By Fleming Smith
On Sunday, November 22, Jon Meacham (C’91) visited Sewanee and discussed his new biography of President George H.W. Bush with Vice-Chancellor Dr. John McCardell. Meacham recently published Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. When he visited Sewanee’s campus this past month, Meacham sat down with McCardell to a full audience to discuss his experience with the former president.
Meacham first met President Bush in 1998 and described him as a “much more complicated and interesting man than I had expected.” He found Bush to be so complicated that the biography took 17 years to complete. During this time, Meacham gained privileged access to Bush’s records. The president’s tape recorder diaries of his time in the White House helped Meacham the most, allowing him to make “as true a portrait as a biographer can get,” said Meacham. Bush, or “Bush 41” as Meacham called him to distinguish from his son, George W. Bush, was born in 1924 in Massachusetts. At 18, Bush enlisted to fight in the Navy during World War II. Afterwards, he attended Yale University and would later move to Texas, becoming a millionaire in the oil business. Bush served as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and in the White House both as vice president to Ronald Reagan and, from 1989-1993, as president.
While Meacham was writing his biography, he tried to strike a balance between criticism and praise. He asked himself, “Had I called him to account?” One of the most infamous moments of Bush’s presidency was when he raised taxes despite his campaign slogan, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” However, Meacham said of Bush, “While he would say and do less than admirable things to win power, at every critical point when he actually had power and authority, he did the right thing against his own political interest. It’s actually a story of redemption in a way.” Meacham also described the more difficult moments in writing the biography: confronting the darker parts of the president’s life. “Bush was despondent after the Gulf War,” Meacham said, citing that time as a very gloomy period. He nearly did not run for a second term, suffering from a thyroid condition at the time. However, Meacham quoted Bush as saying, “No one wants to hear a president of the United States whine.”
In Meacham’s research, he talked not only to the President but also to other members of the administration and Bush’s family. First Lady Barbara Bush was very candid about her battles with depression when she talked with Meacham, citing menopause and her husband’s work in the CIA during the 1970’s. She had been married to Bush since 1945, however, and describes him as having helped her through her struggles. Bush faced struggles of his own, as well. The loss of his second term to Bill Clinton devastated him. “It’s King Lear, or Achilles in his tent,” Meacham said to describe the feeling of defeat that Bush felt. As the last of the World War II generation, Bush could not understand how America could elect a “draft-dodger,” feeling that perhaps the times had outgrown him. Bush 41 had the unique experience of seeing his son, Bush 43, become President less than a decade after his own tenure. Meacham mentions that he often gave advice to his son and always his support. “He wanted to give 43 as much of the benefit of the doubt as possible,” Meacham said, mentioning the difficult times of the Iraq War after 9/11. “I think they were closer on the substance than people appreciate, [but] very far apart on the style,” he added.
On the whole, Meacham took a lighter perspective on Bush, saying he was like “Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne.” He was both the friendly next-door-neighbor and the cowboy, a man who sent troops into the Gulf—as Meacham said earlier, a complicated man. With another one of his sons, Jeb Bush, currently running for president, a Bush 45 could occur. Whatever the future of the rest of the Bush family, George H.W. Bush’s legacy is secure, seen in Meacham’s biography both as a president and simply as a man.