Book Excerpt: Jon Meacham's 'Destiny and Power'

ByABC News
November 8, 2015, 7:34 AM

— -- Excerpted from "Destiny and Power" by Jon Meacham. Copyright © 2015 by Jon Meacham. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Prologue: The Last GentlemanHouston, Texas, 12:15am. CST, November 4, 1992

Even in the dark, he tried to look ahead. It was late, and he knew he should sleep, but he just couldn’t—not yet, anyway. Too much had happened; too much was on his mind.

In the Houstonian Hotel’s suite 271 on the evening he lost his bid for a second term as president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush climbed out of bed and slipped into an adjoining wood-paneled living room. Weary but restless, he settled on a small sofa. The room was empty, his heart full. There he sat, alone, struggling to make peace with the news that he, an American president who embodied the experience of the World War II generation, had just been defeated by Bill Clinton, the Baby Boomer Democratic governor of Arkansas. In his private, tape-recorded diary, Bush dictated: “I ache and I now must think: how do you keep your chin up, keep your head up through a couple of difficult days ahead?” He kept his voice low: Barbara, his devoted wife of forty- seven years, was asleep back in the bedroom. “I think of our country, and the people that are hurting, and there is so much we didn’t do” Bush told his diary. “And yes, progress that we made, but no, the job is not finished, and that kills me.”

Not so long before, it had all been different: George Bush had always finished the job. From his earliest days, he had done what his parents, his teachers, and his country had asked of him. He had not only met expectations but exceeded them, time and again. Born in 1924, he was a son of privilege raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, and at the seaside Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, Maine. He had joined the navy on his eighteenth birthday. As a carrier-based bomber pilot in the Pacific in World War II, he had been shot down at the age of twenty—but had finished his mission, attacking an enemy radio tower on Chichi-Jima even after his plane had been hit. He had raised a family, lost a daughter to leukemia, built a business, and thrived in the treacherous world of American politics. As president of the United States he had ended the Cold War with the Soviet Union, lifting the specter of nuclear war from the life of the nation and of the world, and led a global coalition to military victory in the Middle East. The American economy, however, had slipped into recession on his watch, leading to a persistent public sense that he was a rich man out of touch with the concerns of the people in his care. The caricature wasn’t particularly fair, but, as Bush often said, politics never was.

On this election night, he had said the gracious things, calling the president-elect in Little Rock to concede the race and promise a smooth transition. Yet the loss “hurt, hurt, hurt,” Bush dictated, “and I guess it’s the pride, too.” It was surely the pride, too—not a doubt in the world about that. “I don’t like to see the pollsters right at the end,” he dictated. “I don’t like to see the pundits right; I don’t like to see all of those who have written me off right. I was absolutely convinced we would prove them wrong, but I was wrong and they were right, and that hurts a lot.” He had lost to an opponent he privately considered a “draft dodger.” Such was this decorated World War II veteran’s view of the younger man—now the president-elect—who had managed to stay out of the armed forces during the Vietnam War and had participated in an anti- war demonstration in England as a Rhodes Scholar. “I guess it’s losing to Bill Clinton, the person,” Bush dictated. “I like him, but . . . how do you be the commander in chief when you duplicitously avoid service to your country? Maybe it is time for a new generation. He’s George [W.]’s age, a generation more in touch, a background more in touch. . . . I know what the charge is, but I’ve never felt ‘out of touch,’ but then I’ve always assumed there was duty, honor, country. I’ve always assumed that was just part of what Americans are made of—quite clearly it’s not.” Two days later, in another diary entry, the defeated president said: “I still feel that there is a disconnect . . . honor, duty, and country—it’s just passé. The values are different now, the lifestyles, the accepted vulgarity, the manners, the view of what’s patriotic and what’s not, the concept of ser- vice. All these are in the hands of a new generation now, and I feel I have the comfort of knowing that I have upheld these values and I live and stand by them. I have the discomfort of knowing that they might be alittle out of date.”

Honor, duty, country. Those verities, together with a driving ambition and an abiding competitive spirit, had shaped his life and his under- standing of the nation. There was nothing affected about Bush’s vision of politics as a means to public service, and of public service as the highest of callings. This vision of himself engaged in what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., called “the passion and action” of the time was as real to him as the air he breathed.

Early on election night his sons George W. and Jeb had tried to cheer him up. “The boys [are] telling me, ‘We’re proud of you, Dad, we’re very proud of you,’ ” Bush dictated. “Yes, their father was President and all of that, but a failed President.” In his anguish he was being too hard on himself. He had lost an election, not his place in history.

For now, though, Bush needed a way forward through the shadows of defeat, and he returned to a few core truths that had always guided him. “Be strong,” he told himself in his living room musings, “be kind, be generous of spirit, be understanding, let people know how grateful you are, don’t get even, comfort the ones I’ve hurt and let down, say your prayers and ask for God’s understanding and strength, finish with a smile and with some gusto, do what’s right and finish strong.”With that, the forty-first president of the United States retired for the night, rejoining the sleeping Barbara. Now he had a plan. Now he could rest. He told himself something else, too, in the days after the de- feat. “It’ll change,” he dictated. “It’ll change.”

And so it did. The farther the country moved from his presidency the larger Bush loomed, and the qualities so many voters found to be vices in 1992 came to be seen as virtues—his public reticence; his old- fashioned dignity; his tendency to find a middle course between extremes. He lived long enough to see the shift, and he appreciated that people were taking a more benign view of his record. Amid a conference at his presidential library in 2014, his ninetieth year, a visitor asked him what he made of all the encomiums and positive revision of his legacy. “Hard to believe,” Bush remarked. “It’s ‘kinder and gentler’ all over the place.”His was one of the great American lives—strong parents, a sparkling education, heroic service in World War II, success in Texas oil, congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, director of Central Intelligence, vice president of the United States, forty-first president, and the only president since John Adams to see his son also win the ultimate prize in American politics.

A formidable physical presence—six foot two, handsome, dominant in person—he spoke with his strong, big hands, waving dismissively to deflect unwelcome subjects or to suggest that someone was, as he would put it, “way out there,” beyond the mainstream, beyond reason, beyond Bush. Television conveyed his lankiness, but not his athleticism and his grace. He was the kind of man other men noted, and the kind women were often surprised to find attractive. He was a terrific flirt, charming women and men alike with a perpetual ebullience. Bush was a master of what Franklin Roosevelt thought of as “the science of human relation- ships,” and his capacity to charm—with a handwritten note, a phone call, a quick email, a wink, a thumbs-up—was crucial to his success in public life. He lacked the glamour of a John Kennedy or the stage presence of a Ronald Reagan; his was a quiet but persistent charisma, an ability to make others love him without, perhaps, their knowing quite why. He was driven less by ideas about politics than by an ideal of service and an ambition—a consuming one—to win.In the White House, he peacefully managed the end of the Communist threat, secured the heart of Europe, and struggled to bring order to the chaos of the Middle East. Before his White House years, a nuclear Armageddon between America and the Soviet Union was always a possibility; afterward it was unthinkable. President and statesman, politician and father, he was both a maker and a mirror of the story of American power—from the Allied victory against Germany and Japan to the beginnings of the war on Islamic terror. On the home front, his

1990 budget agreement put controls on spending and created the conditions for the elimination of the federal budget deficit under Bill Clinton. He negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, and passed historic clean-air legislation.Bush was a child of one generation’s ruling class, the head of another’s, and the father of yet a third. His life is a saga that ranges from the Gilded Age of railroad barons to the birth of Big Oil, from Greenwich and Midland to Washington, New York, Baghdad, and Beijing. His political life was shaped by two of the great forces in American life after World War II: the global responsibilities of a vital atomic power in foreign affairs and the rise of the right wing of the Republican Party in domestic politics.

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.

On the warm dusk of a Texas autumn a decade and a half after he left the White House, Bush, his left leg propped atop a coffee table in his Houston living room, a glass of white wine at hand, reflected on what had driven him all his life. “My motivation’s always been goal—you know, to be captain,” he said, his left hand in a fist, punctuating his words. “Whatever it is. That’s not good in a way, but in a way it is. It’s what motivated me all my life. I’m a goal kind of guy.”

He fell silent. Hoping to hear more, a visitor ventured: “You were motivated to do well, to succeed in the realms that life put you—”

Bush jumped in. “Whatever you’re in. Be number one.”

Where did it come from, this hunger for power? For that is what drove George H. W. Bush, relentlessly and perennially: a hunger to determine the destinies of others, to command respect, to shape great events. Many men of his age and milieu attended good schools, fought in the war, and went from the Ivy League to Wall Street. They led good, comfortable lives; helped, in their way, to build the prosperity that drove the midcentury boom and gave millions of Americans the opportunity for education and affluence after World War II. The worlds of the men at the top—the kind of men who had been at Andover or at Yale with Bush—revolved around business in Manhattan, commutes home to the suburbs of New York and Connecticut, martinis at cocktail hour, golf on the weekends, subscriptions to The New Yorker.

Bush refused to follow that well-marked path. Offered jobs at Brown Brothers Harriman, his father’s private bank, and G. H. Walker & Company, his maternal grandfather’s investment firm, Bush demurred. “It just wasn’t different enough—didn’t have the edge of really doing some- thing new,” Bush recalled. If he had chosen to join the established financial world, he knew how his life would unfold. “Wouldn’t have had much adventure, no excitement of trying new things, out of the family’s shadow. I loved my family—don’t get me wrong—but if I had gone to work for their businesses I wouldn’t have been able to set my own goals, make my own goals.”

In Greenwich and Kennebunkport, there was love, there was warmth, and there was kindness, but there was also the expectation that Walkers and Bushes were born to be tested—that life was not a country-club affair. It is a common mistake to assume that someone of George H. W. Bush’s breeding and background would see power as a birthright, as the natural inheritance of a man born to money and position. Quite the opposite: For the children of Dorothy and Prescott Bush, the truly desirable prizes were those one earned by skill and hard work, either on the field, the golf course, the tennis court, the oil fields, the business world, or in politics. To coast on the family name was a serious sin.

While this ethos of achievement produced children who were largely unentitled and unspoiled, it also created a family culture in which affection and approval could seem inextricably bound up with accomplishment. To be a good son, then, meant doing as well as being. All would be loved, no question, but those who came in first rose in the esteem of parents and grandparents. What child, sensing this, would not yearn to excel, when excellence was the way to win, if not the love (which was always on offer), but the admiration of one’s elders? What child would not want to achieve when achievement was expected, noted, and honored?

Yet they were not to boast of what they won. Such was the Bush code: Strive for victory, but never seem self-involved. Dorothy Walker Bush’s admonitions to her children to be self-effacing were legendary. They were not to talk about themselves or their achievements: “Nobody likes a braggadocio,” she would say, and that would be that. Dorothy Bush never asked how one of her children had played. It was “How did the team do?” When Bush would say “I was off my game,” his mother would reply “You don’t have a game.” She did not want to hear about what she called “the Great I Am.”

The Bushes kept score—fairly, but intensely and scrupulously, too. Proficiency was appreciated and admired, whether in business, sports, or politics. Things were not to be done halfheartedly or cavalierly. The family’s children were to master what they undertook and finish what they began. No one ever met that tribal challenge with a greater sense of purpose than George Herbert Walker Bush. He had a mission: to serve, to make his mark, to be in the game. He was certain of his place, respectful of tradition, solicitous of others. Yet he was an ambitious politician, too, and therein lay the great tension of his life. To serve he had to win, and if he had to win then that meant someone else had to lose.Which, when all was said and done, was just fine with George Bush. Such was the way of the world—a world that those closest to him and he himself (though he hated to admit it) long believed he was destined to run. As he grew up, meeting test after test, making friend after friend, impressing elder after elder, he became what Nancy Bush Ellis called “the star of the family”—a star of such brightness that winning the presidency of the United States itself seemed possible long before it became probable. “He was meant to be saved,” his sister remarked of his World War II experience. In the 1950s, Bush’s father introduced his son to the French ambassador in Washington. “This is my son George,” Prescott said, adding: “He’s going to be the President of the United States one day.”

Informed, however subtly, by the sense that he was destined to do great things, George Bush never doubted that he was the best man on the ballot. Armed with this self-confidence—a personal assurance masked by his kindness and his grace—he could justify adapting his principles and attacking his opponents as the inevitable price of politics. To Bush, such calculations were not cynical. They were instrumental to the desired end: the accumulation of power to be deployed in the service of America and of the world. What one said or did to rise to ultimate authority mattered less to Bush than whether one was principled and self- less once in command. And as president of the United States, Bush was often both.

For every compromise or concession to party orthodoxy or political expedience on the campaign trail, in office Bush sought to do the right thing. In 1964, when he ran for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas, he opposed the Civil Rights Act, only to vote for open housing in Congress four years later, much to the fury of his conservative constituents. In 1988, he made an absolute pledge on supply-side economics—“Read my lips, no new taxes”—only to break that promise two years later when he believed an agreement that included higher taxes was best for the country. After winning a hard-hitting presidential campaign, Bush sought what he called a “kinder and gentler” America, reaching out to Democrats and

Republicans alike, seeking common ground on common problems.

Americans tend to prefer their presidents on horseback: heroes who dream big and sound the trumpets. There is, however, another kind of leader—quieter and less glamorous but no less significant—whose virtues repay our attention. There is greatness in political lives dedicated more to steadiness than to boldness, more to reform than to revolution, more to the management of complexity than to the making of mass movements. Bush’s life code, as he once put it in a letter to his mother, was “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your Best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.” Simple propositions—deceptively simple, for such sentiments are more easily expressed than embodied in the arena of public life.

Essentially modest, he had an underwhelming speaking style that prevented him from consistently defining a compelling national agenda. Instinctively generous, he risked appearing indecisive, even weak, when he was reaching out and listening to other people’s points of view. Highly intelligent, he could seem confused and sometimes unserious when discussing issues of great significance.

Yet the nation was fortunate that George H. W. Bush was in power when the crises of his time came, for his essential character, his experience, and his temperament armed him well to bring the decades-long Cold War to an end, to confront the aggression of an irrational dictator, and to lead the nation toward fiscal responsibility. An imperfect leader, he was nevertheless well matched to the exigencies of his historical moment.

Bush was a steward, not a seer, and made no apologies for his preference for pragmatism over ideology. Unflinching creeds and consuming worldviews could lead to catastrophe, for devotees of doctrine tended to fall in love with their own righteousness, ignoring inconvenient facts. He resisted ideological certainty and eloquent abstraction to such an extent that he dismissed questions about his goals for the nation as “the vision thing.” He knew all the charges and was impatient with the prevailing critique of his political persona. “One of the criticisms that got me was,

‘Well, he doesn’t have any vision, he doesn’t have any reason for being there,’ ” Bush recalled. “Well, what’s wrong with trying to help people, what’s wrong with trying to bring peace, what’s wrong with trying to make the world a little better?” Exactly why, he wondered, wasn’t that vision enough?

Taken all in all, Bush was a president less in the tradition of Ronald Reagan than of Dwight Eisenhower. Reagan spoke in terms of revolution, of great and necessary reforms to the existing order of things. Eisenhower said that his goal was to take America “down the middle of the road between the unfettered power of concentrated wealth . . . and the unbridled power of statism or partisan interests.” Moderate in temperament, Eisenhower and Bush were both more traditionally conservative than many of their contemporaries understood, in the sense that they sought above all to conserve what was good about the world as they found it. For them, conservatism entailed prudence and pragmatism. They eschewed the sudden and the visionary.For all of his years on the stage, Bush could be an enigmatic figure, and his public image conveyed neither the complexities of his character nor the depth of his emotions. He was a victim, in a way, of his instinct for dignity. Bill Clinton spoke of how he felt the pain of voters; Bush thought such language beneath the presidency even though, in private, beneath the surface and in his diary, he was an immensely sensitive man. He cried easily (especially as he grew older), but believed he should avoid such displays in public; they struck him as self-indulgent. Late in his vice presidential years, Bush was visiting a children’s leukemia ward in Kraków, Poland. Thirty-five years before, he and Barbara had lost their daughter Robin to the disease, a family tragedy of which he rarely spoke in public. In Kraków, one patient, a seven- or eight-year-old boy, wanted to greet the American vice president. Learning that the child was sick with the cancer that had killed Robin, Bush began to cry.

“My eyes flooded with tears, and behind me was a bank of television cameras. . . . And I thought to myself, ‘I can’t turn around. . . . I can’t dis- solve because of personal tragedy in the face of a host of reporters and our hosts and the nurses that give of themselves every day.’ So I stood there looking at this little guy, tears running down my cheek, but able to talk to him pleasantly . . . hoping he didn’t see but, if he did, hoping he’d feel that I loved him.” This was the private Bush. It was not the Bush that many American voters knew very much, if anything, about.

His interior monologue about Kraków was found in the transcripts of diaries that Bush kept sporadically as vice president under Ronald

Reagan and more regularly in his own four years as president. The diaries provide a remarkable personal perspective on Bush, who dictated into a handheld cassette recorder, sometimes carrying the device with him in his briefcase back and forth between the White House Residence and the West Wing. He would bring it along on trips aboard Marine One to Camp David and on Air Force One across the nation and the globe. He would speak into the machine quietly, often late at night or early in the morning. Taken all together, the diaries enable us, in effect, to sit with Bush as he muses about life at the highest levels.

Because he did not believe in burdening others—even his wife—with what he self-mockingly called “the loneliness of the job, the ‘woe-is-me’ stuff,” the forty-first president saved most of his expressions of frustration for his diary. When alone, speaking to himself and to history, Bush was honest about the vicissitudes of the presidency, about his hopes and fears, about the good days and the bad—and about what it was truly like to govern in what he once described as “a fascinating time of change in the world itself.”To understand George Herbert Walker Bush and the country he led, we must begin not by the sea at his beloved Walker’s Point, nor on the lawns of Greenwich nor in the oil fields of Texas, but in the booming America of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an age in which the energetic and the ambitious were building great fortunes— and a great nation.