In numerous ways, George H.W. Bush seems to have spent his life preparing for the presidency. A man of almost supernatural decency, Bush was the oldest-ever living president until his death thirty-eight days ago at the age of 94. (With fair winds and following seas, Jimmy Carter will inherit that title in just over ten weeks.)
But now, despite his heroics in combat, his business acumen, his extraordinary capitalist grit and his unobtrusive but earnest political ambition, George H.W. Bush suddenly seems a quiet and unassuming figure from a long-passed era.
Bush 41’s presidency ended nearly a quarter-century ago but it still seems premature to consider the “best biographies” of him due, in part, to the recency of his death, his still-evolving legacy and the scarcity of biographies covering his life. And, in my opinion, the definitive biography of Bush 41 has yet to be written…
I read two biographies of Bush: a relatively dated book by noted historian (and author) Herbert Parmet and a much newer one by renowned biographer (and historian) Jon Meacham. In many ways the biographies are yin and yang, seemingly very different…but exceptionally complementary. Neither is ideal, but together they are clearly worth more than the sum of their parts.
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* “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush” (2015) by Jon Meacham
The author’s proximity to his subject is the defining feature of this biography. Meacham came to know Bush (and his family) extremely well during the decade-plus he spent writing this book. Meacham was even selected to eulogize Bush at his recent funeral. Thus, “Destiny and Power” affords readers the opportunity to see the world through Bush’s eyes. And in a very palpable way this biography reads like the memoirs Bush never wrote for himself.
But Bush’s pre-presidency passes too quickly and with too little depth. And while his presidency is covered at a more deliberate pace it often feels too forgiving. While Meacham is critical of Bush on occasion, pointing out flaws or failures, the book exudes an undeniable air of sympathy and affinity.
Nevertheless, Meacham is able to provide insight into Bush’s character and his world view that is likely to prove unique among Bush 41’s biographers – past and future. And although it failed to live up to my high expectations, this is a must-read on George H.W. Bush — 4 stars (Full review here)
* “George Bush: Life of a Lone Star Yankee” (1997) by Herbert Parmet
Parmet was a long-time historian, professor and prolific author who died recently. His biography of Bush is not quite cradle-to-grave; it ends with the Bush presidency (leaving aside his retirement years and political legacy). But, otherwise, it is both comprehensive and thorough.
The best aspect of this biography is Parmet’s review of Bush’s early years. Nowhere have I seen better coverage of Bush 41’s ancestry, his military service, his congressional career, his service with the UN or the CIA. By comparison, Bush’s national political career is fine but not exceptional; pages devoted to President Bush’s response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait is particularly noteworthy, however.
What Jon Meacham does well in “Destiny and Power” tends to be in short supply here; Meachem sees the world from his subject’s perspective (but not from a distance) while Parmet observes events through a reporter’s eyes. To Parmet, things just happen; understanding why is comparatively unimportant. For Meacham, understanding Bush’s mindset is of paramount importance; seeing things from an impartial third-party point of view is less critical.
In the end, Parmet’s and Meacham’s coverage of Bush’s life are surprisingly synergistic. But for Bush’s pre-presidency, Parmet’s coverage gets the nod — 3¾ stars (Full review here)
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Best Biography of George HW Bush: ***Too early to call***
Solid “One-Two” Punch: Parmet’s “George Bush” followed by Meacham’s “Destiny and Power”
– “George H. W. Bush: The American Presidents Series” by Timothy Naftali