I confess that I was one of those who skewered George H.W. Bush while he was Vice President and President. I always thought he knew more about Iran-Contra than he said; that he was just a rich, out-of-touch patrician with a sense of entitlement. I volunteered for Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992 and was there at the Capitol as the Clinton's walked the Bush's to Marine One and watched them as they flew back to Houston. "Good riddance," I thought at the time.
But, oh how time changes perspective. By the late 1990s, I'd reassessed my opinion on Bush - after learning that President Clinton had inserted a cigar in a rude place on an intern - suddenly Bush looked a lot more presidential.
And so comes Jon Meacham's new biography, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. I've enjoyed two previous works by Meacham [American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power]. Writing a biography about a president who is still living, however, is a greater challenge than culling through the archives of the dead. Meacham, however, had extraordinary access to Bush himself and to primary materials concerning Bush's long, long career. Meacham interviewed Bush over a period spanning nearly a decade [2006-2015]. In addition, Bush gave Meacham unfettered access to his diaries.
Perhaps anticipating criticism because the book is quite supportive of Bush, Meacham writes, "This book was written with the cooperation of the forty-first president and of his family and many of his lieutenants, but it is an independent work. No one, including President Bush, had right of review or of approval."
I interrupt this review to make one of those criticisms right now: nowhere, in over 600-pages of text, does the word "AIDS" appear. Not once. To not even mention one of the greatest health crises under Bush's terms as Vice President and then President is a callous and blatant oversight.
Now, back to the review.
Meacham argues that - although seemingly a cliche - for George Herbert Walker Bush, it really was about family, honor, duty and country. Bush also, however, had a hidden, driving ambition that made him competitive and often left his opponents severely underestimating him. Meacham's thesis - which runs throughout the 601-page book - is simple: "The nation was fortunate that George H.W. Bush was in power when the crises of his time came, for his essential character, his experience, and his temperament armed him well to bring the decades-long Cold War to an end, to confront the aggression of an irrational dictator, and to lead the nation toward fiscal responsibility. An imperfect leader, he was nonetheless well-matched to the exigencies of his historical moment."
Bush first made his mark as a war hero. He was sworn into the Navy on June 12, 1942 - his 18th birthday. After nearly a year of training, he was commissioned as an officer of the United States Naval Reserve on June 9, 1943, receiving his wings as a Naval Aviator. Not yet 19-years old, it is believed that Bush was the youngest flying officer in the Navy.
Bush's plane was a TBF Avenger torpedo bomber. 40-feet long, 16-feet high, with a 52-foot wing span. Bush was assigned to the USS San Jacinto, flying his first combat mission on May 21, 1944, from Majuro Harbor in the Marshall Islands. On September 2, 1944, Bush's plane was hit and he realized it was going down. Despite this, he stayed in the cockpit long enough to drop his bombs and hit his target. He gave the order to eject to his crew then did so himself. The Japanese tried to shoot him while he was descending to the sea and while he was in the ocean awaiting rescue. Bush's crew [William "Ted" White and John "Del" Delaney] was killed and never found. As Meacham recounts, "The loss of White and of Delaney remained with Bush for the rest of his life." Bush told Meacham, "it worries me - it terrifies me" even decades later. During that interview, Bush spent much time, Meacham writes, "reflecting on the proposition that he could've done something differently, something that would've ensured their survival on that desperate Saturday in September. Bush's fundamental question: 'Did I do enough to save them?'" Although Bush was now eligible for a return stateside for shore duty, he refused. He resumed his missions until he was ordered stateside in November 1944, before being reassigned for new duty in the Pacific. It was shortly after this that Bush married Barbara Pierce.
At the encouragement of friend of his father, George, Barbara and their young family moved to Texas to forge a life in the oil business, leaving behind his life as a Connecticut Yankee. For the next decade-and-a-half Bush built up an independent oil career. As Meacham writes, "through the 1950s Bush worked hard to raise money in the East in order to press ahead in Texas. For Bush, raising capital required charm, smarts, and drive. Though few people could have been as well positioned to have access to big money men than Bush, he still had to make the sale, and then produce." It was good preparation for a career in politics.
Bush's gravitation toward politics no doubt stemmed from his father's political career. Prescott Bush served in the U.S. Senate from 1952-1963 In 1963 George Bush was elected Harris County Republican Party Chairman. He decided to challenge incumbent Democrat Ralph Yarborough for the U.S. Senate in 1964. In the Republican Party in 1964, the main battle was between the supporters of arch-conservative U.S. Sen Barry Goldwater of Arizona on the right and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller on the center/left. As Meacham points out, strictly in terms of upbringing Bush should've been a Rockefeller Republican. But. "by the time of the 1964 campaign, Bush had been away from the East for 16 years. As an oil man, he had grown more conservative - not radically so, but notably so." Bush and Goldwater were both opposed to key elements of the landmark Civil Rights Act, advocated states rights, opposed Medicare and President Johnson's War on Poverty, the admission of Communist China to the United Nations, and both opposed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Although Bush won the Republican primary [after a runoff] Yarborough beat Bush 56% to 44% at the polls. Bush was not finished with politics. In fact, by 1965 he was getting ready to run for Congress. To prepare, he sold his company, making a profit that - in today's dollars - would be the equivalent of $8 million. Bush won the congressional seat in 1966. It was a strange time for Republicans. As Meacham notes, "Bush came of political age in an odd time - a moment when Republicans were at once supportive of [Lyndon] Johnson in Southeast Asia and wary of him domestically." Meacham argues this may help explain Bush's own understanding of partisanship in Washington. "The political lesson of Bush's formative first years in public office was that the President of the United States - in this case Johnson - was neither wholly right nor wholly wrong."
The assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 had a profound effect on Bush and his views of civil rights. He voted in favor of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, despite Republican opposition, which centered on attracting disaffected white voters to the GOP by opposing civil rights. The law banned discrimination in the housing market, enabling home buyers of any color or ethnicity to purchase real estate whenever they could afford it. "While many whites were disaffected over changes in culture and race," Meacham writes, "Bush shared some of those worries, but, while no liberal, he was attuned to the shifting cultural, political, and demographic realities, and hoped that his party would engage with a changing America rather than reflexively resist it."
After giving up his Congressional seat for another failed Senate attempt in 1970 [this time to Lloyd Bentsen], Bush was sought after by the Nixon Administration. Richard Nixon appointed Bush as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in early 1971. After a successful tenure there, Bush was tapped by Nixon to head the Republican National Committee [RNC] - a thankless task in the Watergate era. Bush took over as RNC chair on January 23, 1973. That year Bush would travel 97,000 miles through 33 states delivering, 101 speeches, holding 78 news conferences and making 11 national television appearances. All of this as Nixon crumbled under Watergate. As Meacham writes, "Bush wanted to believe in Nixon. The idea that a President of the United States would lie to the country for selfish political ends was anathema to Bush."
Even after the edited White House transcripts - showing Nixon as a paranoid, vulgar narcissist - Bush still opposed dumping him. His support of Nixon is one of the few examples of Meacham turning critical of Bush. In what for the most part is a biography of praise, Meacham writes that, "The stand Bush took - of cautious support until it was beyond any question that Nixon had participated in the cover-up - was hardly a profile in courage. It was, rather, that of a conventional politician, of an ambitious man who chose to defend the powers that were - which, not incidentally, were the powers that had championed and promoted his prospects in public life."
When Nixon finally resigned, Bush was on Gerald Ford's short-list to become Vice President. Once Nelson Rockefeller was tapped for that position, however, Bush had three other positions he desired: Secretary of Commerce, Chief of Staff, or Ambassador to China. He was given the latter. Meacham argues that the China position changed Bush. Meacham writes, "The man who came to China liked action, movement, phone calls, results. The man who left China understood that diplomacy was a long game and that change could come rapidly or glacially depending on the circumstances of a given country and given situation"
In late-1975 Ford asked Bush to take over the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]. He was shocked. If taking on the RNC during Watergate was a challenge, taking over the CIA in the midst of multiple congressional investigations into CIA secret operations over the previous 25 years was Herculean. In Bush's mind, accepting the CIA position meant the end of his political career. As with the RNC task, however, Bush took it on and received much praise in helping to restore morale to the agency during his brief tenure at Langley.
After Jimmy Carter's defeat of Ford in 1976, Bush left government and prepared for a presidential campaign in 1980. His biggest rival would be former California Governor Ronald Reagan. By 1979-80, both men were in agreement on lower taxes, fewer government regulations and a muscular foreign policy. They disagreed on abortion, the primacy of tax cuts [Meacham explains, "Bush feared that drastic reductions in taxes without spending restraints risked higher deficits and possibly inflation."]. Bush favored the Equal Rights Amendment, Reagan did not; Bush did not favor a pro-life constitutional amendment, Reagan did. Bush was not a big tax cutter; Reagan was.
Bush stressed his youth and vitality vs. Reagan's age as he launched his campaign on May 1, 1979. Early results were positive. Bush won the Iowa caucuses in late-January 1980. The trouble began with a second debate scheduled for Nashua, New Hampshire. Bush believed he and Reagan had agreed that only the two of them would be on the dais - that the other candidates would not be afforded a spot in the debate. Reagan, however, claimed to have never agreed to that. When the debate came on February 23, 1980, Bush sat stone faced on the dais as Reagan brought the other candidates onto the stage with him, demanding equal time for them. The debate sponsor [the Nashua Telegraph] threatened to declare a forfeit with Bush the winner if the others didn't leave the stage. Reagan asked to make a statement but the moderator refused to allow it. At that point, dramatically, Reagan grabbed the microphone and thundered, "I am paying for this microphone" and the audience erupted in delight - all while Bush sat on the dais saying nothing and not even acknowledging the others. Finally, the other candidates left the stage - but not before one of them, Kansas Senator Bob Dole told Bush caustically, "I'll get you someday you fucking Nazi." Bush's lack of action looked terrible., Reagan won New Hampshire.
While Bush won Massachusetts, Reagan won South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Illinois. Bush then won Connecticut. Reagan won Kansas, Wisconsin and Louisiana. But Bush refused to quit. It would be while campaigning in Pennsylvania that he would utter the three words that nearly cost him the vice presidency. While discussing Reagan's proposed economic policy, Bush called it a "voodoo economic policy" and "economic madness". From that, Bush press secretary Pete Teeley coined the term "voodoo economics" and a phrase was born.
While Bush would win Pennsylvania and Michigan, Reagan took Oregon which pushed him over the 998 delegates needed for nomination. Bush - after heated discussion - agreed with his friend James Baker that it was time to withdraw. In Baker's mind, there was still the vice presidency to consider, and every day Bush remained in the race made it less likely that Reagan would ask him to be on the ticket.
For Reagan, though, there was really only one person he wanted on that ticket - Gerald Ford. Bush remained a backup choice in the event Ford declined the offer. Meacham reporters, however, that Reagan did not want George Bush. The "voodoo economics" remark set Reagan off unlike anything any of his advisors had ever seen. Reagan also resented Bush's implications that he was too old. Although Ford had rebuffed Reagan in a previous offer of the number two spot, after watching Ford's address to the Republican National Convention, Reagan decided he must have Ford. This time when offered the position, Ford asked for 24 hours to think about it. Meacham argues that Ford reconsidered because Ford was still itching to get back at Carter, "the pull of power was strong, the desire to exact retribution against Carter great. Ford was a politician, and the allure of politics had not faded - that much was clear from his prolonged flirtation with seeking the presidential nomination [in 1979]. The vice presidency wasn't everything but it was something - and it was possible that Ford, a former president, could make it into something even more."
Over those 24 hours, Ford's team put forth a series of demands [including a major role in the budget, foreign policy, and defense] that the Reagan team agreed to. But there was one person on the Reagan team not convinced: Nancy. That fact and an unfortunate interview Ford gave to Walter Cronkite the night that Bush was scheduled to address the convention ended up costing Ford the number two spot. Reagan watched the interview live [as Bush did while getting dressed in preparation for his speech] as Cronkite asked Ford about Reagan's pride in taking on a man [Ford] "who...has said, 'It's got to be something like a co-presidency'?" Reagan heard the term 'co-presidency' and went ballistic. As Meacham points out, "In fairness, Ford's reply to Cronkite did not endorse the 'co-presidency' idea," but all Reagan heard was "co-presidency" and he was done with Ford. Ironically, watching on TV, Bush later said he had the opposite reaction, assuming the performance was confirmation that Ford had already agreed to be on the ticket.
Still, Reagan hesitated about Bush. 'Voodoo economics' and Bush's pro-choice stance bothered him. Finally, Reagan aide Richard Allen asked him, "If you could be assured that George Bush would support this platform in every detail, would you reconsider Bush?" Reagan said he would reconsider Bush.
And so, it would be Bush. While it is true, as Meacham accurately points out, that, "Bush had emerged by default", it is also true that, "Whatever reservations he had about Bush, Reagan also knew that no one would ever mistake Bush for an extremist of any kind. He was the safe pick, popular with moderates and popular enough with most conservatives. Reagan seems to have become convinced that if he could not have Ford it was still a good idea to have someone politically close to the Ford constituency."
Reagan-Bush defeated Carter-Mondale 50.75% to 41% [John Anderson polled 6.6%]; winning the Electoral College 489-49. Meacham delves into the vice presidential years by noting that, "As Vice President, George Bush was neither as irrelevant as many thought nor as powerful as many feared. His diaries of the period - sporadic but still revealing - show that he spent the Reagan years working hard to be useful to the president, struggling, from year to year and election cycle to election cycle, to convince the base of the party that he could be trusted with the Reagan legacy." As for how Reagan viewed Bush, Meacham believes that - for Reagan - "Bush appears to have been kind of a human Marine One - a perk of the office that made life easier. Like the presidential helicopter, Bush was always there, an accepted and natural part of the daily action."
Although at the time there was some doubt, the two men developed a tremendous relationship. If Ronald Reagan enjoyed the Bushes, Nancy Reagan did not. And she made no effort to hide her contempt of them for eight years in the White House. The Bushes were rarely invited to the private quarters and Nancy excluded them from everything she could within reason. As to the reason(s) behind this, Meacham offers some theories but doesn't give an opinion as to why Nancy had such animosity. The theories include 1) Nancy's lingering anger over the 1980 campaign; 2) cultural differences between the two families; 3) the show business universe of the Reagans - there can only be one leading man/lady - made it inevitable that Bush would be suspect.
Meacham praises Bush's handling of the assassination attempt, as do most scholars. Ironically, Bush's first stop on the morning of March 30, 1981, was at the unveiling of a plaque at the Texas hotel where President John F. Kennedy spent his last night. Another irony: Bush's plane that day was the same one used by Lyndon Johnson when he flew down to Dallas to join JFK on November 21,1963. When Secretary of State Alexander Haig reached Bush in flight over Texas to alert him to the assassination attempt, the connections was terrible. Bush only heard the recommendation from Haig that he come back to Washington - the rest of the conversation was static. It wasn't until he got Haig's telex aboard the flight back to Washington that he knew that Reagan himself had been shot. Bush couldn't help thoughts of the parallels between himself and LBJ in 1963. As Meacham writes, like LBJ, "Had Bush come to Texas as Vice President - and would he leave it as President?"
Bush addressed the nation from the White House briefing room at 8:20 pm, with a brief statement. Meacham notes, "To Bush, no other message mattered more than that Reagan was president, was on the mend, and all would be well." The measure was received by the public and Bush's stature rose considerably.
That reputation remained steady until the 1984 election, when Democratic nominee Walter Mondale named U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York to the number two spot. Running against a woman seemed to have impacted Bush and caused him, at times, to appear unhinged. Bush would describe Ferraro in his diary as "mean". Then Barbara Bush called Ferraro a word that rhymes with "rich" [Barbara called Ferraro to apologize, and she accepted]. Despite these contretemps, Reagan-Bush annihilated Mondale-Ferraro, carrying 49 of 50 states.
Almost immediately, Bush began planning for 1988. What would become one of his biggest obstacles began in 1985 with the decision to negotiate with Iran for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. In assessing the Iran component of "Iran-Contra", Meacham writes, "the record is clear the Bush was aware that the United States, in contravention of its own stated policy, was trading arms for hostages as part of an initiative to reach out to modern elements in Iran." Bush himself told his diary - after the story broke in November 1986 - "I'm one of the few people that know fully the details, and there is a lot of flak and misinformation out there."
As for the "Contra" component, Meacham takes Bush at his word that he did not know about the diversion of the arms proceeds going to the Contras. Meacham argues that the fact that Bush offered to take a lie detector test to support his claims of a lack of a role in the Contra affair is proof to him that Bush [and Reagan, for that matter] was in the dark about the funds to the Contras. Such an offer for me, however, does not prove or disprove culpability. A cynic could argue that - as a former intelligence man - Bush could be uniquely equipped to pass a lie detector test regardless of the facts. I don't buy that argument in toto, either, but I remain unconvinced that Bush and Reagan didn't know more about the Contra end then they let on
Meacham concludes the chapters on Iran-Contra by citing the final Iran-Contra Special Prosecutor's Report: "There was no credible evidence obtained that the vice president or any member of his staff directed or actively participated in the Contra resupply effort that existed during the Boland Amendment prohibition on the military aid to the Contras. To the contrary, the Office of the Vice President's staff was largely excluded from meetings where Contra matters were discussed."
Bush does not escape criticism from Meacham, however, on the Iran component, saying Bush failed Reagan as a policy advisor in July 1985. Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger had both counseled against dealing with Iran. Meacham says they were right and Bush was wrong. "The arms for hostages scheme was misguided, and Bush should have known it. As Reagan's anti-terror advisor, [Bush had] rightly opposed ransom in principle. Concerned about the hostages, over-optimistic about building bridges to Iran, and generally inclined to support the President, Bush backed a doomed policy. As the scandal erupted, the Vice President joined Shultz and others in wanting to get out the facts. But not before first trying to hide them."
TOMORROW: PART II