Almost 25 years after President George H.W. Bush left office, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham examines the life and career of a figure who seems almost “quaint” by today’s politically polarized standards.
Bush believed in compromise, worked to secure support on both sides of the aisle “and was willing to break with the base of his own party in order to do what he thought was right, whatever the price,” Meacham writes in Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. “Quaint, yes: But it happened, in America, only a quarter century ago.”
Meacham’s penetrating biography goes beyond the events of Bush’s presidency, as monumental as they might be—the liberation of Kuwait, the end of the Cold War—to offer an absorbing look at what made the man, from his privileged childhood to his hyper-competitive spirit, which Meacham characterizes as a “hunger for power” that was evident from a young age.
“[T]hat is what drove George H.W. Bush, relentlessly and perennially: a hunger to determine the destinies of others, to command respect, to shape great events,” the author writes. Bush was willing to veer off the well-trod path to achieve those ends, whether that meant bypassing a lucrative job in finance to move to the Texas oil fields or running for the U.S. Senate in Texas in 1964 as a political neophyte. (He lost but won a seat in the House two years later.)
Bush was born in Massachusetts in 1924, the second son of a marriage that combined two old-line wealthy families. His Walker forebears shine somewhat more brightly than his Bush relatives in Meacham’s telling, with his grandfather and namesake George Herbert (Bert) Walker standing out as a particularly bold character. (“Temperamental, imperious, and impatient, he thrived on conflict,” Meacham writes. One of Walker’s sons described him as “a real son of a bitch.”)
Meacham has a flair for setting a scene with cinematic effect, from the World War II air battle where Bush almost lost his life to the night of the 1992 election when the solitary and anguished president reflected on his loss to Bill Clinton.
The biography is enriched immeasurably by Meacham’s 10 years of interviews with the former president, from 2006 to 2015, as well as material from Bush’s personal diaries, which he dictated into a handheld recorder during his years as vice president and president. “He would speak into the machine quietly, often late at night or early in the morning. Taken all together, the diaries enable us, in effect, to sit with Bush as he muses about life at the highest levels,” Meacham writes.
A former editor of Newsweek, Meacham won the Pulitzer Prize for American Lion, his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson. His masterful new portrait of Bush is both authoritative and highly readable, a treat for history buffs and general readers alike.