“Privilege” these days mostly appears in political discourse as an epithet. In the life of George H.W. Bush, it shaped a creed.
Growing up, “pretty much every day we’d have a Bible verse, usually at breakfast,” the 41st president told his biographer, Jon Meacham. Often it was this, from Corinthians: “It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
Much of the story Meacham tells in “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush” centers on Bush’s effort to live up to that scriptural injunction.
The narrative can be summed up thus:
“I feel like an asterisk,” Bush remarked to Meacham, reflecting on his place in history. “I am lost between the glory of [Ronald] Reagan — monuments everywhere, trumpets, the great hero — and the trials and tribulations of my sons,” particularly his eldest, former President George W. Bush.
That’s an assessment Meacham clearly does not share. With graceful prose, backed by diligent mining of the archives and access to an oral diary that Bush dictated throughout his presidency, Meacham, a former Newsweek editor who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, has set out to restore his subject to a more exalted position.
The book attracted pre-publication attention for a few lines in its last chapter in which Bush, long reticent about his son’s tenure, criticized former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The two had hurt George W. Bush’s presidency with their “iron ass” approach to foreign policy, he said.
But those news nuggets are a sidelight. The book centers on the journey that brought Bush to the presidency and the social milieu that produced him. It not only illuminates the key moments of Bush’s presidency, but also puts a spotlight on a WASP upper class that dominated large parts of American life for decades, but has now largely vanished.
In a country that cherishes its myths of log cabins and self-made men, few presidents ever had so patrician a background as George H.W. Bush. The grandson of men who had made fortunes in steel and finance, son of a prominent Wall Street banker turned U.S. senator, educated at the Greenwich Country Day School, Andover and Yale, Bush’s family lineage was rivaled in the 20th century by only the two Roosevelts. But Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were both often reviled as traitors to their class. No one ever levied that charge at George Herbert Walker Bush.
Nor did anyone accuse him of an excess of ideological zeal. By temperament and breeding, Bush favored stability, predictability and order. He abhorred bragging, shunning what his mother called “the great I am.”
He came of age in an era in which partisanship had receded to an unprecedented ebb and many believed ideology had gone out with the tide. It was a political world, Meacham says, “shaped more by a commitment to service than by a contest of ideas.”
It was Bush’s fate to win the presidency just as that era closed.
Even as Bush built his career serving Republican presidents — U.N. ambassador and Republican Party chairman under Richard Nixon, ambassador to China and CIA director under Gerald Ford — a more ideologically committed right wing gained strength within the GOP. They mistrusted Bush and he them.
“Scary” was his private assessment of a conservative voter he encountered one day on the campaign trail.
Nonetheless, it was Reagan, the champion of the right, who gave Bush his final boost. With intimate detail, Meacham describes how top aides at the GOP convention in 1980 persuaded the reluctant candidate to accept Bush as his running mate.
Eight years later, as Reagan’s political heir, Bush faced off against the governor of Massachusetts, Michael S. Dukakis. It was a rough campaign, which Bush justified to himself on the grounds, Meacham notes, that he was the “better man” for the job.
At the time, it all happened so smoothly that the public gave Bush little credit. A generation later, with Germany reunified and prosperous, Eastern Europe mostly stable and the threat of nuclear war gone, the magnitude of that accomplishment can be seen more clearly.
Bush’s other great foreign policy triumph — forging a coalition to successfully roll back Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait — brought him more benefit from voters, but only momentarily. For a time, his standing in polls soared to a level few presidents had enjoyed. But long before James Carville tacked the words “the economy, stupid” on the wall of Bill Clinton’s campaign war room, Bush’s diary shows he knew that economics would decide the fate of his presidency.
That and his old adversaries on the right, now directed by the House Republican leader, Newt Gingrich. Even as he worked to hold an international coalition together through the Gulf War, Bush negotiated with Democrats to reduce the federal deficit. Doing so required a tax increase.
To Bush, the deal seemed prudent, one of his favorite compliments. His campaign promise, “read my lips, no new taxes,” was like all campaign elements merely, “the means to the end of governing,” Meacham said. Time had moved on; the promise would have to yield.
But Gingrich and his allies never forgave him, and when the economic downturn began in 1991, Bush was left with few allies.
On Christmas Day that year, Bush, relaxing at Camp David, took a phone call from the leader of the world’s other superpower, Mikhail Gorbachev, informing him that not only was he resigning from office but that the Soviet Union itself was about to come to an end.
“The Cold War,” Bush said in a speech that night from the Oval Office, “is now over.” The country barely shrugged. Two days later, his pollster presented Bush with the grim reality — what Americans really cared about was the economy and most thought he was doing nothing about it.
The defeat that followed was the “ugliest period” of his life, Bush said. He realized that he no longer truly understood the country he led.
It is the America of today that left Bush baffled and defeated. The deepening partisanship, ideological polarization and conflation of politics with celebrity that now plague our culture politics all surfaced in that contest. So, too, did a growing diversity, openness to new ideas and declining deference to tradition.
As Americans once again set about picking a president — and once more contemplate a Bush seeking the job — the story of the 41st man to hold the office sheds light not only on the country we were, but the one we’ve become.
Destiny and Power
The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
Random House: 864 pp., $35