Prophet and Outcast Bush

George H.W. Bush shown on a television screen during his 1988 presidential campaign
Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos
George H.W. Bush shown on a television screen during his 1988 presidential campaign

In his active years as a politician, the forty-first president was pleased to be known as plain George Bush. Now we’re reintroduced to him as George Herbert Walker Bush, often shortened to George H.W. Bush. The starchier monikers serve not only to distinguish the father from his eldest son. They furnish a pedestal on which to place this monument to him as a figure in history.

If the son variously known as George W. and Bush 43 had remained in Dallas as managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise, his father’s one-term presidency might have receded even further in our memories. Jon Meacham then might not have been inspired to pack a fluffy word like “destiny” into the title of this affectionate, sometimes gushy treatment of the first President Bush. In the case of the Bushes, “destiny” points to dynasty. As we’ve seen, it can be star-crossed.

George W. plunged into politics, declaring for governor of Texas the same year George the first retreated to Houston. Eventually sheer comparison would make his father an object of nostalgia and regard. But by the political world’s usual measurements, George W. proved the more disciplined and successful politician, twice winning statewide office where the elder Bush had twice struck out, then being re-elected president, serving eight years, compared to his father’s four (though his victory in 2000 was shadowed by his failure to get a plurality of the vote, except on the Supreme Court).

By his own performance in office, the son highlighted the more cautious, prudential side of his father’s leadership. There’s the Oedipal rub. The second Bush’s swaggering quest for weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda in Iraq, with all that ensued, eventually left our most recent Republican president a virtual outcast in his party—so diminished a figure that he wasn’t welcome at the 2008 Republican convention (except in a televised message, on the edge of prime time).

More recently, the promise of yet another Bush, a prospective Bush 45, quickly flashed and then even more quickly dimmed. The latest chip off the old dynasty—George W.’s younger brother Jeb (sometimes spelled Jeb!)—hasn’t been able to keep up with the dark currents churning the party he seeks to calm and lead. There’s a spiral here. The way George W. made the progenitor look good, Jeb’s campaign misfortunes have reminded some Republicans that for all his failings in office, George W. was a winner.

In the tenth presidential cycle since Meacham’s subject bent his knee and promised full fealty to Ronald Reagan, signing on as the running mate of his erstwhile rival, there are still legions of self-declared Reagan Republicans among potential delegates and office-holders. Leftover Bush Republicans would appear to be mostly…

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