The quest to understand George H.W. Bush

When I interviewed George Bush biographer Jon Meacham a few years ago, I wondered why nobody was calling the show. The subject was excellent; the guest was outstanding. The interview was intriguing.

But nobody was calling. It turns out I was mistakenly looking at the wrong screen that tells a show host that someone is on the line. I was looking at the previous hour. Rookie mistake, but it was the only one during the hour that didn’t need any callers. I think we were actually able to explore the life of George H.W. Bush better without listener participation. Scandalous, I know.

Meacham knows more about the president, who died last night, than just about anyone on the planet without a Bush in their name.

Bush was very much a bridge between the old politics and the new, often conflicted about where he fit. Indeed, his campaign adviser — Lee Atwater — is the one who made calls to our inner racism a mainstream campaign tactic now.

But Bush was also a relic. Privilege called him to public service as a responsibility. Old school.

He is also the last elected president who went to war.

As I said, it was a great interview worth spending time with today before engaging in the public reflections of an interesting time and man.

(Originally published December 16, 2015)

U.S. President George H. Bush gestures while speaking to reporters in the White House in Washington, Monday, Dec.17, 1990. Bush said he still hopes for talk with Iraq on resolving the Persian gulf crisis, but said Iraqi forces must be out of Kuwait by January 15, “and that means entirely.” Bush would not say what he’d do if the headline wasn’t met. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)
To tell you the truth, I was afraid some listeners might call during the talk show I hosted this morning when I interviewed Jon Meacham, who wrote the new biography on George Herbert Walker Bush. Some conversations are best left to the two people having it so that it doesn’t get sidetracked onto side issues, which is always a possibility when the subject is Bush and a particular moment in history.

The entire interview, and a very nicely written recap of the conversation, can be found on The Thread.

We throw terms around in the news business like “making history” far too often, especially when we apply them to stories that are happening today.

Meacham made an interesting observation near the end of our talk, something to the effect that you can’t begin to understand history until at least 25 years after it happened, especially history that you actually experienced.

Being a person of a certain age, that’s the way it is with me and George Herbert Walker Bush and while I think I understand him better than I did when he was in office, I still have a problem reconciling the ability of politicians to take advantage of a moment in order to obtain a measure of power via an election.

The tension in the early part of the interview today comes from a theme that runs through his tremendous book. That setting your ideals and values aside — or even turning your back on them — is just the way politics is. And, besides, once you’re in office, you can walk things back and apply your ideals and values.

To do otherwise seems simple enough, but that’s also naive.

President Ronald Reagan (right) greets President-elect George H.W. Bush upon his arrival at the White House on Nov. 10, 1988. Charles Tasnadi/AP

Still, the problem I have with the system is that while the political calculus might make sense, applying it can still hurt people in the short term.

Politics isn’t for the weak, and it isn’t for people who aren’t occasionally willing to hurt people in the short term, to make a bigger difference in the long term.

I hope you get a chance to listen to the interview.

At the very end of our conversation, Meacham suggested people take a look at Bush’s eulogy for Ronald Reagan, which Nancy Reagan had requested even though she wasn’t a big fan of the Bushes during her husband’s term. Here it is:

From the archive: Former president jumps out of a perfectly good aircraft