Book Review

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.

John Meacham. Random House, New York 2015


I have devised a new (for me) measure, pages per year, for describing John Meacham’s pace. This useful parameter will help potential readers understand how much detail to expect from the various sections of this delightful book. Meacham  relates the Bush family history and George Herbert Walker Bush’s (GHWB’s) early years in a compact 68 pages, emphasizing the patrician background of a well-to-do family that was, in fact, within itself highly competitive. Prescott Bush, GHWB’s father seems like a distant figure; other than his role as one of Ike’s favorite golf partners, we see little of him. Dorothy, GHWB’s mother, is at once warm and described as very athletic and competitive, a perfect fit in the Bush family.

Bush graduated from Andover and enlisted in the Navy for flight training at age 18. He became (probably) the youngest pilot in the Navy. He was shot down on a combat mission in the Pacific in September, 1944 and was rescued by a US submarine on “lifeguard duty.”

He returned from the war, married Barbara, and completed his undergraduate studies at Yale in two and a half years, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He was captain of the Yale baseball team, hit .280, and appeared in the College World Series in 1947 and 1948.

All of that in the first 78 pages! (3-4 pgs/yr)

Bush’s career as a Texas oilman gets only 46 pages, much of which describes the death of his daughter, Robin, with leukemia. By 1966, he had become a successful businessman. He moved on to politics.

Meacham covers Bush’s 11 years as ambassador to the UN, chairman of the Republican National Committee and ambassador to China, and finally as head of the CIA, in 79 pages. (7 pgs/yr) Although the narrative moves quickly, there’s enough to give a sense of the conflicts in the Republican Party between the moderate “Rockefeller Republications” and the conservative Goldwater wing. The CIA appointment. Bush’s upbringing, character, and experience all put him in the more middle of the road camp.

The lengthy mid-section of the book all occurs in Washington. First came the difficult choice to take a more conservative line to get the (very last minute) nod as Reagan’s Vice President. The narrative slows somewhat for the Reagan years, 145 pages for 8 years. (18 pgs/yr) Meacham gives a lot of detail on the John Hinckley assassination attempt on Reagan, qualifying those chapters for the “Wow, I didn’t know all that” award!  The relationship between Reagan and Bush became quite close; however, Nancy Reagan was never friendly with the Bushes.

Following the Reagan years, of course, are the four years of Bush’s presidency recounted in almost 200 pages. (50pgs/yr)  The dramatic events include the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first Iraq war, and the reversal on the (poorly planned) “read my lips” declaration. The narrative moves briskly, and Meacham paints GHWB as a pragmatic President who is highly experienced, knowledgeable, and comfortable with foreign affairs and increasingly frustrated with partisan domestic politics.

The loss of the Presidential election of 1992 to Bill Clinton, the growing friendship between Bush and Clinton after 2000, and political careers and family relationships of George W and Jeb, are the themes of the final section, “In the Twilight, 1993-2016.” After the breathless pace of the story up till the ’92 election, the final section has a melancholy or elegiac quality. Meacham sets GHWB’s career in perspective as one of remarkable achievement.

After looking at Bush’s life through Meacham’s story, there is a hollow feeling at the very center. Bush brought athletic skill, courage, intelligence, and high moral standards to practically everything he did. But why was he so driven?  GHWB is certainly the central figure in this narrative, but the only explanation Meacham offers for his behavior is the competitive dynamic of the Bush family and his never-ending desire to bring order out of chaotic situations.

In the end, GHWB was a remarkable chief executive, but the narrative offers the conclusion that he wanted the Presidency primarily because it was an ultimate achievement, the highest office of our nation. The Presidency is positioned as a logical sequel to getting good grades, earning the Navy pilot’s wings, and graduating Yale Phi Beta Kappa, Skull and Bones, and varsity athlete. GHWB wanted to show that he could, in fact, do it. In the end, he was the captain of the world’s most powerful baseball team.