bush stands with retired firefighter Bob Beckwith and addresses first responders at Ground Zero on September 14, 2001
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Much of the remainder of the first half of the documentary chronicles the shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Bush's response.

At the time, Bush was nine months into a presidency that began with a controversial and disputed election — with the Supreme Court stepping in to settle the dispute whether Bush or the Democratic candidate Al Gore would be the next president.

"The nation rallied because we were attacked but I think the nation also had question marks about its nine-month-long president at that point," says Ari Fleischer, who served as Bush's press secretary from 2001-2003.

Fleischer says the American public had two lingering questions about President Bush, and they're the two questions American Experience begins to explore about the president in its first episode: "Who are you?" and "What will you do?"

Part two of the George W. Bush American Experience documentary airs Tuesday night on PBS at 9 p.m. ET.