‘Destiny and Power’: the life and times of George H.W. Bush

“Destiny and Power,” Jon Meacham’s biography of George H.W. Bush, is the compelling history of a man at the center of 20th century events, but it airbrushes over its subject’s failings in key respects.
“Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush”

by Jon Meacham

Random House, 836 pp., $35

George Herbert Walker Bush was uniquely qualified to serve as our nation’s 41st president. He was a Navy pilot during World War II, a two-term representative from Texas, ambassador to the United Nations, an envoy to China, director of the CIA and vice president. Although he served only a single term as president (from 1988-92), he presided over adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a budget deal to manage the federal deficit, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the Gulf War and the end of the Cold War. No small accomplishments.

In “Destiny and Power,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham chronicles Bush’s remarkable life. Meacham devoted more than a decade to researching the book and interviewing the former president, his family and those who worked with him.

Bush moved to Texas after the war to earn his fortune in the booming oil fields of Midland, Texas. Elected to Congress, he was tapped by President Nixon to be U.N. ambassador. He was later appointed CIA director by President Ford at the suggestion of Bush’s rival, Donald Rumsfeld, who considered the job a “political graveyard.” The gambit rather dramatically failed. Bush not only survived but was elected Ronald Reagan’s devoted vice president in 1980.

Meacham is a superb historian and he weaves a compelling historical narrative, drawing heavily on Bush’s own contemporaneous diaries. The result is a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into high-stakes decision making in a rapidly evolving world. Bush was a remarkably modest man who instinctively sought to work with his opponents to accomplish legislative goals, even if it meant compromising campaign pledges for which he would be pilloried (as he was when he raised taxes just two years after pledging, “Read my lips; no new taxes.”)

Meacham won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson and wide acclaim for his best-selling biography of Thomas Jefferson. But history at short range is dangerous business, as “Destiny and Power” disappointingly demonstrates. Meacham’s heavy reliance on Bush’s obviously self-serving diaries and years of intimate access to his subject renders this volume at best rather decidedly myopic.

Indeed, it’s remarkable what the book omits. Bush’s involvement in, and later denial of, the Iran-contra scandal is abruptly brushed aside as “unworthy of his essential character,” without any serious review of the record. Bush’s remarkably aggressive 1988 campaign, featuring the blatantly racial Willy Horton advertisements created by Republican campaign strategist Lee Atwater, is heavily downplayed, with responsibility passed to others. The book includes not a word about the highly controversial appointment of Dan Quayle as his running mate. Meacham quotes Bush denigrating President Clinton as a “draft dodger,” but remains silent on Bush’s reaction to his son and the future president (George W. Bush)’s decision to join the National Guard in Texas rather than serve in Vietnam. No volume, even at 600 pages, can be complete, but the omissions here are remarkable by any measure.

There is little doubt that George H.W. Bush served his country well and that he has been too frequently overshadowed by his predecessor, President Reagan, or flamboyant successor, President Clinton. But it does him no honor to airbrush history and leave out the very errors of judgment or disappointments that make his accomplishments all the more human — and admirable.

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