November 19, 2014
Love Flows, President to President
’41,’ George W. Bush’s Portrait of George H. W. Bush
Review by Michiko Kakutani@www.nytimes.com
The relationship between George W. Bush and his father, George H. W. Bush, might just be the most dissected filial relationship in modern history — compared, variously, to Shakespearean history, Greek tragedy and opéra bouffe. In his new book, the 43rd president draws an affectionate portrait of the 41st president that’s short on factual revelations and long on emotion.
In “41,” Mr. Bush sheds little new light on his fateful decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or on other pivotal moments of his presidency, nor does he tell us much about his father’s tenure in the White House that we didn’t already know. Instead, he’s written what he calls a “love story” about his dad. At its best, the book has the qualities of the younger Mr. Bush’s recent and much-talked-about paintings: It’s folksy, sharply observed and surprisingly affecting, especially for someone not exactly known for introspection. At its worst, the book reads like a banquet-dinner-type testimonial about his father, with transparent efforts to spin or sidestep important questions about his own time in office.
Since George W. Bush stepped onto the national stage, journalists, other politicians and even family members have been comparing and contrasting father and son. Whereas Bush senior was famous for his self-effacing New England manners and quiet diplomacy, Bush junior became known as a proud, outspoken gut player, with Texas swagger. Whereas Bush senior’s policies were grounded in foreign policy realism and old-school Republican moderation, Bush junior’s tilted toward neoconservatism and a drive to export democracy and remake the world. Bush senior was not crazy about “the vision thing,” whereas Bush junior was big on big ideas.
“On everything from taxes to Iraq,” the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in 2002, “the son has tried to use his father’s failures in the eyes of conservatives as a reverse playbook.” When Bush 41 went to war against Saddam Hussein in 1991 (after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait), he made a decision not to go on to Baghdad and topple Iraq’s dictator, later explaining that if we had gone in and created “more instability in Iraq, I think it would have been very bad for the neighborhood.”
The younger Mr. Bush writes, somewhat defensively here, that in ordering the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he “was not trying ‘to finish what my father had begun,’ as some have suggested. My motivation was to protect the United States of America, as I had sworn an oath to do.”
He also elaborates on a surprising statement he once made to Bob Woodward — that he couldn’t remember consulting his father about his decision to go to war. In “41,” he says: “I never asked Dad what I should do. We both knew that this was a decision that only the president can make. We did talk about the issue, however. Over Christmas 2002, at Camp David, I gave Dad an update on our strategy.”
His father, he says, replied: “You know how tough war is, son, and you’ve got to try everything you can to avoid war. But if the man won’t comply, you don’t have any other choice.”
The oddly dysfunctional inability of father and son to discuss policy and politics — out of fear, it seems, of meddling or stepping on each other’s toes — is a recurrent theme in this book. The younger Mr. Bush says his father did not directly caution him against running for Congress in the late ’70s, but instead sent him to talk with a friend who told him he couldn’t win. (He didn’t.)
For many concerned about the war drums beating within the younger Bush’s White House in 2002, something similar occurred when the elder Bush’s former national security adviser and close friend, Brent Scowcroft, wrote an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal warning that another attack on Saddam could “seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken.”
George W. Bush also writes that his father had little to say, in 1993, about his decision to run for governor of Texas, and that he didn’t ask his father whether he should run for president in the 2000 election, adding, “I knew he would support whatever choice I made.”
Biographers and journalists have often observed that the young George W. Bush (whose hard-drinking, irresponsible youth had made him a black sheep in the family next to Jeb, the golden boy) frequently felt overshadowed by his father. And they have speculated that, as President, he was driven to outdo his dad by taking Saddam Hussein down for good, and by winning a second term — arguments the Bush family has dismissed as psychobabble.
In “41,” the younger Mr. Bush talks at length about his dad’s early success. (“Few could claim the trifecta of war hero, Phi Beta Kappa and captain of the baseball team” at Yale, he writes.) And there is certainly fodder for readers searching for clues to an Oedipal rivalry. Mr. Bush says that his father’s college dreams of a baseball career were foiled because “he didn’t have a big enough bat to make the major leagues,” and also frets about his well-mannered father looking “weak” in a debate against Ronald Reagan, recalling a press account that said he showed “the backbone of a jellyfish.”
He writes, however, that his dad gave him “unconditional love,” and that he and his siblings felt “there was no point in competing with our father — no point in rebelling against him — because he would love us no matter what.” He celebrates his father’s well-known generosity, his talent for friendship and his willingness to take risks (from enlisting at the age of 18, not long after Pearl Harbor, to moving to Texas after college, to diving into politics after a stint in the oil business).
Like many, 43 hails 41 for his diplomatic handling of the end of the Cold War, reaching out to the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and wisely refusing to gloat over the fall of the Berlin Wall. In some ways, the younger Mr. Bush says, his father was “like Winston Churchill, who had been tossed out of office in 1945 just months after prevailing in World War II.”
The most persuasive sections of this book deal not with the political, but with the personal. Mr. Bush’s writing doesn’t have the earnest charm of his father’s letters (“All the Best, George Bush“) or the literary gifts displayed by his wife, Laura, in her memoir, “Spoken From the Heart.” But unlike his earlier books (his perfunctory 1999 campaign memoir, “A Charge to Keep,” and his dogged 2010 autobiography, “Decision Points”), this volume comes close to capturing Mr. Bush’s distinctive voice — by turns jokey and sentimental, irreverent and sincere.
There is very little here about his other siblings (his brother Jeb, the potential presidential candidate, is mentioned only in brief asides), but the passages devoted to his younger sister Robin’s death from leukemia in 1953 are heartfelt and moving.
“In one of her final moments with my father,” Mr. Bush writes, “Robin looked up at him with her beautiful blue eyes and said, ‘I love you more than tongue can tell.’ Dad would repeat those words for the rest of his life.”
As for Mr. Bush’s descriptions of the West Texas world that greeted him and his parents in the 1950s, they are evocative in a way that attests to his painterly eye. “We lived briefly at a hotel and then moved into a new 847-square-foot house on the outskirts of town,” he recalls. “The neighborhood was called Easter Egg Row, because the developers had chosen vibrant paint colors to help residents tell the houses apart. Our Easter egg at 405 East Maple was bright blue.”
Although George senior’s failure to win a second term in the White House led to a sense of despondency, his son writes, he would find “something positive about his defeat in 1992 — it had given rise to the political careers of two people” (that is, the author and Jeb) “whom he had raised and loves.” Had his dad been re-elected that year, the younger Mr. Bush says, “I would not have run for governor” of Texas in 1994 — nor, presumably, run for president and ascended to the White House in the too-close-to-call election of 2000 that went to the Supreme Court. History works in strange ways.