Bushwhack: George '41' settles some old scores
Now 91, the senior Bush has waited a long time to pen his memoirs. It was worth the wait as he takes aim at two hardliners who badly served his son
Published 15/11/2015 | 02:30
Just before George HW Bush was inaugurated the 41st US president in 1989, a television interviewer inquired about controversial tactics his campaign used to win the White House. "That's history," Bush responded, dismissing the question. "That doesn't mean anything anymore."
This week the world learned that the Senior Bush doesn't really think - as Henry Ford famously did - that "history is more or less bunk". In a just-released, 836-page, authorised biography, Destiny and Power, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham lets the former president have his say about the past, and the 91-year-old settles scores while making sure he leaves behind an authoritative account of his time.
Statements from the author's interviews (conducted during the past decade) and from audio-taped diaries Bush recorded throughout his time in national office capture his thinking and opinions not only about himself but also about family members and other public figures he's known.
Last year George W published 41: A Portrait of My Father, which earned a place on best-seller lists and reflected growing admiration among Americans for its subject. More Valentine than true memoir, the book suggested to some readers that by focusing on the father, one son (George W) was trying to help another (Jeb) as the younger brother prepared to seek the presidency in 2016.
Destiny and Power doesn't return literary hugs to George W. Ever since the son won two terms in 2000 and 2004 - the father lost his re-election effort to Bill Clinton in 1992 - political observers have wondered what the elder Bush thought about the younger Bush's actions, particularly in international affairs.
Back in 2002, Brent Scowcroft, senior Bush's national security adviser, wrote a much-discussed column in The Wall Street Journal with this unequivocal headline: "Don't Attack Saddam".
Was Scowcroft serving as a ventriloquist for his mentor - and sending a message to the son via a national newspaper? As it turns out, according to the new biography, the father didn't oppose the Iraq intervention.
He says: "Saddam's gone, and with him went a lot of brutality and nastiness and awfulness."
Besides supporting George W's decision to go to war, the elder Bush offers a blanket blessing at one point: "He's my son, he did his best and I'm for him. It's that simple an equation."
Actually, though, the equation is anything but simple, as 41 tackles some of the principal figures in 43's administration. Indeed, the younger Bush suffers collateral damage in assessments of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
The first president Bush served eight years as Ronald Reagan's vice president and understood the role and scope of that office. Cheney's approach under George W deeply troubled the former number two. "He just became very hard-line and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with," Bush is quoted as saying about his former Secretary of Defence. "Just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything..."
"He had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer," Bush continues about Cheney. "It just showed me that you cannot do it that way. The president should not have that worry.
"The big mistake that was made was letting Cheney bring in kind of his own State Department. I think they overdid that. But it's not Cheney's fault. It's the president's fault."
The older Bush keeps his references institutional ("the president") rather than personal to deliver his punch.
When it comes to Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence in the son's administration, Bush lands several haymakers.
"I think he served the president badly," according to the biography.
"I don't like what he did, and I think it hurt the president having his iron-ass view of everything. I've never been that close to him anyway. There's a lack of humility, a lack of seeing what the other guy thinks. He's more kick ass and take names, take numbers. I think he paid a price for that."
The backstory of that opinion - "iron-ass" is a favourite senior Bushism for being overly demanding - is the mutual antipathy the two men have shared since the 1970s. A rivalry that blossomed into loathing reached something of its zenith in 1980 when both men were being considered for Reagan's running mate.
Given the Bush-Rumsfeld enmity, there has been curiosity since late 2000 why the son ever selected this "arrogant fellow" (in the father's phrase) for the cabinet. Was it an effort to show newly found independence by George W? Were familial bygones being buried?
Whatever the case, senior Bush hasn't moved beyond his sharp-elbowed past - and neither has Rumsfeld. The always direct ex-Secretary of Defence issued a statement about the biography that included this sabre-tooth sentence: "Bush 41 is getting up in years and misjudges 43, who I found made his own decisions."
The publication of Destiny and Power puts a megawatt spotlight on the Bush family, but for Jeb Bush-currently languishing in fifth place as a candidate for the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination - the book's arrival spells trouble with a capital, if not neon, T.
The former Florida governor wants to establish his own identity and articulate his plans for the future, and reporters are now more interested in looking backward to gather his reaction to revelations about his father and brother.
Distractions are never helpful to a political campaign, and this one is taking place as "Jeb!" - his way of presenting himself on signs and ads, notably without the surname - tries to find his voice and footing going into the early state caucuses and primaries that begin in February.
At a time when potential voters seriously wonder whether a third Bush - number 45, if you will - should occupy the White House, the book and the blizzard of media attention related to it dwell on 41 and 43. The prospective "45" is forced off to the side.
But Jeb Bush isn't the only 2016 candidate to appear in the biography.
Senior Bush, who's become friends with Bill Clinton over the past decade, dilates at one point on America's most famous power couple. "I don't feel close to Hillary at all," we're told, "but I do to Bill and I can't read their relationship, even today."
With 41 now on the record about 43 and so much more, it's a fool's errand to guess what Bush family gatherings will be like in the future. Reminiscing about good the old days might be off limits at Thanksgiving dinner later this month and subsequent holidays. But a more significant conclusion is that dynastic politics, ascending to the upper reaches of American democracy, are rare. Page after page of Destiny and Power helps to explain why. That's history.
Author Robert Schmuhl, professor of American Studies at Notre Dame, publishes Ireland's Exiled Children: America and the Easter Rising (Oxford University Press) in March