George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, is the only commander in chief in modern times who has declined to write a memoir. Now George W. Bush, the 43rd president, strides into the void with a book of his own intended to give voice to his modest father’s life and legacy.
At the outset of “41,” George W. makes clear his objective. He says he expects that many books will assess his father’s contributions. “Some of those works may be objective,” he writes in an author’s note. “This one is not. This book is a love story.”
Indeed, “41” is a chronicle of family love and loss, written in a plainspoken voice that sounds just like George W. Bush in person, with wisecrack asides and loads of family sentimentality. For those of us who watched both Bush presidencies up close, the book is also a predictably firm defense of the elder Bush’s foreign policy, particularly in Iraq and the Cold War, a strategy that laid down even higher stakes for the son’s presidency eight years later.
George W. traces Bush 41’s well-known entry into politics in Texas in the 1960s, his election to the House and his unsuccessful campaigns for the Senate, and a succession of prominent national positions: ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee at the time President Richard Nixon resigned, envoy to the People’s Republic of China and director of the CIA when the agency was under fire domestically. After eight years as a loyal vice president to Ronald Reagan — the man who defeated him in the battle for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination — George H.W. stepped into the Oval Office only to inherit a weakening economy and foreign policy challenges after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His job approval soared to 89 percent after he waged the brief Persian Gulf War. But a recession and some campaign stumbles helped usher Bill Clinton and the baby boom generation into the White House.
George W. clearly feels that history has shortchanged his father’s four-year presidency, bookended by the robust eight-year terms of Reagan and Clinton. In fact, he compares the elder Bush’s record to that of Winston Churchill, who led Britain to success in World War II and then was forced into retirement. George H.W. “had accomplished more in one term than many Presidents had in two,” his son writes. “History would remember him as the liberator of Kuwait and the President who oversaw the peaceful end of the cold war.”
But the younger Bush finds a family silver lining to his father’s defeat in 1992: If the elder Bush had won a second term, George W. would not have run for Texas governor in 1994 and later for president. In 1994, George W. faced a popular incumbent, he writes, “and as the son of the President it would have been distracting to answer questions about whether I agreed with every decision that his administration made.”
Nothing knits this father-son duo closer together than the wars in Iraq. The elder Bush drove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait in early 1991 during Operation Desert Storm and then called the American action to a halt. When George W. sought to topple Hussein from power more than a decade later , he faced accusations of one-upmanship with his father.
“I was not trying ‘to finish what my father had begun,’ as some have suggested,” he writes. “I never asked Dad what I should do. We both knew that this was a decision that only the President can make.”
When George W. updated his father on his strategy at Camp David over Christmas in 2002, the elder Bush appeared to give his blessing for the Iraq invasion. “You know how tough war is, son,” George W. quotes his father as saying, “and you’ve got to try everything you can to avoid war. But if the man won’t comply, you don’t have any other choice.”
George W. offers a few tantalizing personal glimpses into a family that has always been fiercely protective. He reveals fresh details about the death of his younger sister, Robin, and the heartbreak this brought to the family. Robin died of leukemia at age 3. To deal with his daughter’s illness, George H.W. threw himself into nonstop action, working, praying, meeting with doctors, asking about test results, seeking new treatments. “I can see that the frantic activity was his way of coping with the helplessness he felt,” George W. writes of his father. “George Bush, the Navy pilot who swam to the life raft and paddled away from death [during a near-catastrophe in World War II], must have found it unbearable not to be able to do anything to help the girl he loved.”
George W. tattles on himself for shoplifting toy soldiers when he was 6 years old, a tale intended to provide a peek at his father’s parenting style. The young thief pocketed the soldiers during a trip to a general store in Midland, Tex. When his father discovered the crime, he loaded his son in the car and took him back to the scene. He instructed the boy to go in alone, hand over the soldiers and apologize to the manager. “I did what he asked and felt genuine remorse,” George W. writes. “When I got back into the car, Dad didn’t say another word. He knew he had made his point.”
George H.W. was also crafty in his handling of his carefree son. When George W. was in pilot training with the Texas Air National Guard in the late 1960s, his father lured him to a party in Washington as the date of Nixon’s daughter Tricia. But things didn’t go well. “Being a swashbuckling pilot,” George W. writes, “I had taken to drink.” During dinner, he knocked over a wine glass, then proceeded to light up a cigarette, earning a reprimand from Tricia for smoking. “The date came to an end when she asked me to take her back to the White House immediately after dinner.”
The book contains plenty of complaints about the family’s treatment by the national media, a wrath that we reporters often felt covering both administrations. George W.’s daughter Jenna is quoted as begging her father to be allowed to defend him publicly during his reelection campaign. “I hate hearing lies about you,” she wrote in a letter. “I hate when people criticize you.”
George W. experienced the same frustration when his father got hammered in the press and by other candidates on the campaign trail.
“One press account [during George H.W.’s 1980 presidential campaign] said Dad had shown ‘the backbone of a jellyfish,’ ” George W. writes. “Bob Dole said that George Bush ‘wants to be king’ and compared his actions to those of the Gestapo.” The son noted that he “experienced the unique brand of pain that the child of a public figure feels.”
Though the Bushes shy away from discussing the topic of political dynasty, “41” implies the existence of a ruling lineage, to the point of the successor writing the history of the predecessor. America’s ruling families even seem drawn to each other. George W. pays tribute to the other modern dynasty, the Clintons. In retirement, he writes, Bill Clinton has become a Bush family favorite: “Mother took to calling Clinton her long-lost fifth son. . . . Clinton embraced the image and started calling himself the black sheep of the Bush family. He joked that Barbara Bush would do anything to claim another President in the family.”
Two years ago, George H.W. Bush suffered a health scare so serious that the family was consulted on the protocol for a presidential state funeral. He recovered, and on a warm spring day in 2013, when his son’s presidential library was dedicated in Dallas, he spoke very briefly then rose unsteadily from his wheelchair, drawing a thundering ovation from the large crowd. It was the best moment of the day.
Of course, the Bush family saga is not over. In his acknowledgments, George W. thanks his brother Jeb for providing a few anecdotes and adds, teasingly, “even though Jeb has a few other things on his mind these days.” Jeb has the Bush family’s blessing if he chooses to run for president and add a sequel to the father-son story.
Book Review from The Washington Post, by Ann Compton