Thursday, October 20, 2016
There is an oft-spoken understanding that the legacy of an American president cannot be adequately assessed until they have been dead for some time. David McCullough's epic Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Harry Truman was published in 1992, two decades after the man himself passed away, and even that otherwise lengthy span of time that was relatively quick, considering how long it took for us to be given comprehensive biographies of his predecessors. Abraham Lincoln, for example, lay buried beneath 140 years of fable and partisan vitriol before Doris Kearns Goodwin's massive Team of Rivals unearthed him; until then, he was little more than a skinny Kentucky-born lawyer and political novice whose decisiveness and cool diplomacy singlehandedly reunited a broken country, neither of which was entirely true. Similarly, the first volume of Edmund Morris' trilogy on Teddy Roosevelt was published 60 years after the subject's death, despite the fact that Roosevelt ascended to the presidency in the era of muckraking journalism, which offered him an endless platform to express and refine his ideas. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower--all were men whose presidencies changed both the direction of the country and the role of its government, and who were not given definitive biographies until decades, if not centuries, after their passing.
Rarely--perhaps never--has an American president's life and career been assessed objectively while they are alive. Those who undertake such a foolhardy mission often find themselves stymied by sectarian sentiments, the biases of interview subjects, the inaccessibility of necessary documents, and the residue of frivolous tabloid scandals. What's more, any historian who attempts to place a living head of state into the historical record faces an insurmountable inability to know whether that president's accomplishments will last the test of time, or if they're simply popular and successful in the moment. For example, anyone who writes about the presidency of Barack Obama in the coming decades will find it difficult to ascertain with certainty the effects of his more substantial accomplishments, such as Obamacare, ending the war in Iraq, and his appointments to the Supreme Court. Only the passage of time and a clear-eyed examination of the facts can answer these questions, and even then a historian has to be vigilant against ideologues.
That Jon Meacham, a respected Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, should undertake such a mission--and to focus that mission on a one-term president overshadowed in popular culture by both the man who succeeded him and the man he succeeded--seems almost foolhardy from a distance. Nevertheless, his biography of George H.W. Bush, entitled Destiny and Power, is a noble attempt to convey the story of a man whose life was a rich array of experiences. He was a senator's son who served in World War II, a successful Texas oilman, congressman, head of the Republican National Committee, ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China, head of the CIA, vice-president under Ronald Reagan, and eventually the president. He lived long enough to see himself become a great-grandfather, to watch two of his sons become governors--and one ascend to the presidency himself--and see his legacy reevaluated to his benefit. He became friends with the man who defeated him in 1992, and together they raised millions of dollars to benefit the victims of natural disasters. Most men, even those who become president, never achieve the kinds of successes experienced by George H.W. Bush, and those who do almost never approach such successes with Bush's level of humility and indebtedness.
When Meacham began his research into George H.W. Bush, he could not have known how timely such a project would prove to be, nor could he have guessed at the fortuitousness of the book's eventual year of publication: 2016, a presidential election year, in which the most qualified candidate in American history faces off against the most unqualified. There are those who see the publication of this biography as a rebuke to contemporary politics and politicians, including--and especially--the candidacy of Donald Trump, currently the nominee of Bush's cherished Republican Party. But the writing of this book was not undertaken in the last sixteen months alone, and as Meacham himself admits in the closing pages, he spent almost a decade interviewing the man himself--meaning that this project began not during the current presidential campaign but the presidencies of George W. Bush and, more importantly, Barack Obama, with whom Bush Sr. shares many similarities. Both speak with intelligence rather than hollow passion, rely on logic over emotions, and see the nation as a place in which everyone should be able to live successfully and in harmony, regardless of ideology or background. What's more, both presidents emphasizes compromise over an everything-or-nothing mindset, to the point that their legislative agendas suffered. When Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bush in 2011, he spoke admiringly of his predecessor, and in doing so joined millions of other Americans who had reevaluated Bush and liked a lot of what they saw.
Nevertheless, Meacham's book does provide an interesting insight into modern-day politics, from the 1988 campaign--which is infamous for race-based attack ads, over which Bush had no control--to the rise of cable news, including the network that would one day be overseen by a Bush campaign advisor, Roger Ailes. In one chapter, Meacham quotes a memo written to Bush's campaign officials by Ailes, in which the latter discusses a general theme for the election, including a belief that voters "must also know that George Bush will not raise their taxes. He has the experience to keep negotiations going with the Soviets. And he is very tough on law and order. If we penetrate with those three messages, it is my belief that we will win the election. A major amount of our time, effort, speeches, commercials and interviews should be spent repeating and repeating and repeating those messages. We must force this election into a very narrow framework to win." (335) To read these words almost three decades after the fact, and during an election in which Ailes is advising a Republican nominee whose messaging includes lowering taxes and returning "law and order" to the nation (while also dismissing a controversial relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin), makes one feel as though this book were intentional, despite the knowledge that it is not, and raises a fear that perhaps our politics have not advanced as far as we might have hoped.
Regardless of how it reflects on the current political climate, no lifetime can be summarized in a single volume, especially that of an American president. This simple fact becomes glaringly obvious as Meacham's biography reaches its halfway point: Reagan's presidency occupies only 50 pages or so (out of 600), giving the impression that both terms were largely inconsequential for Bush, which is far from accurate. In truth, those eight years could fill a volume of their own, as could almost every era in Bush's life, from his service in the Pacific Theatre and education at Yale to his role as ambassador and envoy, and even his post-presidency. The brevity of Meacham's book, even at 600 pages (with another 200 for notes and sources), means it can never become what it aspires to be: the first truly comprehensive biography of America's 41st president. Instead, Meacham has created a roadmap--a fascinating and even-handed but surprisingly brief and quick outline--that will serve future biographers well. Those who will one day write such comprehensive biographies will be indebted to Meacham, as will Bush himself and every student of history. After all, any man who accomplished as much as George H.W. Bush is worth knowing, and he is worth knowing well.