Who Was Prescott Bush, The Father Of George H.W. Bush?

Published March 20, 2024
Updated March 21, 2024

The patriarch of the Bush political dynasty, Prescott Bush represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate from 1952 to 1963 — and paved the way for both his son and grandson to become presidents.

Prescott Bush

Library of CongressPrescott Bush was a successful businessman and senator who’s been linked to a number of disturbing rumors.

American history is dotted with political dynasties. There’s the Adamses, the Roosevelts, and, of course, the Bush clan, which includes former U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush. But the Bushes’ political careers arguably took off thanks to Prescott Bush, the father of George H.W. and the grandfather of George W.

Tall, fit, and charismatic, Prescott Bush seemed to thrive wherever he went. He excelled at Yale, fought in World War I, succeeded in the business world, triumphed on the golf course, and made his mark as a U.S. senator and close confidant of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His decade in the Senate helped sow the seeds for his descendants to succeed in politics.

But there’s a dark side to Prescott Bush’s legacy too. In recent years, renewed attention has been paid to his association with a company that did business with Nazi Germany. And some have alleged that he was part of a conspiracy that tried to overthrow President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Controversial Rise Of Prescott Bush

Samuel Prescott Bush

Public DomainSamuel Prescott Bush, Prescott Bush’s father.

Prescott Sheldon Bush was born on May 15, 1895, in Columbus, Ohio. His family tree can be traced back to the Mayflower, and his father Samuel Prescott Bush was a prosperous industrialist.

The young Prescott Bush showed academic and athletic promise from an early age. He eventually attended Yale University, where his family had strong ties. There, he excelled in sports like baseball and golf and became a member of the secret society Skull and Bones (his son and grandson, George H.W. and George W., would also later become members).

Upon his graduation in 1917, Prescott became a captain in a U.S. Army artillery unit. Though he served nobly and saw combat at the Battles of the Meuse-Argonne, Prescott also got into trouble for jokingly telling his mother that he’d single-handedly saved the lives of several prominent generals. She shared the story with the media, which printed it as fact. To his great shame, Prescott’s mother then had to print a retraction once she learned the truth.

After the war, Prescott married Dorothy Walker, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and joined his father-in-law’s investment firm. When the firm merged with a British company, Prescott became a managing partner of the newly created Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. (BBH).

Prescott Bush And Dorothy Bush

Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock PhotoPrescott Bush and his wife, Dorothy, during his time in the Senate.

In recent years, Prescott’s affiliation with BBH has come under scrutiny, as the company was closely linked with Fritz Thyssen, a German industrialist who helped advance Adolf Hitler’s early political career. Even more troubling, BBH continued to associate with Thyssen into the early 1940s.

According to an investigation by The Guardian:

“While there is no suggestion that Prescott Bush was sympathetic to the Nazi cause… documents reveal that the firm he worked for, Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), acted as a US base for the German industrialist, Fritz Thyssen, who helped finance Hitler in the 1930s before falling out with him at the end of the decade.”

Prescott benefitted from this connection, and The Guardian noted that “it has also been suggested that the money he made from these dealings helped to establish the Bush family fortune and set up its political dynasty.”

It’s also been alleged in recent years that Prescott may have been involved in the infamous Business Plot of the early 1930s, a failed attempt by right-wing financiers to overthrow the recently elected Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and install a fascist dictator in his place.

It’s worth noting that Prescott Bush was never found guilty of any crime and it was never definitively proven that he supported fascism at home or abroad. But what is known is that after Prescott left the business world, he soon turned his attention completely to politics.

The Political Beginnings Of The Bush Family

Richard Nixon

Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock PhotoSenator Prescott Bush presenting a new straw hat to then-Vice President Richard Nixon.

For 15 years, Prescott Bush served as the moderator of town meetings in Greenwich, Connecticut. During that time, The New York Times reports that Prescott made a number of important political connections in Republican circles and in 1950, he decided to run for Senate. Interestingly, the Republican then described himself as a “moderate progressive.”

Though Prescott lost by just 1,000 votes, he ran again in 1952 and won. It was the beginning of what would be a decade of representing Connecticut in the Senate. William Hildenbrand, who later became the secretary of the U.S. Senate, remarked that Prescott Bush “looked more like a senator than any senator I’ve ever met,” according to Bush family biographers.

In the Senate, Prescott’s beliefs often aligned with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s. The two men agreed on moderate tax cuts, balancing the budget, and foreign policy based on cooperation with international institutions. They also spent time in a social context as golfers, though Prescott refused to tell reporters what they discussed during these outings.

“Nobody who plays golf with the President ever talks about it,” Prescott Bush once told a reporter during an interview. “Any other questions?”

He was a staunch anti-communist who nevertheless voted to censure Joseph McCarthy, a proponent of civil rights legislation, and even a supporter of early organizations that promoted birth control and family planning. (Back in the late 1940s, he even served as treasurer for the American Birth Control League, which would later become Planned Parenthood. It’s believed this decision may have cost him his Senate seat when he first ran in 1950.)

Yet Prescott Bush’s greatest impact on American history was not in the Senate — from which he retired in 1963 — but in his descendants. In a matter of decades, his son and grandson would ascend to the presidency.

Prescott Bush’s Political Legacy

Prescott Bush And His Family

MediaPunch Inc/Alamy Stock PhotoPrescott Bush and his family, including future presidents George H.W. Bush (top row, left) and George W. Bush (far left).

When Prescott Bush died on October 8, 1972 at the age of 77, he was still the most famous political member of his family. But that would soon change.

At the time of his death, Prescott’s son George H.W. Bush was serving as ambassador to the United Nations. Purportedly instilled with a sense of duty from his father, and a sense of humility from his mother, George H.W. served in both the Nixon and Ford administrations. He held numerous roles, including the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, the chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He also had previous experience as a Texas congressman.

In 1979, he unsuccessfully ran for president but soon became vice president to Ronald Reagan. After Reagan’s two terms in office, George H.W. Bush was elected president in his own right and served from 1989 until 1993.

His son, George W. Bush, also followed the political path first laid by Prescott. He became the governor of Texas in 1995, and was elected president in 2000 and again in 2004. George W.’s brother Jeb Bush also entered the political sphere, serving as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and then later making an unsuccessful run for president.

Prescott Bush And George H W Bush

MediaPunch Inc/Alamy Stock PhotoPrescott Bush was reportedly pleased to see his son George H.W. Bush’s rising success in politics.

The Bush family today is considered a political dynasty, with the rare distinction of sending both a father and son to the White House (only John Adams and John Quincy Adams had done this in the past). And it’s arguably all thanks to Prescott Bush. Not only did his foray into the Senate put the Bush family on the political map, but he also instilled a sense of duty in his descendants, which inspired many others to seek public office.

Jeb Bush’s son George P. Bush, who served as the Texas land commissioner and unsuccessfully campaigned to be the Texas attorney general in 2022, seems to have embraced Prescott Bush’s legacy. In order to enter politics, he told CBS News in 2018, you had to have a sense of duty.

“You’ve got to do this,” he explained, “with a servant’s heart.”

Still, the Bush family political legacy has its dark spots. Not only did Prescott Bush seemingly do business with Nazis well into the early 1940s, but George W. Bush’s legacy is intrinsically tied to the controversial Iraq War.

For better or for worse, this political dynasty will never be forgotten.

After reading about the life and legacy of Prescott Bush, discover the dark story of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., the patriarch of the Kennedy family. Or, look through these little-known facts about America’s Founding Fathers.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.