American history, biographies, book reviews, George HW Bush, Herbert Parmet, presidential biographies, US Presidents
Published in 1997, Herbert Parmet’s “George Bush: Life of a Lone Star Yankee” is the earliest detailed account of George H.W. Bush’s life (through his presidency). Parmet was a historian, a professor and the author of eight presidential biographies (three of which I’ve previously read). His most recent book “Richard M. Nixon: An American Enigma” was published in 2007. Parmet died in 2017 at the age of 87.
With 511 pages of text, Parmet’s biography of Bush 41 has the luxury of being thorough without being exhausting. But it is frequently dense and lacks the captivating animation provided by the very best biographies. In Parmet’s books covering JFK and Richard Nixon, he proved a keen historian but disappointing writer; here he lived up to his reputation as a scholar and modestly exceeded my expectations as an author.
Roughly half the book is dedicated to Bush’s life prior to his serving as Reagan’s vice president. These fourteen chapters are occasionally dry, but are just as frequently terrific. Bush’s ancestry and military career are wonderfully reported and Parmet’s coverage of Bush’s early political career and service with the United Nations and CIA is solid. And in this half of the book – the first few chapters, in particular – the author’s writing style is remarkably interesting and engaging.
The book’s focus on Bush’s vice presidency is surprisingly thorough (and reasonably good) but his 1988 campaign for the presidency is even better. The five chapters covering Bush’s presidency are fine, with the stand-out sections being devoted to Bush’s infamous decision to support a tax increase and his skillful response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Also worth mentioning are the excellent – if too brief – introductions to certain supporting characters such as Jim Baker and Barbara Bush. Parmet’s narrative ends with Bush’s presidency.
This book’s key shortcoming is that Parmet approaches the task of writing biography from the point of view of a reporter and not an analyst. He observes events and faithfully reveals them to the reader, usually with an appropriate dose of context and some degree of insight. But only rarely does he connect seemingly unrelated dots for his audience or postulate why Bush may have acted a certain way in a specific situation.
In addition, Parmet’s style is to view Bush from a distance rather than seeing things through his eyes or from his perspective. The reader learns how Bush reacted to events but it is not always clear why. Finally, Parmet provides no grand theme in this biography; there is no explicit overarching thesis which is postulated and then carefully proven. As a result, individual chapters fail to tie back to a central message and simply exist in sequential order but without thematic glue.
Overall, Herbert Parmet’s biography of George Bush proves excellent in some areas while falling short in others. Readers seeking a deep understanding of Bush’s pre-presidency will find much to chew on and certain aspects of his presidency are nicely nuanced and extremely captivating. But Parmet prefers observing to analyzing, he never fully humanizes his subject and he covers none of Bush’s retirement.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars