Review: ‘Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush’ by Jon Meacham

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush. Jon Meacham. Random. 864 pages. $35.
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush. Jon Meacham. Random. 864 pages. $35.

.Even if the memory of George W. Bush’s wrecking ball presidency leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, Jon Meacham’s new biography may persuade you that Dubya’s daddy was the most significant one-termer since James Knox Polk. A lot happened on George H.W. Bush’s watch: Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. invasion of Panama, the Gulf War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. To his credit, Bush never failed to respond to a foreign crisis with measured aplomb. Back home, he raised the minimum wage, secured and strengthened civil rights, gun control and environmental legislation, and signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which eased the burden of millions of his countrymen.

And yet he was resoundingly defeated for reelection by Bill Clinton. This brought an unwelcome end to a storied career in public service. Bush laments that his achievements have been wedged into an obscure corner of history: “I am lost between the glory of Reagan [whom Bush served as vice president] . . . and the trials and tribulations of my sons.”

In Destiny and Power, however, Meacham does the former president a great favor: He pulls him out of the corner, dusts him off and puts him on display for the world to reevaluate the craftsmanship of his character.

Meacham, a Pulitzer-winning presidential biographer who has written about Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, was granted total access. He could interview everyone and read everything, including Bush’s diaries and letters. Meacham clearly admires his subject, but this doesn’t stop him from tsk-tsking Bush’s lapses in judgment, such as the misrepresentation of his role in the Iran-contra scandal.

The point he hammers home is that Bush was a nice guy willing to compromise his beliefs to acquire the power he needed to effect positive change. When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964, he came out against the Civil Rights Act because it was unpopular in Texas, his adopted state. During this campaign, which he lost, he first grew alarmed at right-wing radicals posing as conservatives, who demand blind adherence to their ideology. “This mean humorless philosophy which says everyone should agree on absolutely everything is not good for the Republican Party,” he wrote in a letter. “When the word moderation becomes a dirty word we have some soul searching to do.”

The right was always suspicious of Bush. His family belonged to the despised Eastern Establishment, with its elitist habits and centrist views. His father was a U.S. senator from Connecticut who denounced Joe McCarthy, tolerated government spending and voted against deregulating the oil industry.

When Bush served in Congress in the late 1960s, he was pro-immigrant and pro-Planned Parenthood. He “backed [Lyndon] Johnson-supported bills 53.5 percent of the time.” Imagine a Republican congressman today backing Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton most of the time.

When he sought to succeed Reagan in 1988, he again noted his concern with the right: “They’re the excesses. . . . They will destroy the party if they’re permitted to take over.” And yet he exploited their delirium. He painted his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, as unpatriotic. The man who once said that moderation should not be a dirty word now worked overtime to turn “liberal” into an obscenity. He fired “empty cannons of rhetoric,” a phrase he picked up from Mao Zedong, to polarize the electorate.

The monster he had fed on the campaign trail was still hungry after he won the White House. “I’m worried that sometimes your idealism will get in the way of what I think is sound governance,” the president told House minority whip Newt Gingrich. His worries were confirmed when Gingrich refused to go along with a deal to raise taxes, which would have boosted the ailing economy. As one right-wing congressman said, “What is good for the President may well be good for the country, but it is not necessarily good for congressional Republicans.”

By now you may have heard of Bush’s criticism of his son’s handling of Iraq, and the “iron-ass” attitudes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. But in appeasing the “excesses,” Bush contributed to building the smithy that forged this peculiar armor plating.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.

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