Many books will attempt to take an objective look at the life of President George H.W. Bush. The younger President Bush makes it clear from the get-go that his new book 41: A Portrait of My Father isn’t one of those. Rather he describes the book as a “love story” and “a personal portrait of the extraordinary man I am blessed to call my dad.”
41 takes an intimate look at the elder Bush’s life and career from his New England childhood, to his move to Texas to begin a career in oil to his political career, to his post-Presidency.
The younger Bush points with pride at his father’s decision to go to Texas to get involved in the oil business and not going to Wall Street to make his living. Wall Street would’ve been an easier path. Instead, the elder Bush was continually seeking new challenges and opportunities.
A particularly moving part of the book is the account of the death of the elder Bush’s daughter, Robin, at a time when the younger Bush was a child in Midland, Texas. He writes of the sorrow his parents went through, and how his father would lead a harried existence of trying to keep things afloat while going to church daily and praying for his dying daughter.
Despite not being a Bush Republican, I’ve always had a warm spot in my heart for George H.W. Bus. The 1992 elections were my first bit of political activism, which involved distributing literature in support of Bush’s re-election. This book shows us the best of George H.W. Bush as a man who sought to turn enemies into friends, who cared when people were hurting, and possessed a humility that’s rare in the ego-driven world of American politics.
The Elder Bush’s sense of humor and willingness not to take himself seriously served him well. For example take his service as an US Ambassador to the UN. A columnist named Ambassador Bush as one of New York’s most overrated people. The Ambassador responded by hosting a party and invited the rest of the people on the overrated list and the columnist who’d written the piece.
George H.W.Bush’s compassion for others was never legendary because he never made a big deal about it. However, his son did share in the book. It is full of stories of Bush not only being there for people in times of loss but also keeping in touch for years or decades. Even though he’s lost his ability to walk, he’s continued the practice. When he learned the son of one of his Secret Service Agents was fighting leukemia, he shaved his own head in solidarity with the child.
In the political world, it’s thought, if you don’t despise your opponents and disrespect them, you’re a weakling. If you play a round of golf with them, you’re a traitor. The elder Bush was an example of civility. Bush built bridges. After he suffering defeat to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Republican Primary, the two became best friends during their eight years together in the White House. Bob Dole was his bitter opponent in the 1988 Republican Primary but the two grew to respect one another. The elder bush has been a father figure to Bill Clinton, the man who defeated him in 1992. He also made a condolence call to Al Gore after the end of Gore’s 37 day challenge to the Younger Bush’s victory in the 2000 election.
Some conservatives might conclude only that Bush is a raging RINO. To me, Bush’s approach is a bit more Christian than the personal hatred that seems so popular on both sides of the political aisle.
The Elder Bush was an example of continuing to lead an active and energetic life as a senior citizen, including operating a speed boat at top speed into his mid-80s and making parachute jumps, including one on his ninetieth birthday. The elder Bush’s willingness to try new things and keep on living life into old age led the younger Bush to pick up a paintbrush for the first time in his 60s.
The younger Bush also provides key insights into his involvement with his father’s campaigns and political career, including how some of his father’s decisions shaped his own when he was in the White House. He also explains his father’s role in the younger Bush’s presidency. Political opponents like to image George W. Bush as a daddy’s boy who couldn’t think for himself. According to the younger Bush, he only asked his father about appointments of former members of the Elder Bush’s administration. George W. Bush said his father wouldn’t have offered advice on policy if asked. The Elder Bush understood better than anyone that the President received detailed briefings from experts and wouldn’t give advice unless he’d been similarly briefed.
Instead, the elder Bush played the role of encourager to his son, sending humorous emails to brighten his day and calling to tell him he did a good job after State of the Union speeches.
Despite the book’s strengths, it had a few issues. Sometimes the author went off on rabbit trails far afield from the focus of the chapter, such as details of the younger Bush’s date with President Nixon’s daughter. While Bush warned us that he wasn’t objective, the chapter on the 1992 election was an amazing piece of historical revisionism.
Had the chapter focused on Bush’s recollections of the time and the family’s feelings, that would have been fine. Instead, we’re given a detailed explanation of how George H.W. Bush was not responsible for his obtaining the lowest percent of the vote of any incumbent president running for re-election since 1908. It was all the fault of a perfect storm of baby boomers wanting one of their own elected president, the economy not growing as fast as the president’s economic advisors had calculated, and troublemakers named Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. The younger Bush stated Buchanan merely wanted to increase his TV ratings and that Perot was an unhinged nut running because he thought the elder Bush was part of a conspiracy to keep Vietnam POWs imprissioned..
Whether one believes him or not, it’s poor form for a former President of the United States. It suggests the Bush family may have come to terms with Bill Clinton, but they haven’t come to terms with the 1992 loss.
The book itself provides clues about what actually happened. The Elder Bush raised taxes, breaking his “read my lips” pledge and was careful not to be publicly jubilant over the retreat of communism for fear “dancing on the Berlin Wall” might embolden Soviet hardliners. Whether the Elder Bush was right or wrong, Bush not only “didn’t consolidate the base early” as the younger Bush admitted, but dispirited it as they saw a tax increasing administration that didn’t show a passion for the defeat of communism. This wasn’t what people voted for in 1988 and the voters showed their displeasure in 1992. That the Bush family is still making excuses about the 1992 election after nearly a quarter of the century shows they missed the point.
41 does a great job showing the strength of character that the Bush family possess but it also shows the weakness of their political leadership on domestic issues. The Elder Bush showed no leadership and went along with a bad deal from Congress on taxes. The younger Bush refused to push any of his big political agenda items in the first part of his presidency when his popularity hovered in the 70s and was left to push for Social Security reform until after he’d become a polarizing figure who could hope for no bi-partisan support.
As a tome of political advice, the book is as flawed as the author and the subject. Where 41 shines is as book about a man of great personal character with a great family life. Plenty of fathers would give their right arms for the type of love and respect the younger Bush has for his father, and plenty of sons long for that sort of relationship with their dad. On that level, even if you disagree with the politics of the Bush family, there’s a lot to admire and learn in this great biography of a good and decent man who for four years was President of the United States.