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Hail The Conquering Hero


Betts is best known as the chairman and developer of Chelsea Piers, the West Side sports-and-entertainment complex. His roomy office sits atop a roller-skating rink, and his desk is positioned so that he can look down the length of Pier 62 and across the Hudson to New Jersey. "I was trying to find a place for my daughter to figure-skate, and it got out of hand," jokes Betts. "That pier is about 100,000 square feet, and that's all that I wanted. But by the time I wrestled the property away from the state, it came to 1.8 million square feet." Betts could afford that kind of waterfront real estate because he had already made an incredible amount of money. The most judicious of his deals involved financing every movie made by the Walt Disney Company between 1984 and 1991, as Disney was just starting to get into the film business; he also persuaded Disney to give him the copyrights. Later, Disney had to buy back the rights to titles like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Pretty Woman. Betts calls this "thinking long-term."

The writer Roy Blount Jr. once lived in the brownstone that Betts owns, and in Blount's memoir, Be Sweet, his friend appears as a mogul with distinctly counter-cultural leanings. Betts is a liberal Democrat. He's a big, lumbering white guy, six feet one inch tall, with a bearish figure, dark hair just turning silver, and intense, attentive brown eyes. He met the love of his life, Lois, who is a slender, fine-featured black woman, 30 years ago, back when they were both public-school teachers in Harlem. A third-generation "legacy" at Yale like his college pal George W., Betts wrote his senior thesis on Intermediate School 201. It was 1968, and a lot of Ivy League types were writing papers about places like Harlem, but not many of them actually went there to work after graduation. Betts did, and he even rose to the position of assistant principal (by then he had moved over to a New Jersey school system).

After Roland married Lois, they went to visit Bush, who was then at Harvard Business School. "It was very important to me that George meet Lois," says Betts. "Although there's a lot of interracial stuff now, at that time it was pretty controversial. So we went up to Boston. They were best friends that night and forever. He's really close to Lois, really close to our kids." Over the past 30 years, whenever Bush has visited the city, he has almost always stayed with Roland and Lois in their brownstone in the northern reaches of the Upper West Side. Back in the seventies, Betts and Bush used to play pickup basketball on a court near Riverside Drive and 100th Street. These days, they don't play basketball; they jog in Riverside Park instead -- with two Texas Rangers following on bicycles and two more in an armored car. "We have a house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and they've come out there too," Betts adds. "I'm like, 'George, let me take you to an art gallery.' He goes, 'You want to walk around town with six guys in raincoats?' "

Bush talks to Betts frequently. "I just talk to him about his state of mind, his mental health, his family, and his kids," says Betts. Whatever differences exist between them, Betts considers them subordinate to the importance of helping Bush get elected. "Maybe I'm uncomfortable with George's position on abortion, but on balance, I'm comfortable with George," he says. "I don't think he's going to make changing the law on abortion a priority. Also, when you look at how dangerous and complicated a world this is now, there are other factors besides abortion which I think should govern how you vote. I mean, you've got China and Taiwan toying with each other, and you've got the North Koreans shooting a rocket over Japan, and you've got the Soviet Union falling apart. Good lord, who wants this job?"

Throughout Bush's adult life, Betts has been his mentor, his business partner, and his best friend. At Yale, when Bush's father was preoccupied with the pressures of his political career, Roland's father stepped into the breach. "My father died in 1986," remembers Betts. "Right after he died, we all went out to Docks, the seafood restaurant. It was me, George, Lois, and our two girls. George told a story about how after he graduated from Yale, he wrote my father a letter, thanking him for being his father-in-absentia. Nobody's closer to their father than George, but his father was down in Texas. Busy. And he just started bawling. Of course, then I'm bawling, and my wife is bawling, and soon all five of us are bawling."

Bush's friends are drawn to him because of that kind of raw openness, but for a long time they presumed it would make him a terrible candidate. He seemed to have no control over his mouth. "I think Ann Richards taught him to hold his tongue," says Betts. "We used to say, 'George, she's going to bait you -- she's going to trick you into saying something rash. We know you too well.' He was like, 'Don't worry about it, Betts. Don't worry about it.' "

Bush is a rich man because of his association with Betts. In 1983, Betts asked Bush to sit on the board of Silver Screen Management, his movie company, and later they got into the sports business together. "Everybody on my board had a film background or a financial background, but after a year or two, the person they turned to was George," says Betts. "Not that George had mastered the film business -- he hadn't at all. And I'm not going to tell you that he prepared for the meetings. He just listened to everything and then took the commonsense path, which was generally the best path." In 1988, Bush called to say that the Texas Rangers baseball team was for sale. Betts instantly appreciated why, at $86 million, the team was an attractive purchase: It looked like a great turnaround possibility. With other investors, they bought the team, and Bush became general partner. "George did all the outside relationships for the team, because that fit his personality," says Betts. "He wasn't the guy who wrote the financial spreadsheets, but he was the person interacting with the rest of the world."

Bush deliberately plays the laid-back Texan, creating the impression that his political career has happened almost by accident, but he talked to Betts about his political aspirations before they invested in the Rangers together. "My willingness to put a lot of money into the Rangers is based on the fact that you're there," Betts told him. "If you're going to run for office anytime soon, then I don't want to do this." Eventually Betts convinced his friend to delay his entry into politics until after they transformed the Rangers into a profitable team. "You do something that's yours, you get out from under your father's shadow," urged Betts. "When we build a new stadium, you're going to be in the newspapers every single day, getting positive coverage for creating new jobs. As opposed to being just President Bush's son." Nine years later, Betts, Bush, and the other partners sold the team to Tom Hicks for a sweet $250 million. Bush's initial investment of $606,000 ballooned into $15 million. In Texas, where wheeling and dealing is considered high art, Bush's image underwent a similar magnification. He'd been considered a lightweight; now he was taken seriously, at least in business circles. Still, when Bush first told Betts that he was thinking of running against Ann Richards, Betts decided his friend was nuts.

"She's really popular, George," Betts told him. "You don't have a chance."

"Uh, I'm going to win," Bush replied.

Bush explained that when he was not at a Rangers game, he had been making speeches. He had spoken at the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, the local high school. He'd always talked about baseball. "But really he was doing favors for other Republican politicians throughout the state," says Betts. "He was quietly building these allegiances, where everybody was in his debt, and then later he could call it in. If you go back and look at how quickly the Republican Party embraced him as their candidate" -- and here Roland Betts snaps his fingers loudly -- "it was like that."

Now the same drama is being played out all over again except on a national scale. To win New York, of course, Bush would have to persuade Democrats to embrace him as well. Roland Betts fervently believes that Bush can manage this. He feels that his friend has a side that will tickle the liberal heart. When you listen to him, Bush starts to sound almost Clintonesque.

Roland Betts keeps a photograph that he cut out of the New York Times taped to his wall. "Did you see this picture?" he asks me toward the end of our interview. "This picture was on the front page of the Times." It's a grainy color shot of Bush in his shirtsleeves. His mouth is puckered up, and he's kissing a little girl in a pink dress. A little black girl. "This picture, to me, is a shocking picture," says Betts. "Imagine this picture on the front page of the Times 30, 40 years ago. I mean, it would have been heretical. I called George the day this ran. I said, 'George, did you see the picture on the front page of the Times today?' He said, 'I knew that's why you were calling.' " As Betts stares at the picture, it's clear that in it he sees an improbable and unfamiliar incarnation of conservatism, a new kind of Republican -- a politician even he could believe in.

Not that far from Chelsea Piers, across the harbor on Staten Island, Guy Molinari is still very much the old-style Republican, but he's just as committed to Bush as Roland Betts. Bush made his first contacts in the Republican stronghold of Staten Island long before the current election cycle began, long before he ever ran for governor. Back in 1988, when Molinari was serving as the state chairman of Vice-President Bush's bid to become president, he arranged for nine elected officials to announce they were endorsing the elder Bush. Afterward, George W. took Molinari over to the White House mess for lunch. It tickled Molinari's Staten Island ego, that small favor. "He said, 'Jeez, this really means a lot to me, and it means a lot to my dad,' " remembers the borough president. "Somebody else just would have thanked you and been on his way." Later, Molinari had a little trouble with Jonathan Bush, the vice-president's brother. Molinari decided that he'd like to replace the power broker in charge of the Republican organization on Staten Island, and his rival complained to Jonathan. "Guy, I'm very sorry, but you can't do both," Jonathan told him. "You can't run my brother's campaign and get involved in a local squabble as well."

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