[inset_left]41: A Portrait of My FatherBy George W. BushThe Crown Publishing Group, 304 pagesNew York, 2014[/inset_left]
Puzzled by the strange ways of American politics, outsiders often wonder how such a superpower can function without an elite group to ensure continuity. In most countries one can distinguish the elites, dynasties, families, and even tribes that provide the system with a degree of predictability. Conspiracy theorists refer to such elements as “the deep state,” a coalition of occult forces exercising real power regardless of who smiles on the facade.
Does the US have its own “deep state” too? Some would say yes, pointing to country clubs, big business interests, well-funded lobbies and a variety of secret or semi-secret movements. But when it comes to families—not including family businesses where a few dynasties have been prominent for more than a century—only a handful have made a mark on American politics.
One could cite the Adams family that provided two presidents, father and son, John and John Quincy. Then we had the two Harrison presidents: grandfather and grandson William and Benjamin. The Roosevelts, too, produced two presidents, uncle and nephew Theodore and Franklin. The Kennedys had their own dynastic ambitions but were stopped after just one president, John F., because his most likely successor Robert was assassinated.
So right now, the Bush family, with two presidents, father and son George and George W., come closest to an American political dynasty with growing talk of a third with hopes pinned on former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. (Jeb may face Hilary Clinton, in a tangential attempt at dynasty-building.) The Bush clan also includes congressmen, senators and governors in its earlier history.
Politics aside, George W. Bush’s book is a paean to his father and, in a sense, to fatherhood in general. Having sifted through his father’s numerous letters, the older Bush being an old-style epistolerian, plus log interviews with other family members, notably with George W.’s formidable mother Barbara Bush, and panoply of friends, George W. offers an intimate portrait of a man who played a major role in US politics for more than half a century. Those interested in sensational political revelations will be disappointed with this book which steers clear of controversial issues and decisions.
The book is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it reveals the older Bush as perhaps the last non-partisan, or at the very least only mildly partisan, US president since Howard Taft. We see the older Bush as a consensus-seeker almost by nature. For him, understanding “the other side,” going for fifty-fifty deals and almost always preferring a good compromise to a confrontation were quintessential American values.
Contrast that attitude to Barack Obama’s rivalry with George W. Bush or, right now the vitriolic hatred that some Republicans have for Obama, and you will notice how much American politics has changed, perhaps for the worse.
George H. W. Bush was the only Republican leader to attend the farewell ceremony of outgoing Democrat President Lyndon B Johnson. Bush senior also befriended Bill Clinton, the man who denied him a second term as president. In fact, Bill Clinton is now regarded as a “Bush brother from different parents,” as George W. notes. Bush senior has also maintained cordial relations with Obama. (In 2012 I watched the two of them huddling together, perhaps sharing a joke, during a lunch at the University of Texas in College Station. In the lunch speech that followed Obama waxed lyrical in his praise of Bush senior.)
The second reason why this book is of interest is the contrast between Bush senior’s politics, both in substance and style, and that of the Tea Party, a conservative movement that grew out of the Republican Party. We don’t know where George W. himself stands. However, his record portrays him as a synthesis of the traditional Republicanism of his father and the Tea Party’s crusading commitment.
The book reminds us that the central question regarding American politics right now and, perhaps for some time to come, is whether bipartisanship of the kind that Bush senior promoted could be revived, at least in foreign policy.
The image of Bush senior has been fixed as one of a cold and distant patrician with little understanding of, and even less sympathy for, the lives of “ordinary people.” George W. recalls an episode in an election campaign when the older Bush was asked by someone whether he had ever had “any experience of ordinary life.”
We don’t know what Bush senior might have thought at the time. George H. W. did not have an ordinary life in so far as he was not yet twenty years old when he traveled 6,000 miles away from home to fight in a war against the Japanese. Back from war, and before he could taste “ordinary life” he was married and soon landed with the responsibility of a fairly large family by current standards.
George W.’s book contains some surprises with the degree of attention paid to various topics. For example, Bush senior’s time spent as chief of the liaison office to China, a crucial post in its time, receives little attention. The years during which George H. W. served as US Ambassador to the United Nations are also flown over, although he played a key role in consolidating the policy of détente with the USSR as a slow prelude to the end of the Cold War. Instead, George W. spends some time on his father’s role as Chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal that led to the demise of President Richard Nixon. The selection of content is likely aimed at the American reader, who may be less interested in international politics than in the to-ing and fro-ing of domestic affairs.
This winnowing down is compensated for with numerous anecdotes that shed light on the Bush family. George W. asks his parents why they didn’t call him George H. W. Junior in the American style of emphasizing one’s filiation. “There would not have been enough room on application forms,” his mother Barbara, replies.
Despite its occasional lapses into syrupy lyricism, this book reveals George W. as a talented writer. Here his prose is less dense, faster-paced and clearly comes more from the heart than his political memoirs Decision Points. Just a week after its release, 41: A Portrait of My Father was climbing up to the top of bestseller lists in the United States, indicating that millions of Americans are still interested in the two Bushes. Since his departure from the White House, George W. has been trying his hand at both painting and writing. Having seen his paintings, I think he would do better as a writer.