Here is a brief excerpt from an interview of Jon Meacham by Kevin Nance for the Chicago Tribune. To read the complete article and check out others, please click here.
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In the ranks of top biographers of American presidents, Jon Meacham has earned a reputation as one of the fairest, most measured and most sensitive to our chief executives’ accomplishments and shortcomings in relation to their times. His American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008), which won a Pulitzer Prize, and his best-selling Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012), which revealed that president’s political brilliance and his hypocrisy on slavery, preferred nuance and context to hagiography or the hatchet.
Meacham has now turned his vision, with all its capacity to perceive shades of gray, to the career of a much more recent president. In Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, the author examines the 41st president’s impressive (though not altogether uncheckered) career before, during and after his four years in the White House. In Meacham’s view, the senior President Bush is a classic product of the Greatest Generation: a fierce competitor but, more important, a believer in humility, public service and compromise for the good of the country and the world, even when those values proved detrimental to his own political career.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Meacham, 46, an executive editor at Random House and a former editor of Newsweek, for an interview during a recent book tour stop in Naperville. Here’s an edited transcript of our chat.
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Much of the early press for your book focused on comments made by the senior President Bush about the administration of the younger President Bush, in particular the elder Bush’s feeling that Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had not served his son well, had made the administration more bellicose and so on.
Yes, and that was inevitable, largely because the president was breaking years of silence on a topic of perennial fascination.
The word “Oedipal” comes up a lot in relation to the Bushes. Does that seem appropriate to you?
I don’t think so. What you’re alluding to is a conventional narrative that in some ways 43 was driven by competition with his father. I spend as much time on that as I possibly can in the book, expressing my view that they really are two different men, and they were operating in two different political environments. They were, interestingly, part of opposing factions within the Republican Party. George H.W. Bush was a moderate conservative, an Eisenhower/Ford Republican. George W. Bush was a Reagan Republican. Despite the fact that he was Reagan’s vice president for eight years, the senior Bush was really not part of the movement conservatism that President Reagan embodied. George W. Bush was much more in that tradition than he was in that of his father.
There’s the idea that the younger Bush felt he needed to “finish the job” that his father had failed to finish when he declined to order the U.S. military to march into Baghdad at the end of the first Gulf war.
I think the senior Bush did what he said he was doing to do, and no more. As I report in the book, there wasn’t a plan to do that at the highest levels. That just wasn’t an option. The coalition’s aims were clear, their aims were accomplished, and that was that. There was a lot of second-guessing after the fact, of course, and the fact that Saddam Hussein survived the war clearly upset the senior President Bush, who had thought, based on intelligence reports, that Saddam would be gone, that his own people would take him out. Obviously that didn’t happen.
You talk in the book about the senior Bush’s relationship with Reagan, against whom he ran for the Republican nomination in 1980. Did he have mixed feelings about Reagan, would you say — “voodoo economics,” all that?
I think he actually had quite an affectionate bond with President Reagan, even though Reagan was a different kind of conservative. Bush defined his vice presidency as a senior confidential adviser to Reagan, and he wasn’t ambivalent about him. He was ambivalent about the base of the Republican Party, which was increasingly conservative. And that base never fully embraced him, even when he won in 1988, and certainly not after he broke his “read my lips” pledge in 1990.
Certainly he had mixed feelings about President Clinton. They’re famous for being chummy, especially in later years, and yet Bush had particular regret at having lost the White House to someone he considered a draft dodger. Traditional concepts of patriotism, including a record of service in the military, were very important to him.
Unquestionably. He was the last president of the World War II generation, and I quote him in real time saying that if you don’t participate when your country’s at war, there’s something wrong with that. We can all argue with that, if we wish, but that was his view. His ambient reality was one of service, military service in particular. For him to be defeated by someone who had avoided that service was particularly painful to him.
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Kevin Nance is a full-time freelance writer and photographer who contributes to many national publications, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Magazine, and Poets & Writers Magazine, among others. He specializes in arts, cultural and literary journalism, but also writes about other topics as well.
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