DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODYSSEY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH by Jon Meacham

(Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush, George W. Bush, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush)

With the rollout of Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Jon Meacham’s new book DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODYSSEY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH what emerged in the media was the elder Bush’s criticisms of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney’s poor service in the administration of his son.  Many pundits have questioned the senior Bush’s judgement since another son, Jeb is in the midst of his own presidential campaign.  Whatever motivated the senior Bush it has created a great deal of buzz around Meacham’s latest biography.  After successful histories of Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and the relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Meacham’s latest effort is not quite on the level of his previous work.  In Meacham’s defense it is difficult to write a critical biography of a subject that is still alive, and as time has separated him from his presidency he has become more popular than ever.  George H.W. Bush was a lifetime Republican who served in Congress, the head of the Republican National Committee, held a number of important jobs in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and later served as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President.  Always a loyal party man he never could quite gain the confidence of the conservative wing of his party.  He was always seen as a Rockefeller eastern liberal Republican and he constantly had to prove his bonafides to conservatives.  If he were a candidate for office today, Bush would be relegated to the junior varsity on the debate stage on many issues.  To Bush’s credit as Meacham points out repeatedly in his narrative, he embraced compromise in public life and engaged his foes in the passage of important legislation as he was willing to buck his own party to do what he believed was right.

(Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney; Bush 41 referred to them as “iron asses.”

After reading Meacham’s description of Bush’s childhood in Connecticut, Kennebunkport, and South Carolina it is obvious what former Texas Governor Anne Richards meant about Bush’s presidential candidacy in 1988, when she stated at the Democratic National Convention that “for eight straight years George Bush hasn’t displayed the slightest interest in anything we care about.  And now that he’s after a job that he can’t be appointed to, he’s like Columbus discovering America.  Poor George, he can’t help it-he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” (334-35) The Bush children of the 1930s were insulated from want, but they were raised to feel a sense of obligation to others.  According to Meacham, the Bush family code was to disguise one’s ambition, and hunger to win.  For years I had difficulty accepting Bush’s authenticity and sincerity as I watched him “flip flop” on issues in order to get elected in 1980 and 1988 and avoid the charge that he was an eastern establishment Republican.  I must admit that for over half of Meacham’s narrative I became somewhat convinced that my view was harsh after reading the intimate details of Bush’s patriotism leaving his privileged education to become a naval pilot during World War II and how he reacted and handled being shot down in the Pacific with the loss of his radioman and tail gunner.  We see Bush as the supporting husband taking care of a spouse dealing with depression. Further, we are privy to Bush as a father and family man dealing with the passing of his daughter Robin at the age of three from leukemia, witnessing a distraught person who exhibits the traits we would all hope to have in a similar situation.

(Bush 41 must like Meacham’s bioghraphy!)

The book comes across as a conversation between the author and the reader.  At times one gets the feeling that Meacham is interviewing the former president conveying Bush’s view of his life, issues, and historical perspectives.  We are exposed to the major events in American history from 1964 on as they are intertwined with Bush’s political career.  The weakness is that part of the narrative comes across as an extensive magazine article intertwined with a degree of analysis.  Meacham for the most part is content with explaining Bush’s motivations for his decisions without delving deeply enough into their ramifications.  A case in point is Bush’s vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but a few pages later we learn he voted for the 1968 Fair Housing Act, as if the later vote canceled out the weakness of character reflected in the first vote.  We read a great deal about Bush’s personality and his commitment to the family ethos as represented by his father, Prescott Bush, but not enough of what can be described as the “edginess of politics” and its cut throat nature.  As I read the first few hundred pages I wondered how such a “nice person” became such a duplicitous politician who would lie about his knowledge concerning the Iran-Contra deal (apart from the Nicaraguan aspect), the use of the Willie Horton commercial in 1988 and his alliance with the likes of Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, his reversals on abortion, taxes, and other issues to make him palatable to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate.  What I gathered from Meacham’s narrative is that Bush according to the family credo was that winning was most important, but that is covered up by a political pragmatism rather than following what the author presents as his core principles.

Meacham does a credible job discussing the major aspects of Bush’s career.  His successful run for the House of Representatives and defeat as he tries to win a Senate seat in the 1960s.  We learn of his stint as UN Ambassador under Richard Nixon, envoy to China, and CIA Head under Gerald Ford, highlighting the domestic and international machinations of each.  The reader is placed inside his campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the development of their working relationship since Ronald and Nancy Reagan did not think much of the Bushes at the outset.  Meacham constantly points to Bush’s winning personality as his key asset and we can see how effective he is in winning over the President and developing a strong personal relationship during the Reagan administrations. The reader has an insider’s view of the White House during the first Reagan administration and the role that Bush played.  Then, the second administration seems to disappear in the narrative except for a discussion of Iran-Contra and the duplicitous role played by Bush.  By 1988 Bush must earn his next governmental position, the presidency, something he seems to have sought since his entrance into politics in the 1960s, because there are no longer any appointments coming his way because of the networking that had rewarded him for decades in business and politics.

(Part of 1988 Presidential campaign ad devised by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes)

Meacham’s focus and analysis seems to take a sharper turn as he deals with the 1988 presidential campaign as he examines the mistaken choice Bush admits to in choosing Dan Quayle as his running mate.  We follow the campaign and the errors of the Dukakis team as we see the former Massachusetts governor foolishly riding in a tank in New Jersey and is forced to deal with the prison furlough program that brought about the Willie Horton ad.  Once elected, Meacham accurately explores Bush’s successes in foreign policy and the difficulties he faced in dealing with Congress over domestic legislation during his term in office.

I am very familiar with Bush’s personal belief that he thought that he should receive the major credit for winning the Cold War, and I am certain that believers in the Reagan cult would beg to differ.  However, Bush senior must be commended for the way he handled the fall of the Berlin Wall and the personal relationship he was able to develop with Mikhail Gorbachev that fostered arms control and a lessening of tensions between the former Cold War competitors.  Meacham takes us from the night the Wall was breached through the difficult diplomacy that resulted in the reunification of Germany.  Though the definitive account of those heady days have yet to be written, Meacham’s narrative praising Bush for his calm and steady approach to events and his diplomacy, particularly with the Soviet Union and NATO members forms an excellent summary.  Bush has the reputation of overseeing a strong foreign policy that resulted in his words, “a new world order,” where the bipolar Cold War was replaced by a new unipolar world.  This characterization can be easily argued, but Meacham chooses not to in the same way as he glances over the American invasion of Panama to replace Manuel Noriega.  Perhaps if he would have delved into the background relationship between the American national security establishment and the drug trafficking Panamanian dictator the reader would be provided a clearer picture.  Further, Meacham leaves out some important details in the run up to the American invasion of Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  The reader is provided with a detailed account of Bush’s handling of the crisis, but what is missing is an accurate description of the messages we sent to the Iraqi dictator at the end of July, 1990 right before the invasion.  To his credit, Meacham explores the meetings between Saddam and American Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie whose career took a strong hit after the invasion took place.  Perhaps if the administration would have laid out clearer instructions, Glaspie’s messages to Saddam would not have been so misinterpreted to the point where he believed that the United States would not remove his forces from Kuwait militarily.  Bush is to be credited with putting together an international coalition against Saddam, and unlike his son he realized the vacuum that would be created if American troops marched on Baghdad in March, 1991 and that once the predictable civil war between Shi’ites and Sunni would evolve, Iran would emerge as the true winner.  Another aspect that Meacham should have explored closely is the Bush family’s relationship with the Saudi royal family and what impact it had on American policy.  Craig Unger’s HOUSE OF BUSH HOUSE OF SAUD is worth consulting.

(George Herbert Walker Bush as Navy pilot during World War II)

Meacham correctly points out that Bush did have a domestic agenda as he repeatedly refers to Bush’s diaries to support the idea that the president wanted to improve the lives of everyday Americans.  His successes include a raising of educational standards and enhancements for the Head Start program, amendments to the Clean Air Act, and the Americans for Disability Act.  However, once Bush had to deal with economic policy as the American economy fell into recession he ran up against a conservative wall in Congress led by Newt Gingrich.  Once he decided to turn away from his famous “read my lips” promise when he won the Republican presidential nomination and agreed to raise federal taxes to deal with the budget crisis he just reaffirmed the belief of conservatives that he was not one of them.  Again, to Bush’s credit he put political pragmatism and his country ahead of those in his party who may have pursued the actions of the Ted Cruz’s of today.  Meacham hits the nail on the head when states that Bush “could mold an international coalition, but he could not convince his own party to back their president.” (448)

Meacham provides an in depth account of the 1992 presidential campaign and the rivalry with the egoistic Ross Perot that resulted in the election of Bill Clinton.  The author puts the reader on the debate stage as Bush stares too long at his watch and has difficulty remembering the price of hamburger.  For Bush it was very difficult for a member of the greatest generation to lose the presidency to someone who he then characterized as a “draft dodger.”  However, Meacham is correct in pointing out that the reason Bush lost the election was that he did not seem to be that committed to his own election victory.  Time and again Meacham pointed to Bush’s diaries that expressed doubts as to whether he should have run.

Once out of office, Bush could theoretically relax, reflect, and enjoy his family.  For the most part he did, but he was worried about the course of his son’s presidency and the tone set by Bush 43’s administration commentary.  Overall, Meacham received unparalleled access to Bush 41 on a personal level as well as the availability to his diaries and many of those who served his political career and administration.  Meacham has written what appears to be an authorized biography that will be well received, but could have been a bit more incisive and balanced.

(Presidents Bush 41 and 43)

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