Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2015.
In the moment, few of us find time for keeping a journal. Rather, we stow them inside our desk drawers, unused, and write off a day’s events as insignificant—their remembrance pushed to another day or time.It’s only some months later, when their last tendrils avail themselves, that we desperately cling hold of them; though we know they will never have that same depth or vigor as that of when they were young.
Our failure of self-discipline stems from varied sources. The blocking off of our schedules for an activity ostensibly so self-indulgent may seem crass. The repetition existing in our day-to-day lives may seem unworthy of further reflection. The lack of an immediate, physical recipient of such thoughts may drive us to other forms of intellectual solace.
It is only after viewing the most sublime of human arcs—the individual life as recorded comprehensively and unedited throughout those moments—that we gain an appreciation for that painfully aware self-reflection. Those patterns throughout our days which bind us as humans and expose the subtle intricacies of an individual. The thoughts that may not direct themselves to one, but rather broadcast their lessons to a broader mankind.
It is then perhaps appropriate that Jon Meacham’s biography of George Herbert Walker Bush immediately dispenses with these self-imposed roadblocks in its reference to destiny: the indefatigable knowledge that each of these moments, no matter how banal at the time, are leading us to some preordained summit. For a family who first arrived in America in the 1600s and quickly became leaders in the fledgling nation, one could do far worse in selecting a group to which that word more aptly describes.
Meacham’s sweeping work draws heavily from various members of the Bush family’s diaries as well as nine years of interviews. This depth of research, which could fill the pages of multiple tomes for each generation of the Bush family, shows through in its sparsity of editorialization. Conversations, thoughts, and reflections stand alone in their rich and unfiltered forms. Meacham only inserts himself a handful of times over approximately 600 pages in order to draw out a point existing in the author’s present. It offers no ‘aha’ moment of triumph or revelation, but rather a grinding (if one can use that word for such lofty actions) ascension to the ultimate of goals: the U.S. presidency. As Bush himself states, “My motivation has always been goal...you know, to be the captain.”
This is not to say that the Bush of Destiny and Power takes his status for granted. His own foundation, the Bush family, endows both a sense of destiny and an understanding that a career in politics and government is one of stewardship. Bush sees himself not as a dreamer like some of those who surround him, but as just one individual, in a line of many, who seek soundness and continuity for his country and people.
The Bush family’s place on the national stage over multiple generations allows the reader a unique opportunity to see how members of the family have iterated upon this idea as they rose up through public life. In it is a struggle that has never left them and one which has reached a logical precipice in the United States of 2016. Just as H.W.’s father, Prescott Scott Bush, bucked party elders with his early condemnation of Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist extremism, so did 41 grapple with those who came before and after who saw themselves as ideological purists at the cost of supporting programs which gnawed at the ties between the political aisle. Meacham also follows the H.W.’s ideology post-presidency as it is subtly molded and shifted with his son as the 43rd President of the United States.
The author’s extensive source material allows the reader to see this struggle play out in both an intimate and omniscient way. The conversations feel just a whisper away while the sweep of history is never out of sight overhead. Private thoughts and public acts meld together while retaining their exact resolution. The individuals who occupy the pages of Destiny and Power are equally well-rendered. As a nominee and as president, many panned H.W. for his aloofness and inarticulateness on the public stage. It was only in the briefest moments—like his fateful address to the nation prior to Desert Storm (“this will not stand”)—that the empathetic, driven, and distinctly human persona found in the pages of Destiny and Power shines through.
In exchange for this deep look at a public figure who notably never released his own retelling of his legacy, Meacham does not delve deeply into the more tender spots of Bush’s presidential decisions. Points like the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court are only touched upon in the briefest of ways. However, this is not to say that the Bush of Destiny and Power is cast in a pristine light. In the wake of the excitement of the Gulf War, domestic policy drags down H.W. with its relative monotony and endless politicking. He’s also seen at his most vulnerable—the still lingering effects of the death of his daughter, Robin, at the age of three filling many pages of reflection.
However, lying beneath this humanity is the unrelenting belief that each day of tedium, each crippling struggle, progresses one toward that individual peak. It’s the foundation that built Bush into a steward that led the U.S. through shifting times, though he scarcely heaped much praise from it in the moment. Rather, he bore through it, finding solace in the records he took on paper and in dictation: his journals. The ones with which Meacham has used to fill the pages of Destiny and Power, and in doing so, craft a legacy in a time with even less certainty and even more fear than the one George H.W. Bush occupied.
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Header Image: President Bush talks with the troops in Saudi Arabia. (U.S. Government Photo/Wikimedia)