Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, by Jon Meacham ISBN 9781400067657
Five out of five stars
Over time, the presidency of George H. W. Bush has been viewed increasingly favorably. There is no question that his was in many ways a third term for Ronald Reagan. As the dutiful soldier he was, Bush subverted his positions and ambitions to serve as Vice-president under President Reagan. Nowhere near his equal as a speaker or politician, Bush spent four years living in the long shadow of his predecessor. Despite his incredible success in managing the first gulf war, when the campaign for his re-election came about, he was a victim of the changing political landscape.
Despite a few forays into the dark side of negative campaigning, Bush was essentially a man that kept things away from the nastiness of campaigning and his was a “steady as she goes” approach. Bush understood that it is foolish to make enemies on one issue as you may need them on your side on the next one.
As Meacham points out, the Republican Party was changing with the arrival of neopartisans such as Newt Gingrich and Vin Weber. People that felt the need to consider their political opponents to be enemies rather than just opponents. It was also the beginning of partisan talk radio and cable, where audiences are acquired and held by vilification of others, often within your own party.
Although I was aware of George H. W. Bush’s stellar record of public service starting in World War II, I was never impressed by him. He never seemed to have any real fire or passion for anything. When he tried to project some passion, his rhetoric always seemed to sound hollow. It is ironic that one of the few times he did sound genuine, it was his “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge that he was forced to break.
Yet, as I read through this book I came away impressed by what he did and how he acted. In the 2016 campaign for president, the major candidates on the Republican side often remind you of three middle school boys on a playground trying to out lowball insult each other. Bush’s low-key approach to disagreements is sorely missed. This book is a reminder that the ability to spout harsh rhetoric is not evidence of governing capability. Bush was very much a “little talk, big do” person.
There is one area where George H. W. Bush was truly outstanding and that is how he handled the American side of the breakup of the Soviet Union. As Meacham points out, there were a lot of voices in the Republican party that wanted him to gloat and pressure Mikhail Gorbachov in order to press an advantage. Bush’s low-key rhetoric did a great deal to ensure something that no one thought possible, a collapse of the Soviet empire with hardly a shot being fired. Short of the Allied victories in World War II, this event altered the course of history more than anything else. It is hard to believe that events such as the ongoing civil war in Syria could have ever started if the bipolar world of two superpowers still existed. Bush may not have won the Cold War, but he guaranteed that the United States did not achieve a hollow victory.
With much more to come, there is not enough evidence to proclaim this the definitive biography of the life and actions of George H. W. Bush. However, it is clear that right now it is, this is a great book. He is very much underappreciated as a president.
This book was made available for free for review purposes.