Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, by Jon Meacham

Nine stars

In this highly educational biography of George H.W. Bush, Meacham offers the reader an insightful look into the life and times of the 41st President of the United States. With scores of interesting anecdotes wrapped in a fluid narrative, the author brings to life a man who sought to influence American politics in the latter part of the 20th century, while trying to keep from being subsumed in the shadow of his presidential predecessor. Bush was a man of honour and dignity, but also held firm to his beliefs, which changed as life shaped them. Meacham depicts the elder President Bush as a man of numerous perspectives, three of which rise as themes throughout the tome. Bush was a passionate family man, an ever-ready compromiser, and the effective political figure, personas that spanned his entire life (at least up to the the publication of the book). Meacham helps personalize Bush to the reader while not shying away from the lustre garnered from a life of privilege in Connecticut that hung over the man for his entire public life. A wonderfully refreshing biography that will keep the reader enthused until the final pages, not to be missed by the curious and those willing to open their minds to rediscovering this man.

Family was the lifeblood of George Herbert Walker Bush, and proved to be a means of support his entire life. From his early years, Bush always had a strong relationship with his family, be they his parents, grandparents, or siblings. This love of family grew when he left to fight in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War. Meacham explores the love Bush had for his fellow navy men and the pain of losing them during a Japanese bombing campaign late in the war. Bush began thinking of his own family when he married Barbara Pierce, a woman for whom he held as much regard. From the birth of George W. Bush, the elder Bush saw a new type of familial love, which only grew as more children joined the brood. It was the crippling illness and eventual death of his daughter, Robin, that the author uses to best personify the family. While the entire family was crushed, Bush did all he could to keep the family on track, but was devastated in private and away from prying eyes. As head of his own family, Bush sought to provide for them, which meant entertaining options out in Texas, where oil exploration and processing could garner a substantial wage. Bush never shied away from ventures that would foster a sense of upward mobility, producing a self-made man who chose not to ride on the coat tails of his family or its name. As his children grew, Bush continued to foster the passion of family, from grandchildren through to other non-blood relations, never forgetting the passion instilled in him by his mother, Dorothy, or the support his children were able to offer him. From his highest moments through to his worst feelings, Bush always turned to his family for support, and offered just as much to those who struggled and needed his shoulder. Even in his latter years, when the next generation took up the reins of political power, Bush sought to counsel and advise his sons, offering praise or a strong shoulder, when needed. Meacham depicts George Bush as a man whose reliance on family proved essential and who would never compromise on their importance.

Bush spent his entire life as a man of compromise, seeking to keep his options open as he sought upwards mobility. Bush proved himself the true negotiator from a young age, bartering with his family in order to win their approval. When he married Barbara, Bush sought to compromise with her as he took them out of their comfort in Connecticut and to the barren wasteland of Texas. Compromise ensued from here as the oil business had them move throughout the state, with Barbara acting in a firm but agreeable way. Even when Bush sought to run for political office he had to compromise on some of his beliefs, finding himself running as a Republican in a strong southern Democratic area. Appeasement outweighed personal beliefs, to a point, as Meacham argues throughout the political narrative embedded in the biography. Bush could not shake his rich-boy upbringing, but was able to cobble together enough support from business interests and the general public that he could make his way to Congress and represent his constituents effectively, namely by finding common ground. As shall be discussed below, Bush compromised from there, touted as an up-and-comer by Richard Nixon. By 1980, compromise helped him garner the presumably impossible role of vice-presidential running mate alongside Ronald Reagan, which did cement a friendship between the bitter rivals. It was after serving as second-in-command for a time that Bush realised that he had to reinvent himself again if he wanted to run for and capture the GOP nomination in ’88. His moderate views needed sharpening and his persona a strong polish ahead of the run for the White House. Meacham illustrates this compromising as being for the betterment of the party, while Bush allowed his own beliefs to evolve, or at least morph into something else, as politics and age shaped him as a more right-of-centre thinker. As president, Bush had to open new avenues of compromise, even though he led a military powerhouse. With the economy in a state of disrepair, compromise from his “Read my lips, ‘no new taxes!'” gaffe forced Bush to determine that he needed others, even at the zenith of his power. However, compromise proved a political downfall, when the electorate chose not to renew his time as POTUS in ’92, making room for the next generation. While some depicted Bush as a man who had little leadership material because of his lack of an iron-clad set of beliefs, this compromising manner fostered the sort of compassionate persona that Bush never wanted to lose.

With the power of a family foundation and the ability to compromise, Bush entered the world of politics well-armed for the trench battles ahead. Coming from a family where monetary influence could sway those in politics, Bush sought to follow his own father, Prescott, into the world of American politics. The elder Bush was a senator who, after some staggering, was able to find his way and sought to push George H.W. Bush towards the political promised land. After a move to Texas to pursue oil, Bush had to reinvent himself to the southern base. As a rich Republican from the New England, Bush had a difficult time making a name for himself in the Democratic south, home to the fiery Lyndon Johnson. Bush faltered, as his father had, but was able to secure a seat in the House of Representatives, where he began planting seeds of a political future. Even after a crippling loss in a Senate run, Bush caught the eye of Nixon, who brought him into the fold, first as Ambassador at the United Nations and then heading up the Republican National Committee. While life in Congress was a sobering experience, Bush found his political acumen when trying to steer the GOP through Watergate and worked hard to prove himself as he watched Nixon implode. President Ford rewarded him with a post in China, where he tried to strengthen the still-new relations with that Communist country. Meacham explores how Bush surmised that the next stop on his political journey might have been a means to ensure he suffered a slow political death, when Ford put him into the Director’s chair at Central Intelligence. An apolitical spot if ever there were one, Bush against tried to remain calm and do all he could to support the president, while wondering if his own presidential ambitions might be lost. Ford’s loss in ’76 to Carter left Bush in a position to rebuild his political acumen, as Carter sought to place Democrats in key positions. Bush used this time to help garner name recognition for the Republican primaries of 1980. Standing in his way was political Goliath, Ronald Reagan. Meacham builds up his narrative and uses this rivalry as a central part of the book, pitting the moderate Bush against the strongly conservative Reagan, the face of the new Republican Party’s values. The journey found the two men coming to a compromise (proof that Bush’s ways did bring him success) and leading America into a new decade of conservatism. By the time Bush took the helm in ’89, America was in a severe Reagan hangover, though Bush took it upon himself to differentiate his presidency. A military campaign against Iraq and economic struggles at home forced Bush to play a less than all-powerful role in the political realm, though Meacham does balance criticism with praise during this period. However, his single-term presidency may stymie some from offering too much positive outlook on his time in the White House. Still, he did not blame others, choosing to accept the decision and hold his head high. As politics ran through his veins, Bush attempted to shape his time in public eye with a mixture of compromise, strong family values, and a sense of leadership. History will judge how effective he could be.

Meacham offers an effective view of Bush in his retirement years, after leaving the public eye. A resurgence of popularity seemingly came when his son, George W. won two-terms in the White House, though no one offers that the elder Bush used his son’s power to act as puppet master. Bush remained respectful and even sanguine when press coverage of his son’s time in office came under scrutiny. By the time Obama made it to the White House, Bush was secure in his retirement and sought not to appear too often in the public eye. He did not need to be flashy to know that he made a difference. Humbleness was his means of steering his own ship in the waning years.

Meacham constructs a powerful biography of this 20th century political figure, mixing the public record with a collection of letter, interviews, reports, and diary entries. With such a tremendous collection of documentation, it would be easy to weave a narrative that relies too heavily on one thing or another. The author chooses more of a ‘leapfrog’ approach, never sitting too long on any one issue or time period. While there were formative events throughout Bush’s life, the reader is never stuck reading scores on anything, as the book offers a glance on the arc that was Bush’s life, stopping in to analyse some of the more important areas. With an easy to read format and enticing style, the reader wants to forge ahead, learning more with each chapter. Keeping said chapters somewhat succinct also fosters a desire to ‘read just a little more’, which can only help substantiate the readability of this biography. The lay reader should not shy away from the book’s length, for it is as fluid a read as it is education and entertaining.

Kudos, Mr. Meacham for this wonderful biography. As you have done with other presidential figures, you offer the reader much insight and a passionate interest in your subject.