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What did Bush 41 think of his son’s presidency? New bio reveals

In writing “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” Jon Meacham was given unprecedented access to the Bush family and their personal diaries. Judy Woodruff sits down with Meacham to talk about what he learned about the former president, as well as what Bush 41 thought of his son George W.’s administration.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Biographies don't always make news, but a new book on George H.W. Bush is garnering headlines across the country today for how Bush 41 felt about his son's response to the 9/11 attacks and subsequent invasion of Iraq, among other things.

    The book will not be published until next week, but we have an early look. For "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush," Jon Meacham, the executive editor at Random House, relied not only on extensive interviews of the president's family, staff, and friends, but also on the nearly daily audio diaries the president recorded while in the White House.

    Judy Woodruff talked with him earlier this week for the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Jon Meacham, welcome.

    JON MEACHAM, Author, Destiny and Power: Thank you, Judy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You had extraordinary, maybe unprecedented access to this president, all of his diaries, Barbara Bush's diaries, the ability to interview almost everybody in the family. Why do you think they trusted you with all this?

  • JON MEACHAM:

    Well, I hope they felt that I would call it like I saw it, which was the sort of the mandate from the president.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A life of privilege. I mean, he certainly grew up in this family involved in politics, great wealth, but he also had a sense of responsibility from a very early age. What do you think shaped him?

  • JON MEACHAM:

    Well, you know, he comes out of the same world of noblesse oblige that shaped Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, and, frankly, some of the founding fathers.

    You could argue that, culturally and temperamentally, George H.W. Bush has more in common with the founders than he does with his successors generationally, in terms of their life experience. You know, his mother was hugely important. She was very religious and very competitive in equal parts, I think, it's safe to say.

    And he believed in the doctrine, to whom much is given, much is expected. What's really interesting, I think — and I hadn't realized this until I got into Mrs. Bush's diary — is that there was an expectation, there was a sense that he could be president, that that possibility was within the realm of the probable, as early as the 1950s.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You — there's so much about him and his relationship, of course, with his family, with Ronald Reagan, who — he was vice president to Reagan for eight years. And, of course, his son went on to be president for eight years.

    But he was very different from them. And this touches on what you said a minute ago. I mean, his view of politics was more of a pragmatic, rather than an ideological…

  • JON MEACHAM:

    Absolutely. Absolutely.

    Labels are for cans, he used to say.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JON MEACHAM:

    And, you know, you look at where we are now, and he was part of this for a half-century. Mrs. Bush said in 1963, right before he first ran for the Senate in 1964, that the nuts will never love him.

    And they were talking about the John Birch Society back then. The Republican base was always wary of George H.W. Bush. In 1980, he called Reaganomics voodoo economics.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • JON MEACHAM:

    In 1988, he lost Iowa. You know, the party had always — the conservative part of the party had always been uneasy with him.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And he was the one, after saying during the campaign, "Read my lips, no new taxes," he went on to be elected president, but when he saw the budget deficit was out of control, he raised taxes.

  • JON MEACHAM:

    Right.

    Mike Dukakis told me a great story, that, when they met after the election, Bush said, "Well, I won't be able to raise taxes in the first year." And Dukakis thought: "In the first year? I just lost to this guy saying he'd never raise taxes."

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It was interesting. You talked to him, of course, about what happened in his presidency and how he was devastated by the loss. I mean, he thought, I guess understandably, that this was a reflection of him.

  • JON MEACHAM:

    He thought he was a failed president.

    I open the book on election night 1992, and I would argue that, in many ways, the 20th century ended on November 3, 1992, when Bill Clinton, the first baby boomer president, defeats George H.W. Bush, the last World War II president.

    And Bush really just doesn't quite get it, not in the sense that we all remember he was out of — seemed out of touch about the economy. That is not — that's not true. In fact, he knew the economy was going to be a hugely important issue.

    But he says to his tape-recorded diary, by himself, sitting in the Houstonian Hotel: "Duty, honor, country, I always thought that's what Americans were made of, but, quite plainly, it's not."

    He was just subsumed with anguish that he had not been able to finish the job.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I do want to ask you, Jon Meacham, about what he says about his son, President Bush 43, President George W. Bush.

    He's very supportive, loves his son. But you get him to talk about how he was really uncomfortable with what he called too much hawkishness. He didn't like the — he didn't like the axis of evil.

  • JON MEACHAM:

    Right. He said, "Historically, I don't think that will be — will benefit anything."

    He didn't like the swaggering rhetoric of his son's administration.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And then the Dick Cheney…

  • JON MEACHAM:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You know, who he — turns out he felt was — had too much influence in his son's administration.

  • JON MEACHAM:

    George H.W. Bush said that he believed that Cheney was responsible for a good bit of that hawkish image, and that he wished that Cheney had not had as much influence, that he — that Dick Cheney should have had his — quote — "own State Department," and that vice presidents shouldn't do that.

    When I took that to Vice President Cheney, he read it and said, "Fascinating."

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But when you took it to President Bush 43, George W. Bush, what did he say?

  • JON MEACHAM:

    Well, he said that he had never — his father had never said that to him. He said it would have been out of character for his father to say, "Hey, you have got to rein in Cheney, he's ruining your administration, that that conversation never took place.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    He was publicly supportive of going into Iraq, the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, but he clearly had misgivings about it.

  • JON MEACHAM:

    He had what a friend called anxieties. He was anxious about it.

    He also privately wrote his son a note, saying that if the man won't comply, meaning Saddam, then you have to do what you have to do. And one of the things about that I think historically is important is, George H.W. Bush had his own war with Saddam, in which he was quite unilateral. He was willing — one of the things that emerges in the president's diary is that, on five or six different occasions, he talks about how he would be willing to be impeached, that, even if the Congress said in 1990-'91, we're not authorizing the use of force, he was willing to go.

    And the first Bush to talk about Saddam in terms of good vs. evil wasn't George W. Bush…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • JON MEACHAM:

    … but Bush 41.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Was — was this — was the father.

  • JON MEACHAM:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And yet he went on to have, as you said, anxieties about what his son did after 9/11.

  • JON MEACHAM:

    One of the key things about Bush 41 is the sense of deference to whomever the president happens to be at a given moment.

    He believed that his son was confronting something that no president since Lincoln had done, which was warfare on American soil.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you have talked to him a lot since he left office, which was, what, 23 years ago.

  • JON MEACHAM:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What does he say about the hyper-partisanship in Washington now?

  • JON MEACHAM:

    It worries him enormously, because he — and he saw it happen as he was governing. It happened right around him.

    I mean, the rise of Gingrich, the rise of freelance partisanship happened when he was willing to take the political heat, break the "Read my lips" pledge, do what he thought was best for the country.

    That's one of the key things about George Bush, is, no matter how you feel about how he campaigned — and he was a tough campaigner — in fact, he talks in his diary about, "I'm stronger, I'm tougher. If I had kept letting the press define me as a wimp or a loser, I wouldn't be here, almost winning in 1988."

    But once he was in office, he tried to put the country first, and he acted against his own political interest. The great example is the 1990 budget deal. He had run against raising taxes. He got into it. He saw he needed to, so he did that. And he knew at the time that it could cost him reelection.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You said to me, just finally, a moment ago this may be the last time a president gives this kind of access while he or she is still alive.

  • JON MEACHAM:

    It's possible.

    It's — these kind of diaries are unique. He kept audio diaries throughout his — episodically as vice president, and then fairly regularly as president. There are all sorts of legal issues with that and who listens to them.

    But this is as close as many of us, I think, are going to get to actually sitting in the Oval Office. This is him talking at moments of great triumph, at moments of tragedy. It's a remarkable historical document, his presidential diary, because it's as high politics really is, but we so rarely get to see. And, here, we do.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The book is "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,"

    Jon Meacham, thank you for bringing it to us.

  • JON MEACHAM:

    Thank you, Judy.

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