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)

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.

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

  • Gary F

    I did realize he had held that many positions in the federal government before becoming President. That’s quite a resume.

    • It was a good book, which surprised me because I found Meacham’s Pulitzer winning bio of Andrew Jackson a very difficult read.

    • RBHolb

      It’s interesting that now, an impressive resume of governmental service would be regarded as a negative for a presidential candidate.

  • Mike

    “Privilege called him to public service as a responsibility. Old school.”

    Perhaps. But unlike either of the Roosevelts or the various Kennedys, the Bushes were always devoted to preserving every ounce of their privilege, and making life even more comfortable for their social class. Noblesse oblige, it ain’t.

    • I would say the Bushes were more like the Kennedys than what you suggest.

      Press Bush andhis offspring were a typical family of NewEngland wealth. The Lodges. Peabodys. Cabots and even Kennedys were very much alike.

      It’s a complex evaluation, not easily given to the black-and-white world of Internet comments.

      • Mike

        I’m not arguing that the Kennedys were pure or wholly different from the Bushes, especially with respect to social class.

        But they didn’t practice the divide and conquer politics of the Republican party, developed by Nixon and refined by Reagan and Bush.

        Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor for the Iran-Contra case, wherein Bush I pardoned all of his cronies, had some strong words about the president in 1992. That was well before the era of internet comments.

        • Right. I referenced that in the post. We talked about that in the interview.

          The broader question, one which Meacham the historian addresses, is how one evaluates the totality of a man’s life, particularly one who serves as president.

          I find it exceedingly challenging.

          Except for Nixon.

  • Guest

    He was knowledgeable and classy. I don’t have to agree with his policies to admire the man.

  • Jack
    • Jack Ungerleider

      I have often felt that the Bill Clinton of 1992 and the George H. W. Bush of 1980 were a lot closer politically than people might think. Alas we will never really know.

  • MikeB

    I plan on listening to this interview and perhaps buying the book (the list is getting longer).

    Though I have several differences I appreciate the way he governed, despised how he campaigned. I’m glad he was in charge during Iraq1 and his foreign policy was top notch, especially since he was leading it.

    Plenty of hits and misses, unavoidable in any administration. There will never be another Republican like him, which is unfortunate for our discourse and the country.

  • Postal Customer

    He was less of a politician, and much smarter than, the guy who came before him, and I guess I can appreciate that. But he deepened our baggage in the Middle East, and left the door open to disastrous wars we’re still fighting. His kid would never have been president had GHW lost. We’ll never be free of that legacy.

    Then there’s Clarence Thomas . . .

  • Rob

    I hadn’t remembered that the Bushes lost a three-year old daughter (Robin) to leukemia. There’s a cool editorial cartoon in the Mississippi Clarion Ledger showing GHW arriving in heaven in his Avenger torpedo bomber, meeting up with Barbara – and Robin – who says, “We waited for you.”

    Poppy had his flaws, fer sherr (Atwater, Panama and the pardons among them), but he was calm, steady and competent in the face of some very touchy global challenges. I’d settle for just a smidgen of any one of those qualities from the current occupant.

  • ec99

    Given his positions in the CIA, VP, and Prez, he’s probably the last living person who knew who really killed Kennedy.

  • lindblomeagles

    Like many of the commenters, I wasn’t a big Bush fan either. For me, I was 18 years old when Bush ran for President, making him the victor of my first real participatory election. His death marks the beginning of my middle age, which, in and of itself, is hard to fathom. And I guess that’s what has me so weepy. Whether I liked him or not, he was part of who I became as an adult, and I can respect his contribution, no matter the size, for that.