Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I got this book as a gift. It turned out to be a great gift, as the book, from my perspective, was excellent.
The book itself, of course in this day and age, has drawn some criticism for being a hagiography of George H.W. Bush. After reading it I would say that Meacham has a deep respect for Bush 41, but it would seem to me that respect is driven by Meacham’s admiration for a form of governance that includes compromise, that is not driven by hard core partisanship at all times. Whether you agree with Meacham or not he believes Bush, whatever his faults, represented a style of governance that may be gone forever. On that score Meacham is sympathetic to Bush. I do believe that Meacham was fair in his criticism of Bush 41, but that criticism is not shrill, and does not come with a sharp edge. If you are looking to see George H.W. Bush torn apart this is not your book.
I was quite taken, as a matter of style, at how easy of a read this was. Meacham has put together 600 pages on a very important person in U.S. history that flowed, was deeply interesting, and gave the right amount of detail to make it such a great read. This book, despite its length, does not delve into great detail on the issues of the day. It is more of an overview of the life and times of George H.W. Bush.
The life and times of George H.W. Bush consists of so much more than his one-term presidency. Bush had the advantage of having a wealthy father who became a U.S. Senator. Meacham gives us a good overview of the Bush family, and the Walker family that Prescott Bush married into. Prescott was an Eisenhower Republican, later a supporter of Nelson Rockefeller. That lineage, and the home base of Connecticut, hung with Bush 41 for his entire life, making him suspect to the conservative right that would end up taking over the national GOP. This was true even though Bush moved to Texas and became a successful oil man.
Bush had quite a career, and Meacham gives us a great look at all of the stops he made along the way to the Presidency. Bush was a Congressman from Texas, lost U.S. Senate races to Ralph Yarborough and later to Lloyd Bentsen, and caught the eye of President Richard Nixon. In the Yarborough race, in the LBJ/Goldwater year of 1964, Bush was willing, despite his pedigree, to go full Goldwater, coming out against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and criticizing Yarborough for his vote to break the southern filibuster of that Act. Meacham lays that out, and gently points out the Bush bow to political expediency, something that we would see more than a few times during his career. Meacham balances this out with some letters from Bush bemoaning the state of racial politics in Texas, and nationally, at the time.
“ What shall I do? How will I do it? he asked. I want to win, but not at the expense of justice, not at the expense of the dignity of any man… nor teaching my children a prejudice that I do not feel. “Meacham, Jon Destiny and Power The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush“ Page 121.
Bush, after the Yarborough defeat, was elected as a Congressman from the 7th District in Texas. Despite his earlier positions Bush voted for the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and in so doing brought a heap of abuse upon himself from Texas voters who strongly disagreed with that position. Bush, on the issue of civil rights, could not be placed squarely with the developing hard right.
After his loss to Bentsen he nearly became a member of Richard Nixon’s White House staff, getting a verbal appointment from Nixon, and being placed into the hands of Nixon Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman. Bush managed to convince Nixon that he could serve the administration more effectively as the Ambassador to the U.N. Nixon came to see the wisdom of this, and appointed George H.W. Bush to his first major post serving Republican Presidents. Bush became Ambassador at a heady time, with political giants like Nixon and Kissinger beginning the China outreach, with the status of Taiwan at the U.N. becoming more difficult. Bush fought for a difficult political proposition; keeping Taiwan in the body representing China. Bush would lose that fight, as Taiwan was expelled on his watch.
Bush, after the Nixon re-election, was asked by the President to become the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Bush took the position, reluctantly, and of course was at the helm when Watergate broke. Bush came to recognize that Nixon had misled the nation, but as RNC Chair he was forced into a very difficult political balancing act. Bush, in a sign of his political skill, managed to navigate his way through that disaster without derailing his own career. After Nixon’s resignation President Ford had Bush on a short list for Vice President. Bush lost that nod to Nelson Rockefeller. Also in consideration was Donald Rumsfeld. Ford sent Bush to China as the U.S. envoy (the U.S. still had not established diplomatic relation with China) a position that played to the Bush desire to burnish his foreign policy credentials.
With Rockefeller deposed by Ford as Vice President for the general election of 1976 Bush was called back to Washington to serve as Director of the CIA. Bush 41 always believed that Donald Rumsfeld had engineered that appointment, hoping to bury Bush in a dead end job and knock him out of consideration for the Vice Presidential nomination on the GOP ticket. That feeling, true or not, never really left Bush, who disliked Rumsfeld from that point forward.
Bush took over the CIA at a very difficult time, as the Church hearings on CIA abuses were underway, creating pretty severe issues for the agency. This book will not give you a detailed look at Bush in action as CIA Director, but I think it fair to say that he won pretty good reviews for the job he did.
After the Ford loss to Jimmy Carter Bush stepped down as Director, at the request of President Carter. He then began preparations for his own run for the Presidency in four years. We get a good look at that campaign, which Bush did very well in. He managed to defeat Ronald Reagan in Iowa, and to put a real scare into the Reagan campaign. The slumbering Reagan campaign finally came to life in New Hampshire, where the Gipper, in a must win position, carried the day. Some great tidbits from the campaign, including a nice look at the debate fiasco in New Hampshire, in Nashua. Reagan and his team out-maneuvered the Bush folks, and Reagan never looked back. We get a great look at the Republican vice presidential sweepstakes after the Reagan win, with Gerald Ford, for a while, looking like he might join the ticket and once again dash the Bush hopes for a vice presidential nod. Eventually that somewhat crazy idea passed, and Reagan turned to Bush.
Bush had eight years as Vice President under Reagan, and Meacham shows us how Bush was determined to be a loyal veep, and to build trust with Reagan. Despite some light tension with Nancy Reagan Bush in fact did build that trust. In so doing Bush became somewhat embroiled in Iran-Contra near the end of Reagan’s tenure. We don’t get a lot on the Bush role, but Meacham concedes that the Bush responses to these questions were not always forthright. Meacham also scores Bush for the advice he gave Reagan on this issue, and Meacham was right. The episode was not one of George H.W. Bush’s proudest moments.
Bush went on to win the presidency in his own right, and we get a good overview of his four years. Bush, as most would concede, was a fairly strong President on foreign affairs. His stewardship of the Gulf War, to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, was a decision he made over some pretty strong opposition. His decision for war was so successful, in my view, due to the limited strategic objectives for the operation. His decisions on the reunification of Germany, and the great care he took to ensure Soviet non-opposition to that reunification, and to Germany joining NATO, were master strokes. The Bush record in that regard, in my view, is outstanding. Meacham makes clear that from the start Bush was somewhat befuddled by domestic policy. Bush ended up making the budget deal that broke the “read my lips” no taxes pledge, but Meacham is sympathetic. Bush honestly felt that the deal was in the best interests of the country, and so was willing to take that heat. Meacham shows Bush truly floundering in this area, although Bush, even domestically, had some major victories, even with Congress firmly in Democratic hands. The signing of the American Disabilities Act was one such notable achievement. The disarray Bush found himself in domestically managed to drag him down from the vast heights he reached, polling wise, after the success of Desert Storm. Meacham shows us how the Bush heart was not truly in the re-election bid, which he lost to someone more versed in modern political techniques, William Jefferson Clinton.
The Bush post presidency was more involved than most, as his son won the Presidency after two terms of Clinton. We get a look at some of the dynamics between father and son. Meacham gives both 41 and 43 an opportunity to rebut the speculation on the father opposing the Iraq misadventure of the son. Bush 41 strongly denied this, and I believe that he did not in any way try to steer his son off the Iraq policy that proved so disastrous. But I do not believe that he was completely quiet, with the Brent Scowcroft column breaking with 43 in the Wall Street Journal one of those signals. That was heartily denied by all but I do not believe it. This book made headlines at publishing because of the comments 41 made to Meacham essentially accusing Cheney and Rumsfeld of advising 43 poorly on the Iraq situation. He was also critical of his son over some of the rhetoric used by the Administration. George H.W. Bush was correct in those criticisms.
George H.W. Bush did not just parachute into the presidency. He served in many important posts, and made major contributions even before he was elected President. He made some tough choices that many believe were wrong, and I do believe he came to be ashamed of the tactics deployed against Michael Dukakis in his winning campaign for the Presidency. (Lee Atwater wrote Dukakis a letter of apology before he died.) This book gives us a great look at the Bush life, and despite what you may have heard it is a balanced look. George H.W. Bush lived at a momentous time in American history, and he made real contributions to the country. He felt that the country had passed him by, and in some respects it had, but his Presidency was not, as he sometimes lamented, an asterisk. This book helps us to understand the very important life, and contributions, of George H.W. Bush.
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