November 10, 2015
Book Review: Jon Meacham’s ‘Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush’
by Jim Kelly
George H. W. Bush is unusual among modern American presidents in that after he left the White House in 1993 he never produced his own full-scale autobiography. True, he co-wrote a book about his administration’s foreign policy with Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, and then allowed a collection of his letters and diary excerpts to be published. But he showed no interest in writing the kind of doorstopper others have given us, nothing on the order of “RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon,” “Ronald Reagan: An American Life” or Bill Clinton’s “My Life.” Even Hillary Clinton, who may yet be president and thus get her own chance to add to the genre, has already written two thick memoirs, either of which, if you accidentally dropped it on your foot, might leave you limping.
It is a measure of Bush’s shrewdness that he cooperated so extensively with Jon Meacham on “Destiny and Power,” allowing his biographer not just access to his diaries and family members but sitting for a series of interviews from 2006 to 2015. Meacham — an executive editor at Random House, a former editor of Newsweek and the author of “American Lion,” a well-told account of Andrew Jackson’s presidency that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 — amply rewards his subject’s trust by producing a deeply empathetic, often moving book about the former president and what Bush calls the L-word, his legacy.
How does the reader fare in this affectionate transaction between president and biographer? Surprisingly well, since Meacham’s access and lack of ideological fervor allow him to paint Bush the man in unusually subtle colors. Bush, called “41” by friends to distinguish him from his son, the 43rd president, emerges from this book as more ambitious, more anxious and far more emotional than commonly perceived. He could easily give former House Speaker John Boehner a run for his money in the Kleenex sweepstakes.
Bush, who is now 91, also comes across as an acute and often witty observer of other people’s quirks; his anecdotes of touring Asia with Bill Clinton may be the most hilarious description of 42’s charm and egotism (“He talks all the time,’’ Bush 41 notes. “He’s just shameless”) I have ever read. And thanks to Meacham’s adroit questioning, Bush drops his customary refusal to second-guess his son’s administration and offers a devastating critique of Vice- President Dick Cheney, an analysis that carries special weight since Bush himself served in that office during the Reagan years.
Raised in privilege, Bush is known to be allergic to introspection, and try as he might, Meacham unearths no “Rosebud” moment that illuminates what propelled Bush throughout his career. Perhaps it really is as simple as what Bush, in his telegraphic style, tells Meacham: “My motivation’s always been goal . . . you know, to be captain.” Pressed further, Bush is not exactly expansive: “Whatever you’re in. Be No. 1.” Bush’s father, Prescott, served as United States senator from Connecticut, but Bush did not inherit the political bug so much as the itch, as Meacham puts it, “to serve, to make his mark, to be in the game.” Despite his self-effacing style, Bush never doubted he was the best man for a job, whether it was as president of a Texas oil company, a twice-elected congressman (and failed Senate candidate) or in résumé-building positions under Nixon and Gerald Ford: United States ambassador to the United Nations, America’s envoy to China and head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Meacham’s admiration leads him to glide quickly over some of Bush’s more controversial decisions, like his nomination of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. Meacham is toughest on Bush for insisting in 1987 that he had been “not in the loop” on the Reagan administration’s arms-for-hostages deal, a lie that clearly appalls the author. But even then Meacham writes more in sorrow than anger, describing the incident as “unworthy of his essential character.”
This sympathetic approach allows Meacham to draw out Bush on the most emotional moments of his life and tell them with dramatic verve. In 1944, when he was 20, during one of the dozens of bombing missions Bush flew as a naval aviator, his plane was hit and Bush ordered his two fellow crewmen to “hit the silk!” After hours of bobbing about on a life raft in the Pacific, Bush was rescued by a submarine, but the other crewmen were never found. Decades later Bush teared up as he told Meacham, “I wondered — wonder still — whether I did all I could.”
The worst tragedy of Bush’s life was the death from leukemia at age 3 of his daughter, Robin, his second child. Neither George nor his wife, Barbara, had even heard of leukemia when their doctor in Midland, Tex., gave them the news, and what followed was months of painful treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York. George W. was 6 and Jeb less than 1, and they stayed at home in Texas with their father while Barbara remained in New York. Bush sobbed as he discussed Robin with Meacham, and admitted that the grief remained so deep that “normally I push it away, push it back.”
Bush has never been accused of eloquence, and on two occasions when he did utter memorable phrases, they backfired. The colorful description of Reagan’s tax proposals as “voodoo economics” during the 1980 Republican primary campaign nearly wrecked his chances of becoming Reagan’s running mate that year. His pledge at the 1988 Republican convention, “Read my lips: No new taxes,” may have helped him into the White House, but when the threat of a government shutdown two years later forced him to backtrack, the reversal cost him dearly.
Yet one time his choice of words set the course for the singular achievement of his presidency, and it was unscripted. After Saddam Hussein overran Kuwait in August 1990, the administration and its allies were at a loss on how to react. Options were still being bandied about when Bush, arriving from Camp David on a Sunday afternoon and frustrated by the diplomatic shilly-shallying, announced to reporters: “This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” Such an adamant statement shocked even his closest advisers. “Where’d you get that ‘This will not stand’?” Scowcroft asked. “That’s mine,” Bush replied. “That’s what I feel.”
This was Bush at his best: decisive, in charge, imbued with a mission. Can you be a born leader but not an effective president? That is the central question of the one-term Bush presidency, and Meacham tiptoes around a definitive answer. The flagging economy did not interest Bush as much as foreign policy did, and his hatred for campaigning to win a second term culminated in a disastrous presidential-debate performance against Clinton and Ross Perot, in which he stumbled over answers and looked at his watch. Meacham makes a persuasive case that Bush’s persistent health problems (his thyroid medication for Graves’ disease needed constant adjustment, and he had bouts of atrial fibrillation) contributed to his defeat, sapping his energy on the trail and making him snappish and cranky.
Bush took the loss hard, awash with those lifelong fears of letting down people who depended on him and of leaving a mission unaccomplished. “God, it was ghastly,” he told Meacham. “Your whole life is based on trying to accomplish stuff, and losing hurts.” But what also stung was who he lost to: a man he considered a “draft dodger” for avoiding service during the Vietnam War, an observation Meacham is too polite to say would dog Bush’s own son. So much for “duty, honor, country,” Bush wrote in his diary.
History has a way of making what happens look predictable in hindsight, but given Bush’s decisive drubbing by Clinton in 1992, it remains remarkable that eight years later George H. W. Bush would become, as Meacham puts it, “the only president since John Adams to see his son also win the ultimate prize in American politics.” Nearly all of Bush the elder’s friends thought the more studious Jeb had a better shot at the Oval Office than George W.; even James A. Baker, the secretary of state, had once jokingly described the older son as a “juvenile delinquent, damn near.”
Meacham interviewed both father and sons about the perception, and George W. is the most forthright, acknowledging he was a “cutup” and “irreverent,” uninterested in putting down roots. “It’s totally different from Jeb, who falls in love early and gets married in college and has babies early. He’s just a different kind of person.” His father is more succinct, using a barnyard epithet to dismiss “the whole idea that Jeb was the favorite one because he was more knowledgeable. . . . I thought Jeb had a better chance to win than George.” The 1994 gubernatorial elections in Texas and Florida settled the question, at least around the Bush dining room table: George W. won, surprisingly, and Jeb, just as surprisingly, lost. (Jeb would prevail in 1998 and serve eight years. Stay tuned to see if George H. W. Bush outdoes Adams on the offspring-in-the-Oval-Office front.)
Bush 43’s two-term presidency is the subject for a different book, but Meacham deftly sketches what the son learned from his father’s tenure, which included maintaining his conservative and religious base and above all projecting a vision. Meacham explores in depth how some of these lessons shaped Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, including how much he consulted his dad (more than he admitted, Meacham implies) and that contrary to some reports there was no daylight between the two men on the decision to oust Saddam Hussein militarily.
Where Meacham breaks new and startling ground is reporting how needlessly harsh Bush 41 thought the rhetoric was, including Bush 43’s characterization in 2002 of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” And for that tone Bush 41 largely blames Dick Cheney, defense secretary during his own administration and a man Bush 41 believed had grown more hawkish over time, perhaps because of the influence of his wife, Lynne, who, Bush 41 speculates, is “a lot of the éminence grise here — iron-ass, tough as nails, driving.”
Cheney “had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer,” Bush says. “The big mistake that was made was letting Cheney bring in kind of his own state department. I think they overdid that. But it’s not Cheney’s fault, it’s the president’s fault.”
Meacham shows a transcript of these remarks first to Cheney and then to Bush 43. “A small smile” crossed Cheney’s face as he read them. “Fascinating,” he said. He acknowledged that he did become more hard-line after 9/11, and insisted that the way he structured the office of the vice presidency, so unlike the way Bush did under Reagan, was because Bush 43 wanted it like that. “W. is the one who made the decisions. To the extent I was a consequential vice president is because that’s what he wanted.”
Bush 43 seems more taken aback by the comments than Cheney, insisting that his father “would never say to me, ‘Hey, you need to rein in Cheney. He’s ruining your administration.’ It would be out of character for him to do that.” It is hard to tell how stung Bush 43 is by these remarks, since he quickly adds that “in any event, I disagree with his characterization.” Yet Meacham wisely points out that by the second term Bush had clipped Cheney’s wings and become less bellicose. “Though they never spoke of it, then, Bush 41 and Bush 43 may have been more in sync all along than even they knew.”
“Destiny and Power” reflects the qualities of both subject and biographer: judicious, balanced, deliberative, with a deep appreciation of history and the personalities who shape it. If Meacham is sometimes polite to a fault, “Destiny and Power” does not suffer for it. His kinder, gentler approach succeeds in making George H. W. Bush a more sympathetic — and more complex — figure than if the former president had written his own doorstopper after all.
Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time magazine from 2001 to 2006, is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
A version of this review appears in print on November 12, 2015, on page BR12 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Patriarch. Today’s Paper