American history, biographies, book reviews, Bush 41, George HW Bush, Jon Meacham, presidential biographies, US Presidents
Published in 2015, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush” by Jon Meacham is the most recent full-scale biography of the 41st president. Meacham is a presidential historian and author whose biography of Andrew Jackson won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. He has also written about Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt and is currently working on a biography of James and Dolley Madison.
With 601 pages of text and nearly 200 pages of notes and bibliography, “Destiny and Power” is not a light read. Yet this meticulously-researched (and largely sympathetic) biography feels more sprightly than it appears. In his customary style, Meacham has written a thoughtful, well-informed and exquisitely articulate life-and-times.
It is uncommon for a biographer and his or her subject to meet…and even more extraordinary for an author to receive the type of cooperation Meacham received from George H. W. Bush. For more than a decade, Bush sat for numerous interviews, provided access to his personal diaries and encouraged the cooperation of his family and political colleagues. This is one of the book’s greatest strengths – but also one of its latent weaknesses.
As a result of this intimacy between biographer and subject, the reader is treated to a degree of familiarity which cannot be captured in most presidential biographies. In many respects, Meacham’s biography often feels like the memoirs Bush 41 never wrote…but with a professional patina.
Bush’s pre-presidency takes up just over half the book while one-third of the biography is allocated to his single term in the White House. The final sixty pages are spent reviewing Bush’s retirement with an emphasis on his relationship with Jeb, George and Bill Clinton.
The earliest decades of Bush’s life are nicely covered but seem to pass too quickly, particularly since the author had a unique opportunity to explore his subject’s years at Andover, in the Navy and in his business career with even greater depth. Similarly, Bush’s early political career retreats too rapidly – his transition into politics, his first campaign for Congress, and his service at the UN, RNC and CIA hardly linger long enough to leave a distinct impression.
The narrative’s pace slows once Bush seeks the presidential nomination in 1988. But while Meacham’s description of the president-elect assembling his inner-circle is often fascinating there is very little insight into how he selected most of his Cabinet. And, throughout the book, important supporting characters such as James Baker, Bob Dole and Dan Quayle receive only the briefest of introductions.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (and Bush’s response) features prominently in Meacham’s coverage of the Bush presidency; these four chapters are among the most interesting in the book. And the most intriguing of Meacham’s revelations may be Bush’s thoughts on Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld – and their impact on the Bush 43 presidency.
Ironically given its length, if Meacham’s biography has one overarching flaw, it’s that it is not nearly long – or detailed – enough. As a result, while it covers discrete events well (and always seems to know what is on Bush’s mind) too frequently it fails to answer questions that fall out of the narrative, or to probe more deeply, or to fully analyze or assess.
Overall, Jon Meacham’s biography of George H. W. Bush is very good…but fell short of my expectations. Because as revealing as this biography proves to be – largely due to the relationship between author and subject – it is never as deep, critical or penetrating as I hoped. But it provides an otherwise excellent (if admiring) review of the remarkably eventful life and career of George H. W. Bush.
Overall rating: 4 stars
Note: Bush was to live another three years after this biography was published. And while he reviewed much of the manuscript he apparently exerted no editorial influence. Meacham, of course, was chosen to deliver one of the eulogies at George H.W. Bush’s funeral.
James Salerno said:
I’m looking forward to reading this on my next pass through “modern age” presidents. Currently I’m reading Meacham’s Jefferson book and it looks like, stylistically, this book is similar. If i had to put a word to it, I would say Meacham’s style is very “breezy.”
I agree. In interviews and speeches he can be quite thoughtful and deeply observant / analytical. But in biographies he seems to prefer to be a bit more “casual.”
Chris Tharrington said:
Thank you for yet another fantasitc review. I read Destiny and Power last year, and like you, I wanted more on Bush’s life before he became president. I found this to be a good book, but not the great biography I wanted of one of my favorite presidents.