“Were you surprised that so much of the public attention to your book has been focused on President George H.W. Bush’s unflattering comments about the roles of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney in the administration of his son, President George W. Bush?”
I asked this question to Jon Meacham, author of The New York Times bestseller, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.”
Then, I added, “Especially since you did not report Bush’s comments about Rumsfeld and Cheney until the last 15 pages of your 600-page book.”
Meacham responded quickly. “Honestly, no. I remember the October afternoon in 2008, when President Bush started in on the subject. I remember thinking those are the headlines of the book. I knew right then. We were in his office in Houston on a Monday morning. I’ll never forget it. He started making his comments about Cheney and Rumsfeld and how he felt how both Cheney and Rumsfeld had contributed to and exacerbated the hawkish tone around Bush 43’s administration and that Bush Sr. thought it was unfortunate. He repeated the point in different ways and underscored it in a series of conversations in ensuing years. This was not a drive-by comment. It was not something he just said one day and moved on.”
In fact, Meacham told me, he went back to Bush last year to give him a chance to comment on those statements in case he had spoken “in the heat of the moment and that if he had different views now, I would note that.”
Meacham said Bush looked him the eye and said, “That’s what I said.”
“So,” Meacham concluded, “he clearly wanted this on the record.”
Although this part grabbed much of the attention, it was not the reason Meacham wrote the book. “I wanted George H.W. Bush to have his own moment, not simply be seen as a precursor to his son or as an epilogue to Ronald Reagan, but as his own figure, his own man who had his hour upon the stage.
“He acquitted himself incredibly well, when you look back on it. Not a perfect president by any means, but we haven’t had one yet. I wanted the story of the last president of the Greatest Generation and the first president of the post-Cold War world. A man who brought an end to the Cold War without a shot being fired. I wanted him to have a full-dress telling of his story.”
Meacham also believes Bush made a good record on the domestic side. “Not many would’ve said it back in 1992. But with the perspective of history, not just the heat of journalism, you find that he passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Clean Air Act, which defines our environmental policy to this day. And the 1990 budget deal which cost him dearly, but which Bill Clinton will tell you at length—maybe that’s redundant, I guess—set the terms for the prosperity of the 1990s.”
Among the hundreds of pages of details about Bush’s life there are two pages that describe an important connection to North Carolina. When he turned 18 in 1942, he enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Chapel Hill for pre-flight training, which was according to Meacham, “a very shaping experience, a memorable experience.”
More important for Bush was the daylong visit to Chapel Hill of 17-year-odd Barbara Pierce. Bush wrote his mother, “She looked too cute for words — really beautiful.”
Meacham explains, “We hear much more about her in the ensuing years.”
The couple married in January 1945. Barbara Pierce Bush has had a star role in the Bush universe since that day in Chapel Hill.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.