George H.W. Bush epitomises a vanishing GOP.

Summary: An account of the 41st US president's life portrays him as competitive, forward-rolling and hellbent on the prize

Image Credit: Reviewed by Jennifer Senior

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush

By Jon Meacham, Random House, 864 pages, $35

For better or for worse, George Herbert Walker Bush has been enshrined in collective memory as a series of caricatures, all of them evoking ineffectuality. He was the effete Yale man and the blue blood wimp; the awkward statesman who, when called upon to speak, diced the English language into an uneven and mysterious julienne.

It didn't help that his face was generally a fresco of befuddlement. The last thing one would have expected of him was tigerish ambition. Unlike so many politicians who thrust their way into the Oval Office - Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton - there seemed nothing overtly appetitive about him.

But hungry he was, as Jon Meacham's absorbing biography "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush" deftly shows; he was competitive, forward-rolling and hellbent on the prize. When Bush lost the Republican presidential primary in 1980, the thought of dissolving into the small talk and narcotising rituals of Houston suburbia filled him with dread.

It's part of what drove him into the arms of Lee Atwater, the cutthroat political strategist who made Willie Horton's release on furlough the ugly centrepiece of Bush's winning presidential campaign in 1988.

Yet Bush never reached the status of greatness. For competing with his ambition was an equal sense of modesty, drummed into him by his mother: "Bushes were to win, but not to brag; succeed, but not preen." His campaign tactics may have been ruthless, but in person he was unfailingly decent and courteous, commanding remarkable levels of loyalty.

Character was his calling card, not ideas. To the extent that he had one at all, his governing philosophy was solid stewardship: leading calmly and prudently, making sure the ship was in good form, with the chairs properly arranged on the decks.

And what was wrong with that, really? His charm, discretion and sincere cultivation of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev meant that the Soviets knew Bush wouldn't crow when the Berlin Wall came crashing down, which helped assure a peaceful resolution to the Cold War. Bush's flair for compromise enabled him to work with a Democratic Congress: he passed environmental legislation, increased the minimum wage and signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law.

He even raised taxes, though he'd famously pledged otherwise and knew he'd be pilloried for it. "There is a clump of these extreme extremists that I detest," he dictated into his diary at the time, "but I can't let the [expletive] get us down."

The real oddity is that Bush was ever elected president in the first place. When he ran in the presidential primary of 1980, the gravitational centre of the Republican Party had already shifted considerably to his right. "The question," Meacham writes, "was whether there was room for Bush, essentially a man most comfortable with the style and the substance of the GOP of the 1950s." In hindsight, there probably wasn't. Ronald Reagan roundly destroyed him that year.

Today, Bush looks like a near-vanished species: a consensus-seeking, diplomacy-oriented Republican while his party streams ever outwards to the right, towards some event horizon that stops with - well, whom exactly? Ted Cruz? Ben Carson? It's impossible to say. Here's what Bush wrote about his party's ideological purists, in a 1988 diary entry: "They don't care about Party. They don't care about anything," adding, "They will destroy this party if they're permitted to take over."

Bush may never have achieved greatness. But he's led a long and remarkable life, which has spanned the better part of the 20th century. He fought in the Second World War. He started a successful oil business. He spent two terms in the House of Representatives; he served as ambassador to the United Nations and as American liaison to China; he ran the Republican National Committee and, far more important, the CIA. He was vice-president for eight years and president for four. At 90, he jumped out of an aircraft.

Such a man can't help but have tremendous stories to tell, and Meacham, clearly possessed of the same judiciousness and diplomatic skills as his subject, was able to negotiate a king's access to the Bush family and its lieutenants, earning their trust, just as Bush did with the Soviets.

Hence all the headlines that have emerged from "Destiny and Power": Bush confided that he thought Donald Rumsfeld "served the president" - his son George W. Bush - "badly". Vice-President Dick Cheney, in his view, sullied his son's administration with warmongering rhetoric and developed too large a power base in the White House, "kind of his own State Department".

But the pleasures of this panoramic book (it clocks in at 800-plus pages) have little to do with the news it breaks. They're about psychological portraiture, enabled by the artful use of Bush's diaries - they're surprisingly rich - and the author's many probing interviews with Bush over the years.

The man that Meacham shows us is one who cries easily and suffers from an awfully nervous stomach. Decades after the Second World War, he is crosshatched with guilt over the crewman he lost when flying over Chichi-Jima in Japan; he breaks down as he reads a note he wrote to his mother about losing his daughter Robin to leukaemia. (It's devastating. And beautiful.)

Meacham, no stranger to presidential politics or biographies - he's the former editor of "Newsweek" and won a Pulitzer for "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House" - also knows how to spot the beauts in his source material, and Bush's diaries offer plenty: Ross Perot is "a highly wired up, strange little egomaniac". Al Gore is "an attractive guy, but [they say] he is a worse speaker than me - the poor guy's in real trouble if he's worse than me".

The problem with so much access is that it can be seductive, distorting. Just because Meacham spoke to the principals of this story (or obtained their diaries and letters) doesn't mean their stories aren't self-serving. Yet sometimes he simply accepts their version of events. And while it's natural for any biographer to become attached to his or her subject, Meacham often reverts to the passive tense when discussing the more controversial episodes of Bush's career (on Iran-Contra: "No evidence was ever produced proving Bush was aware," etc), or tries to show how tormented they made the president feel.

On occasion he turns a blind eye to unflattering events. Meacham writes, for instance, that the drubbing George W. Bush got for his handling of Hurricane Katrina "enraged the former president". He then quotes a letter the elder Bush sent a friend: "Now my own son is under this kind of blistering, meanspirited attack."

Forget whether this blistering attack was justified. What's interesting here is the incident Meacham does not mention: that the former First Lady Barbara Bush, after touring the Houston Astrodome and seeing thousands of evacuees living in squalor, told NPR, "So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them." How could he have left that out?

For the most part, though, Meacham's compassionate approach to telling the story of Bush's life provides a newfound appreciation for the 41st president. How can you not admire a man who consoled himself in defeat by stealing off to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to attend an all-night vigil for the dead? "To the surprise of the few overnight observers," Meacham writes, "the president of the United States read a few names, saluted the fallen, and left as quietly as he had come."

-New York Times News Service

Sarvy Geranpayeh

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