The road to Donald Trump is paved with decency

Paul Constant

November 30, 2015

The introduction to Destiny and Power, the new biography of George H.W. Bush, makes it pretty clear where Jon Meacham’s loyalty as a biographer lies. Bush, Meacham writes, “was driven less by ideas about politics than by an ideal of service and an ambition — a consuming one — to win.” He continues:

Americans unhappy with the reflexively polarized politics of the first decades of the twenty-first century will find the presidency of George H.W. Bush refreshing, even quaint. He embraced compromise as a necessary element of public life, engaged his political foes in the passage of important legislation, and was willing to break with the base of his own party in order to do what he thought was right, whatever the price. Quaint, yes: But it happened, in America, only a quarter of a century ago.

This is, essentially, the thesis of Destiny and Power. And though Meacham has undoubtedly been working on the book for years, it seems perfectly timed, released as it was in the heat of conservative America’s love affair with Donald Trump. Meacham paints Bush as a kind of anti-Trump, a good-natured, affable aristocrat with a keen sense of fair play constructed around a strong core of decency. This feels, it must be said, like a bit of a stretch.

Of course, it’s very difficult for a biographer to not fall halfway in love with their subject; you can’t spend years thinking about, reading about, and interviewing a subject without developing some sort of empathy for them. And make no mistake; Meacham is a marvelous biographer. He’s the Pulitzer-winning author of biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, though this marks his first book-length plunge into documenting a living subject. And Destiny and Power, despite its lackluster title, is an excellent presidential biography. In roughly 600 pages, it lays out Bush’s life in compelling prose; this is as close to a page-turner you’ll ever find about the life of the elder Bush.

But the problem with Meacham’s obvious respect for his subject is that it at times brings him in conflict with the reality of what his fastidious research reveals. Meacham writes of Bush’s moderate stance on abortion, for example, but he then documents many occasions in which Bush happily enforced or encouraged Ronald Reagan’s more conservative anti-abortion stance. Which Bush are we supposed to believe — the principled moderate he was in private, or the happy warrior for the extreme party line? Do the values he holds in private matter when he says something completely different in public?

In fact, the portrait Meacham paints is of a privately decent man who refuses to take a stand against extremism. Bush was unhappy with the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich, but he didn’t do anything to stop it. In a free-flowing conversation at the end of the book, Bush admits to being unhappy with his son’s presidential inner circle of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, but he did nothing to voice his concern when they were leading the country to international shame during George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. Instead, he just tut-tutted in private, upholding the classically upper-crust yankee ideal of not saying anything at all if you have nothing nice to say.

Compare Bush’s inaction at major moments during the Republican Party’s struggle with its own conscience to his father, Senator Prescott Bush, who took a stand against inflammatory anti-Communist agitator Joseph McCarthy, and you start to see the problem: you can draw a line directly from Ronald Reagan’s anti-government propaganda to the Republican Party’s love affair with Donald Trump. Could Bush, on his own, have saved the Republican Party’s descent into madness? Probably not. But he could have agitated for decency and moderation both as a presidential candidate and as an increasingly popular ex-president, and he did not. Meacham does not hold him accountable for these actions.

Just about everyone who knows George H.W. Bush comments on his decency and likability and general competence. Perhaps that, in combination with his blueblood roots, explains Bush’s meteoric rise; his history as an elected official certainly does not. Bush lost his first bid for office, won his second, and then abandoned that office for a bid towards a more prestigious one, which he lost. Then he was handed a series of jobs by Republican presidents — ambassador to the UN, head of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, head of the CIA — that he took without complaint. Then he ran for president and was offered the vice presidency, and he won his first and only term as president by allowing his staffers to run one of the meanest, most divisive presidential campaigns in modern memory. It’s less a case of Bush’s “destiny,” as the title of the book argues, and more a case of being from the right family and demonstrating an uncanny ability to smilingly eat the worst plate of shit handed to him.

Taken on his own merits as a campaigner, Bush certainly never would have gotten as far as he did. He was terrible with people, easily annoyed, and he loudly complained about the media at pretty much every opportunity. Bush’s hatred of the media only intensified during George W. Bush’s presidency. Why couldn’t the press recognize how decent his son was, he wondered repeatedly? (“I don’t know what can be done differently to get people to see what I see” when he looks at George W. Bush, the elder Bush told an interviewer in 2010.) This was a heightened version of Bush’s complaints about how he himself was handled: he wanted credit for gentlemanly backroom behavior when public appearances offered a very different message. All those testimonies from family and friends about Bush’s rock-solid values clash terribly with the Bush who allowed Lee Atwater to run the anti-Dukakis Willie Horton ads in the 1988 campaign. Meacham does his best to absolve Bush of Atwater’s sins, but it doesn’t quite work.

These are not reasons to skip the book; they’re simply perspectives to keep in mind as you read. Because there’s plenty to recommend here — Meacham applies a historical eye to an era that’s just beginning to adopt the golden glow of an unattainable past. Like Bush himself, Meacham is more interested in foreign policy than domestic, and the fast collapse of the USSR provides much of the drama and intrigue for the second half of the book. The names have developed the slightly musty air of history: Gorbachev, Mitterand, Thatcher. And as they play out, you get the sense that Destiny and Power is the first drop in what will undoubtedly become a flood of reassessments of the 1980s and 1990s in the years to come. By establishing Bush as a central figure in the time, Meacham is laying a foundation for works to come — works that will build on and extrapolate from and argue with his own estimable work. That’s how history is made.

Books in this review:
  • Destiny and Power
    by Jon Meacham
    Random House
    November 10, 2015
    836 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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