By Jon Meacham, Random House, New York, $35, 836 pages
Abraham Lincoln once observed that “Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves.” If so, Jon Meacham possesses it, as evidenced by his mostly admiring biography of former President George H.W. Bush. Readers of Meacham’s earlier books are accustomed to his assiduous research and learned perceptions. In most respects, this rewarding book does not disappoint.
Meacham was granted wide access over several years to Bush, his diaries, his family, and many of his closest friends. As such, the work has the feel of part memoir, part biography.
Exploiting this opportunity, Meacham utilizes hundreds of diary entries and interview segments seamlessly to produce a book that adds important insights to the public record. Especially adroit is the author’s recounting of Bush’s first success as a national politician in 1980 when he beat Ronald Reagan in the Iowa caucuses. Given Bush’s advanced age, the book is and will remain unique.
Whether the book is seminal is another matter. Meacham occasionally lacks balance, choosing to portray Bush in a positive light. One example is the author’s treatment of Bush’s involvement of the 1986 Iran arms sales debacle. At times, the book fails to heed a truism that Bush no doubt learned on the Iowa campaign trail: no matter how thin you make the flapjacks, there are always two sides.
Lawyers reading the book will be disappointed with the scant attention Meacham gives to Bush’s appointment of David Souter (1990) and Clarence Thomas (1991) to the U.S. Supreme Court. The author devotes less than six pages to these appointments, which is remarkable given that Souter and Thomas replaced two liberal icons, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, and presented Bush with the opportunity to cement GOP control over the court for the next 20 years.
The book stands on firmer ground in describing Bush’s New England boyhood, extended family members, military service in World War II, 70-year marriage, lament for a daughter who died young, oil business career, and rise in the 1960s Texas GOP. As expertly told by the author, the young Bush possessed character traits that caused older men to trust him.
Bush’s initial foray into national politics occurred in 1964, when he ran a spirited but unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in Texas to unseat the liberal Democrat, Ralph Yarborough. Two years later, Bush won election to a Houston district in the U.S. House of Representatives. One of the strengths of the book is the author’s recounting of the changing political landscape in Texas in the 1960s, as the GOP began to wrest control from the Democrats. Bush was at the genesis of that historical shift.
As a congressman, Bush was his own man, adopting conservative positions on foreign affairs, but moderate ones on social issues. In 1968 he voted in favor of the Fair Housing Act, for which he was excoriated in Texas. Another strength of the book is Meacham’s chronicling of Bush’s long battle with the GOP right wing, which constantly bedeviled him.
In 1970, Bush was convinced to sacrifice his House seat and once again challenge Yarborough. Bush had a good chance to beat him, but was deprived of the chance to do so when the incumbent lost the Democratic primary to Lloyd Bentsen, who then went on to defeat Bush in November.
After the Bentsen defeat, Bush’s political career was in tatters. One of the best parts of the book is the author’s description of how the despondent Bush picked himself off the canvas and worked to secure the appointment from to become the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
The 1980 presidential campaign sported a crowded GOP field, with seven major candidates. Meacham spends much appropriate space on this landmark campaign, from the Iowa caucuses (won by Bush) to the GOP national convention. The author is particularly effective in describing the tension and suspense that surrounded Reagan’s last-minute choice of Bush as his running mate.
As vice president, Bush earned Reagan’s trust by staying out of the limelight, remaining loyal, and eschewing his own agenda. According to the author, Bush proved his meddle in March 1981 when Reagan—barely two months in office—was shot and hospitalized. Returning to Washington, Bush was instructed by aides to helicopter to the South Lawn of the White House. Bush tactfully refused, stating “Only the president lands on the South Lawn.” As told by Meacham, Bush’s actions on that day convinced Reagan that he was a team player.
Following Bush’s own election as president, he faced two major foreign crises, including the collapse of the Soviet Union (1989) and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (1990). Bush’s handling of each is considered a model of judiciousness and restraint. Meacham devotes substantial space in his book to these crises, to good effect. The author is especially perceptive in explaining how Bush’s personal discipline in refusing to grandstand minimized the dangers presented by the Soviet collapse.
The author puts to effective use the Bush diaries in describing the 1992 presidential campaign, which Bush lost to Bill Clinton. The book reveals that, as early as mid-1991, Bush privately expressed doubts as to whether he would pursue re-election. His diaries reflect a constant weariness in battling right-wingers, whom he viewed as dangerous. The self-doubts and weariness were exacerbated by Bush’s suffering from Grave’s Disease, which sapped his energy and made him appear lethargic.
In repose, Bush consistently refused to comment on Clinton’s performance, deeming it undignified to do so. Thus, the biggest surprise comes at the end of the book, where Bush voices criticism of his son, President George W. Bush, for permitting his Vice President, Dick Cheney, to be so visible and vocal in his post. To the elder Bush, a good vice president is the quintessential man behind the curtain, never upstaging the boss. In reading this passage, one wishes Bush had levied the criticism earlier.