It’s a fine blessing to devour the engaging work of a seasoned historian, and Jon Meacham qualifies handsomely. This biography of President George H. W. Bush makes you wistful for the days when tough but realistic men and women sat across from each other in political offices, drew up bargaining chips on yellow legal pads, and refused to get up from their chairs without forging a deal to make their shared nation better. Today not many presidents epitomize that more than Bush 41, often now described as America’s most successful single-term president.
Tomes like this one always start clear back at the beginning of a dynasty family’s Mayflower history, and it’s a temptation to skip ahead to the subject’s own White House years. And the three campaigns where Bush sought the White House are the most interesting part of Meacham’s story. But it’s also instructive to dissect the entire Bush lineage on both sides, and get a sense of how he grew up always harboring the idea of getting to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Meacham does well in capturing George Bush’s heady romance with Barbara, and then the young family’s grief at losing a daughter. A long-time editor of Newsweek, Meacham is skilled at compiling a story and getting details right; Bush contributed years of diaries and notes and recollections, and the writer’s skills as an interviewer are legendary. Interestingly, even though Meacham has often written about issues of faith and the role of religion in America, e.g. the “Wall of Separation,” this biography is often graphic and earthy. President Bush was a religious man, but also at ease with the sometimes raw intrigue and flavor in a White House or a rough political campaign.
The two most interesting points in this portrait are, first, Bush’s globally successful campaign to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. The second was his clear-eyed but wrenching choice to abandon his glib “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge in order to craft a durable budget during America’s economic crisis of 1991.
After biting the bullet, the President and aides went to the Rose Garden to announce what had been brokered between the two parties. “Sometimes you don’t get it just the way you want, and this is such a time for me,” he soberly confessed. “But it’s time we put the interest of the United States of America first and get this deficit under control.” He later mused to friends: “Sometimes you have to govern; you have to make things come together; you have to join with responsible leaders on both sides to get something done for the country.”
It’s interesting to note that a brash new House leader named Newt Gingrich announced that this was an ideal time for brinksmanship, and a threat to “shut down the government” if necessary. “I think the Democrats would have blinked,” he boasted later.
It’s a vignette that seems to describe two starkly different approaches to governing, and I suspect a myriad of readers of this finely crafted book will look back respectfully to that more dignified era when patriots in both parties cared most about the nation’s reputation and health.
If you appreciate thoughtful analysis delivered with a dose of wit and savvy style, anything written by Mr. Meacham has got to be high on your list.