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 people named Bush. Faded shibboleths like “a kinder, gentler nation,” “a thousand points of light,” “new world order,” or Bush 43’s “compassionate conservatism” aren’t stitched into anyone’s banners, even their own. That’s their “American Odyssey.”
The chief virtue of this latest biography of the first President Bush is that it charts his usually astute, steady navigation through a period of remarkable turbulence and lurking dangers. The Berlin Wall was breached in his first year in office and the Soviet bloc started to break up. China’s stability and future course were called into question by the military suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrations. Then it was the Soviet Union itself that came apart, a slew of its supposedly autonomous states becoming truly autonomous; independent, in fact. It was George Bush, not Ronald Reagan, who had to surf these waves, who took the call from Mikhail Gorbachev on Christmas Day 1991 declaring the Communist state—and with it the cold war—to be over, finished. Reagan had been out of office for three years at that point. Americans of a rightist inclination gave him the credit. The following year, when Bush faced reelection, all this was old news. The president didn’t know how to make a case for the part he had played. His early support for German reunification might win him a few lines in future histories. It wasn’t going to win him many votes.
On the campaign trail, Bush the elder always had a problem of self-definition. A New Englander born and bred into privilege, he became a Texan oilman. Son of a moderate Republican senator from Connecticut—his father, Prescott Bush, distinguished himself by condemning Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting—he entered Texas politics as a Goldwater Republican. Conservative Republicans sometimes gave him the benefit of the doubt but never quite believed he was speaking from the heart.
His sense of duty, rather than any set of political beliefs, was what moved him; that, Meacham argues, and an unremitting ambition, partly veiled by a polite demeanor that only now and then turned openly assertive (as in his boast after his 1984 debate with Geraldine Ferraro that he’d tried “to kick a little ass”).
At eighteen, in 1942, he’d rushed from prep school to the navy, flying fifty-eight combat missions off carriers in the Pacific, delivering bombs to his target on the very first, only to be shot down in September 1944. He managed to parachute out of the burning plane, landing in the Pacific off an island called Chichi-Jima; his two crewmen didn’t, which rendered the memory painful ever after.
Yale was the inevitable first stop after the war but then, instead of following his father and maternal grandfather to Wall Street, he veered south and west to Midland, Texas. Years later, when he plunged into politics, he still had to overcompensate for his Yankee heritage. One way to do this was to oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Everyone seemed to understand, then and later, that such gestures to the right were prompted by the politics of his time and place, not deep conviction. What he famously called “the vision thing” was a blind spot from the start. Meacham writes of “his inability to project great conviction.” He was at once decent and malleable; or, in a view this biographer ascribes to Richard Nixon, “both respectable and manageable.”
Three times he was considered a plausible vice-presidential candidate (by Nixon in 1968 and 1973, by Ford in 1974) before Ronald Reagan overcame his aversion to the idea, aggravated by his doubts about the man, and settled on him at the last possible moment at the 1980 Republican convention. So it wasn’t “destiny” that got him where he early on meant to go. It was Reagan’s need for a supposedly “moderate” running mate with experience in foreign affairs who could compensate for his own perceived deficits with undecided independent voters.
Between 1971 (following his second failed run at a Senate seat) and 1976 (when Jimmy Carter ejected Gerald Ford from the White House), Bush had bounced among a series of relatively brief appointive assignments, adding to his résumé but obscuring his political allegiances: ambassador to the United Nations, head of the first American diplomatic mission to Beijing, director of central intelligence for barely a year. Along the way, he’d accomplished the thankless task, as chairman of the Republican National Committee, of standing up for Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, almost but not quite all the way to the end. He did so, it was felt, without disgracing himself. That showed party loyalty, not ideological commitment. He offended Reagan in their 1980 contest for the nomination by calling attention to his rival’s age—underscoring his own fitness by hewing to a strenuous jogging schedule—and by scoffing at the “voodoo economics” Reagan peddled.
In his late-night phone call to Bush about the second spot on the ticket, Reagan still needed to be convinced. He asked whether Bush had any reservations about the Republican platform. Bush knew this was a loaded question touching on its “pro-life” planks. He’d supported Planned Parenthood (as had his father) and once, as a congressman, called for the creation of a federal department that would encourage family planning. In an instant, the call from the head of the ticket inspired a secular epiphany, a moment of conversion: Bush looked into himself and found no reservations worth mentioning. From then on, set on a path that could lead to the White House, he’d be loyally and faithfully pro-life.
Meacham lays out such moments when this genteel, plausible opportunist found it expedient to change course, without delving into the actual issues at stake. Compared to Reagan, he tells us, Bush was a “moderate” on abortion, whatever that means. “He saw politics more in terms of consensus than of ideology,” Meacham explains.
One ran for office—and did what partisanship required to win elections—in order to amass power to serve the larger good. For Bush, the work of government was less about radical reform than it was about careful stewardship.
When his subject reins in his convictions for the sake of a political gain, the biographer finds a rationalization. Opposition to the Civil Rights Act didn’t come easily to him, we’re assured: Bush “struggled to reconcile the impulses of a good heart with the demands of the politics of 1964.” The politics of 1964—in particular, the politics of white Texas voters then—won out. “Did I go too far right?” the former president asks in one of his conversations with Meacham. “Maybe,” he concedes.
Author and subject obviously identify with each other as likable men, recognize one another’s charm. They had countless interviews—at least Meacham doesn’t count them—over five or so years. Each in his own way is generous: Bush in giving the writer seemingly complete access to documents, family, and friends; Meacham in his judgments, his patently sincere eagerness to portray the former president in the best light, as Bush would have liked to see himself and still yearned to be seen as he closed in on his tenth decade, fearful that he was becoming, as Meacham put it, “a forgotten figure,” in Bush’s own words, an “asterisk.”
So we find Bush characterized in these pages as not just “a decent and caring man” but “a uniquely good man in a political universe where good men were hard to come by.” We read not only of his “kindness and grace” but his “quiet but persistent charisma, an ability to make others love him without, perhaps, their knowing quite why.” There the author seems to be testifying for himself. Not infrequently his authorial distance from his subject shrinks to the vanishing point.
On the rare occasions he finds it necessary to render a severe judgment, Meacham can be counted on to cloak it in priestly forgiveness. During the public airing of the Iran-contra scandal at the end of the Reagan years, Bush regularly maintained that he’d been “not in the loop” and, in any case, that the secret deal with Tehran had nothing to do with exchanging arms for hostages. That was a double fib: Bush knew the details of the deal and supported the various transactions that came with it. Meacham has to acknowledge as much but then can’t resist speaking up for this “uniquely good man,” his subject. Those fibs were “unworthy of his essential character,” we’re told.
On occasion, rather than judging, he quotes others. Roger Ailes, now the presiding mastermind behind Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, worked closely as a political consultant with the president’s chosen hatchet man, Lee Atwater. When Bush concluded that responsible stewardship entailed breaking the seemingly inviolate pledge (“Read my lips: no new taxes”) that Peggy Noonan fought to keep in his 1988 speech accepting the Republican nomination for president, Ailes gave him a dose of straight talk. “You’re not known for much, but you are known for character. Don’t do it—don’t break your word.”
The consultant wasn’t putting down the president, just giving him an accurate snapshot of the way the country and party saw him as revealed in polls and focus groups. Looking back on that episode, Bush is torn between feeling he did right by the country in striking a bipartisan revenue deal and thinking he should have listened to handlers he’d hired for their skill and ruthlessness in the rougher political arts while he complained in his diary about the “nastiness” and “ugliness” of politics on the right. That’s characteristic. He’s often torn in this way. His impulse to serve what he deems to be the greater good struggles with his determination to escape defeat. When he loses, he first blames himself, then the country, in rambling stream-of-consciousness diary notes dictated in an idiosyncratic, staccato mode. Meacham, who plans to edit these presidential meditations for publication as a book, quotes them copiously, then often paraphrases them, as if they require translation.
A prologue he titles “The Last Gentleman” opens with the most arresting, perhaps revealing of these recorded entries, mostly dictated in a keyed-up fit of past-midnight sleeplessness, hours after he had to concede to Bill Clinton in 1992: “I don’t like to see the pollsters right at the end. I don’t like to see the pundits right, I don’t like to see all of those who have written me off right.” They said he was out of touch and maybe he was, he now tells himself. The winner, he recognizes, hails from “a generation more in touch, a background more in touch.”
What he offered, the rejected president soliloquizes, was a lifetime’s devotion to “honor, duty, and country” and now, he declares in the depths of his mourning and self-pity, that’s “just passé.” His defeat shows he’s “a little out of date” because his values are. “I’ve always assumed that was just part of what Americans are made of [meaning devotion to honor, duty, country]—quite clearly it’s not.” Earlier George W. and Jeb had tried to extend filial comfort, telling him he had much in which to take pride.
“Yes, their father was President and all of that, but a failed President,” an unconsoled Bush says before clicking his recorder off. His friendly biographer can’t let his bitter judgment stand. If he had, this would have been a shorter book. So he intervenes, taking up his narrative where the Bush sons left off. “His was one of the great American lives,” the long encomium begins.
There are times when Meacham’s book might have gone longer and deeper; for instance, on Bush’s two appointments to the Supreme Court, David Souter and Clarence Thomas. Souter gets three paragraphs and no assessment of his jurisprudence. Bush initially wanted to avoid “an Earl Warren type of discovery,” meaning an appointment that would rile his party’s right wing; he ends up feeling Souter had been “a huge mistake” because he usually voted with the liberal minority on issues that came to the court. Bush, ducking a confirmation battle, had passed over “an avowedly pro-life judge” to make the appointment.
Thomas has now been on the court for nearly a quarter of a century. Bush admits to painful second thoughts on Souter, none on Thomas. He has never wavered in his support for his appointee. The former president displays slight interest in the substantive side of the court’s work, only in how his appointments played out politically for himself. It’s not easy to say who’s more superficial, subject or biographer, in discussing the judicial consequences of the first George Bush.
The biographer gets more mileage out of the selection of Dan Quayle for vice-president in 1988. Here he shows that Bush soon came to regret his choice. “It was my big decision, and I blew it,” he told his diary early on, “but I’m not about to say that I blew it.” Later the president couldn’t resist the suspicion that Quayle was playing up to the most conservative wing of the party, often to Bush’s disadvantage, showing him little of the loyalty he himself had been careful to show Reagan. A passage from the presidential diary all but says that Quayle was retained on the ticket in 1992 only because Bush couldn’t figure out a hazard-free way to get him off. “The bottom line on Quayle,” he said, “is, if he is dumped, I’m attacked [for] not keeping my word, ‘Read My Lips’; no loyalty, looking after myself, and not the other guy.” Quayle and Thomas: those two names need to be mentioned in any assessment of the uneven first Bush presidency.
In view of subsequent developments, it’s striking to come upon the advice his eldest son urged on him at this juncture. George W. recommended that Quayle be replaced on the ticket in 1992 by Dick Cheney. Eight years later, when he fatefully thought of Cheney as a possible vice-president, we thus learn, it wasn’t for the first time. In the book’s most surprising passage, the senior Bush allows himself to complain openly and on the record about the unprecedented ramrod role Vice President Cheney then fashioned for himself after the September 11 attacks.
Once his son goes back to Dallas, the father finally allows himself to express a view he’d been holding back, it seems, for years. “The big mistake that was made was letting Cheney bring in kind of his own State Department,” Bush 41 said, blaming Bush 43. “It’s not Cheney’s fault, it’s the president’s fault.” Cheney himself was “just iron-ass…knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East.”
Bush himself, a certified war hero, was not one of those hard-charging guys. That’s his claim in Meacham’s eyes to being a figure in history. Only four months into his presidency, over initial resistance from the Joint Chiefs, he pushed forward a proposal for mutual reductions in conventional forces in Europe by the United States and Soviet Union, and for a halt to any upgrading of short-range nuclear weapons as well. The aim was to test Mikhail Gorbachev’s promises of reform in the Soviet bloc. French President François Mitterrand commented that the American president had “displayed imagination—indeed, intellectual audacity of the rarest kind.”
In that season of upheaval, he privately urged his advisers, “Let’s think big, let’s think in big broad terms, and not in the old Cold War rhetoric terms—keep our eyes open, be sure, but think big.” At least that’s what he told his diary. His constant instinct was to resist posturing in public while probing privately for opportunities. The use of the People’s Liberation Army to suppress student protests in Tienanmen Square provoked calls for sanctions, even an embargo. The president reacted by writing a four-page personal letter to Deng Xiaoping. “I have tried very hard,” it said, “not to appear to be dictating in any way to China about how it should manage its internal crisis.” Taking a longer view, he sent Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, to Beijing, to see what could be done about sustaining the relationship. “Just let it wait for a while—hold the line,” he advised himself in a diary entry.
On much the same note, Bush told Gorbachev, “I have conducted myself in ways not to complicate your life. That’s why I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall.” Standing side by side with the Soviet leader at the end of a summit on Malta, he spoke of “a brand-new era of US-Soviet relations” that could end the division of Europe and the military confrontation there. He hoped to reach those large goals in partnership with the Soviet leader. He worried that Gorbachev might change course, didn’t imagine that he might fall. Meanwhile, he promised himself, he would “push, push, push on arms control, get something done.”
Domestic critics thought him insufficiently ambitious in the face of world-changing opportunities, called him timid. He was plenty ambitious but could imagine, as his critics mostly did not, how things could go desperately wrong. If he’d urged Eastern Europe to the barricades, he wrote in his diary, “You would’ve had chaos, and the danger of military action, bloodshed, just to make a few critics feel good—crazy.”
Bush could explain his hopes and fears to his diary. He was frequently hard to follow or tongue-tied when he needed to explain them to the country. It wasn’t his deft diplomacy with Gorbachev that won him acclaim as a leader in international affairs. It was his response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. Authorization for the use of force was passed by narrow margins, only four votes in the Senate where Democrats argued that sanctions could force Iraq to back down. (“A nasty little country invaded a littler, but just as nasty, country,” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said during the debate, putting the issue in what he thought to be its proper perspective.) In less than a week after coalition ground troops entered Iraq, Saddam accepted United Nations terms and Bush called a cease-fire. His approval ratings then soared to just under 90 percent (higher than Truman’s after V-E Day).
In November 1992, seeking re-election, he would get just 37 percent of the vote. The country had already gone into recession at the time of the victory over Saddam. And the president himself had slid into despondency. “I want out,” he dictated to his diary at the time of Saddam’s capitulation. “I want to go back to the real world…. I’ve lost heart for a lot of the gut political fighting, as a result of trying to lead this country and bring it together in the Gulf. It’s strange but true.”
Partly, it turned out, he was suffering from a thyroid deficiency that sapped his energy. But partly he was also suffering from a sense of anticlimax. He’d half-expected Iraqis to rise up and oust Saddam. Those who tried in response to his call to do so were slaughtered. Years later, in a 1998 book he was credited with having coauthored with Brent Scowcroft, he explained why he hadn’t sent US forces to Baghdad to topple the dictator: “To occupy Iraq would instantly shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us, and make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero.” It would also condemn young soldiers to “what would be an unwinnable urban guerrilla war” and “plunge that part of the world into ever greater instability,” destroying “the credibility we were working so hard to reestablish.”
That was more than an explanation. It was a prophecy. In the aftermath of September 11, George W. Bush listened to Vice President Cheney and his father’s old rival, Donald Rumsfeld, and failed to heed what his father had predicted. “I don’t like what he [Rumsfeld] did, and I think it hurt the President, having his iron-ass view of everything…. There’s a lack of humility, a lack of seeing what the other guy thinks.” So Bush 41 summed up the departed defense secretary to his biographer after a possibly chastened Bush 43 finally sent Rumsfeld packing over Cheney’s objections.