Author Jon Meacham on the Life and Times of Bush the Elder

In his new book, author Jon Meacham chronicles the formative years of George H. W. Bush and his presidency – including an inside look at the little-known tenderness of the 41st president – in this web exclusive extended interview.

By Emily DonahueNovember 17, 2015 4:48 pm

In times like these, the arc of history is often invoked to make sense of the present. So the narrative goes, the so-called Islamic State arose in the vacuum left after America’s misadventures post-9/11.

Recently, Jon Meacham’s book has been in the news for revelations that George Herbert Walker Bush – Bush 41 – thought his son, W. – Bush 43 – was badly served by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. That’s news, especially since the narrative used to be that 43 was just doing his father’s bidding, retribution for an unfinished war.

The real revelation in Meacham’s sweeping book “Destiny and Power” is the light it casts both on the profound shift in American politics and the closing of a chapter of what was called the American Century.

Bush the elder, as he’s sometimes called, was the last of a breed, Meacham says.

“He was a man in a hurry, almost all his life,” he says. “The war shaped him deeply, Texas shaped him deeply.”

Bush doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotype of a Connecticut Yankee that his upbringing may have projected. He was always “looking forward,” Meacham says.

“He wanted to make a lot of money, he’s very honest about that,” he says. “And really didn’t want to go to Wall Street, didn’t want to take the expected path, as he put it.”

In his book, Meacham chronicles when the Bush family lost a daughter named Robin to leukemia when she was only four, a loss that affected Bush deeply. When Meacham asked Bush to read a letter he wrote to his mother about Robin after her death, Bush broke down in sobs. An aide asked why Meacham wanted him to read the letter aloud, but Meacham says Bush knew the reason.

“Long before he finished the letter, he broke down in physical sobs,” Meacham says. “I said, ‘Well, if you want to know someone’s heart…’ and before I could finish the sentence, the President interrupted and said, ‘You have to know what breaks it.’ And that’s George Herbert Walker Bush, that’s someone very little known even to the country he led.”

The family bounced around between Odessa and Midland (with a brief stop-over in California) before moving to Houston in 1959. The difference between Bush in ’88 and ’92 shows some reluctance to engage in retail politics that the times demanded, especially a “despondency” about how the Gulf War ended.

“He was unhappy with the way the war had ended,” Meacham says. “He had a very difficult time, and in fact never fully re-engaged with domestic politics in the way he had in ’89 and the first part of ’90.”

During that time, Bush brought about a peaceful end to the Cold War, enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act and passed the Clean Air Act. Among his achievements were becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee, an ambassador to the United Nations, an envoy to China, among other positions.

“More happened to George H. W. Bush in four years than happens to most presidents in eight,” Meacham says. “He was the last President who really could marshal what I think of as the all-too-little-utilized American center.”