Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
John Meacham | 2015| 864 pages
In Destiny and Power, John Meacham, one of America’s most distinguished historians (and 2015 Greater Des Moines Partnership Annual Dinner keynote speaker), explores the largely unexplored (for a former president, anyway) life of George H.W. Bush. The result is a fascinating and highly readable account of a truly incredible American life. Meacham traces Bush from his privileged New England upbringing to his heroic World War II service and subsequent success as a Texas oilman, and to his rise in politics from congressman to U.N. ambassador to CIA director to 44th president of the United States. Meacham presents Bush — whose presidential legacy has been largely defined as a failure — as anything but, while taking care not to iron out Bush’s personal quirks and political disappointments.
Meacham pays particular attention to the characteristic that, he seems to suggest, sunk Bush’s bid for a second term even more than the economy, more than ‘read my lips’: that he was extraordinarily passionate about foreign policy — a subject matter appetite he developed as U.N. Ambassador — and much less passionate about domestic policy. It just didn’t interest him all that much. All politics is local, of course, and Meacham suggests a remarkable inattention to cascading signals of the economic decline of the late 1980’s and 1990’s (specifically the optics of a president who seemed more interested in international affairs than the pocketbooks of Americans) is what ultimately did Bush in.
Meacham pays close attention to the personal lives of the Bushes, and the reader comes to know a family with a true patriarch in H.W. at its center, whose children adore him in a way any father would be proud of. The Bush family has seen its share of personal tragedy and loss and Meacham chooses not to gloss over these more challenging chapters in Bush’s life in a rush to cover the presidency. Instead, Bush’s biographer brings the reader into, for example, the lifelong pain that the loss of Bush’s first daughter at a young age to leukemia continues to inflict on the man through today, and the role that that loss played in many of the most important moments and decisions of his life.
I’ve always been fascinated by the lives of American presidents, because in no other narrative genres are the personal choices and history of an individual more profoundly fused with history of our nation. Meacham, with Destiny and Power, carries forward with excellence the long American tradition of serious, scrutinizing presidential biography.
Worth a read.