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John Meacham on his New Book, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush

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I talked with John Meacham today about his new book, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.

The audio: 12-3hhs-meacham

The transcript:

HH: On a grim day after, as evidence of the terrorist attack yesterday continues to mount, I take time to talk with John Meacham who is no stranger to this program. He’s done in-depth interviews with me about his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion. He won the Pulitzer Prize for that, he also did a full long interview with me about Thomas Jefferson, the Art of Power, and that was a terrific book. He’s back now, he’s turned his attention to a modern American icon, George Herbert Walker Bush. John Meacham, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, it’s great to have you.

JM: Thanks, Hugh. I appreciate it.

HH: I have to tear Destiny and Power away from the fetching Mrs. Hewitt because she’s always been a bush fan back to ‘76 and ‘80 and she keeps grabbing Destiny and Power, so I can’t say I read every page of it, but congratulations. Number One bestseller. I want to select my topics carefully, so that we can just channelize people into getting the Christmas book that will greatly love. Let me begin, though, with one who is in the headlines, Donald Trump. Little surprise to discover in Destiny and Power that he sent a message to George Herbert Walker Bush, he wanted to be vice president in 1998.

JM: And Bush told his vice presidential diary, it was strange, unbelievable, the reaction in the papers.

HH: (laughs)

JM: Trump has since said that Walker had come to him and they had talked about this, but it shows you some of Trump’s brain has been in this zone at least in this zip code for a long time.

HH: Would Ross Perot talk to you about the ‘92 campaign?

JM: He did not and what’s interesting to me about – and I think I see your segue there – as Mark Twain said, history may not repeat itself, but it [often rhymes], and Trump and Perot don’t quite rhyme, but they almost do. I think we’re seeing in Trump an iteration of the same kind of populist anger that brought both Pat Buchanan in to challenge Bush early in ‘92 quite ferociously as you recall, and then brought Perot in for the general.

HH: Because I’m wondering if Perot bears any sense of responsibility for the way the world is today because he certainly did. Is it your estimate, John Meacham, that no Perot, no Bill Clinton?

JM: It’s not, I think President Bush was living on borrowed historical time anyway.

We hadn’t [inaudible] years of one-party White House rule since Roosevelt and Truman. You’ll remember Bush was the first sitting vice president to defeat a sitting president since Van Buren defeated Jackson in ‘36, and I don’t think you can take away from Bill Clinton the fact that he is the great raw political talent of our time. Now there’s a person who disagrees with what I said and that’s George Herbert Walker Bush who does think–

HH: And your host does as well (laughs). I’ve been blaming Perot forever. You don’t see it though, that’s interesting.

JM: Bush thought it was personal, that’s another important element here. In 1977, Ross Perot offered George H.W. Bush a job running Perot’s oil business. Bush said no, and Perot, according to Bush said, “No one says no to Ross Perot.” And the president’s always thought that might have had something to do with bringing him into the race in 1992.

HH: Now as to, and finishing up our Trump conversation, Ross Perot made an argument that was very different than the one that Donald Trump is making today. He did his chart thing, people will remember this, with a great deal of detail if they lived through it. Does George Herbert Walker Bush blame himself for that loss at all for failing to recognize the threat and not responding quickly?

JM: He does, he takes – the gentleman that he is – all the blame and he should. There was a couple of things going n there. The Bush presidency neatly divides in two. There were two pretty remarkable years and then about 18 months that were just, as Bush put it to me, ghastly. I think part of it was, he never celebrated the Gulf War victory. If you go through his diary, which I was privileged to do, you find that he was ahead of the pundits, he was ahead of his own staff, in knowing that the election in ‘92 was going to be about the economy. He said that in March of 1991. He had a thyroid condition that reduce his energy and acuity levels in a way that I think just kept him from fully engaging. No one around George Bush in those four years thinks he w was exactly the same guy in the last 18 months or so and there was some health issues there that I think have not gotten the attention that they probably should.

HH: Come back with me, John Meacham, if you will, to the most fateful single decision George Herbert Walker Bush made with regards to America on law which was to select David Souter over, and I have to tell the audience, Edith Jones is a friend of mine, it got two pages in Destiny and Power and yet it changed everything. To this day, it changed everything. Did he give enough thought to that process?

JM: I don’t think so. He told me that it was huge mistake to “pick David Souter” when he did. He was proud of Clarence Thomas, is proud of Clarence Thomas and his service, but he did say that picking Souter was a mistake. I think you’re right, there wasn’t a huge amount of focus on it. The diary entries about Judge Jones are such that he thought that it might be a little too hot I think, my words not his, but that she might be a little too conservative for that pick, and she was awfully young at that point too, I think.

HH: No, she’s still very active and a terrific judge. She would’ve the justice for all those years. But I’m curious, did Justice Souter agree to talk to you, John Meacham?

JM: NO, I didn’t reach out to Justice Souter, but I think that what’s so interesting about the Supreme Court appointment is that Bush says in his diary that he worried about having an Earl Warren kind of effect, and then he did. So it wasn’t as though it was a total surprise that this could be an issue.

HH: Yes, he relied on Warren Rudman and on John Sununu, and I’m curious if either of them expressed any regret to you about where they, that steered the Bush presidency into legal infamy, that choice changes everything and I think you could argue probably the direction of the American constitutional movement.

JM: It’s a huge moment, the reason that, this is a whole separate field for studying Supreme Court appointments, it’s in your view [inaudible] back to him when Thurgood Marshall, back to Judge Jones when Marshall stepped down.

HH: He might have, I’m always curious about one thing, and I don’t know if it came up in the conversations which is George Herbert Walker Bush is as straight a shooter as America has produced, a man of extraordinary personal integrity, and I think he probably would have expected David Souter to say to him, “I’m not your guy, you don’t want me for this job, I don’t believe in what you think I believe in.” Did that come up at all in your conversation.

JM: No, the only thing that he asked Justice Thomas, for instance, he only made two points, in a very brief conversation which was could you call him like you [inaudible], and he said, “I won’t ever criticize you.” So those were the two points that were made in that process. So it is a remarkable thing when you think about it that there wasn’t more focus and more energy on that very long-lasting set of choices.

HH: I’ll be right back with John Meacham, his book is Destiny and Power, in bookstores everywhere. Don’t go anywhere, America, it’s the Hugh Hewitt Show.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

HH: 34 minutes after the hour, America. It’s Hugh Hewitt on a day after the tragedy, we know that these were terrorists, we will learn more about the international context as the day goes on. John Meacham is my guest, Destiny and Power is his brand-new book: the American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. I want to talk to him about the Afghan freedom fighters in a moment, but I want to go back to the most riveting part of this is, as you know, unusual or something I’ve never seen coming, is George Herbert Walker Bush’s CIA director briefing Jimmy Carter during and after the election, John Meacham. I’ve never read that anywhere else. Was that news to you?

JM: I knew that he would ask for briefings, I didn’t quite understand quite how many there were. He was the first presidential candidate I believe to have ever asked for those briefings. And President Ford agreed to do it. The other interesting thing there in the counterfactual realm is that Bush left open the possibility of staying on for a year or so under Carter to sort of just show that the CIA directorship should be above politics and as Jimmy Carter said to me in an interview in his house in Plains, “You’re sitting exactly where George Bush was sitting on a couch when I said I didn’t want to do that, and if I had said yes, if I conceded to his request, he would have never been president because it’s hard to imagine the Republican Party of 1980 embracing someone who had served under President Carter.

HH: Agreed.

JM: He made a good point.

HH: And Miss Lillian, I love your detail about Miss Lillian telling George Bush, “It ain’t happening, you’re all gone, we’re getting rid of all of you” (laughs).

JM: It was a great moment where poor George H.W. Bush is down there in Plains sort of killing time in town waiting to go out and see him and Miss Lillian tells the New York Times that Jimmy’s going to fire all the Republicans including Bush.

HH: Did he come up when George W. Bush became president? One of his most controversial decision was to leave George Tenet, long-time Democratic staffer on the Hill, then-director of the CIA, as the director of the CIA, and then of course, 9/11 happened and W. never ever second-guessed Tenet in public and didn’t do it in his books and he’s never been one to look backwards, but do you think that the example of his father being fired by Carter led him to keep Tenet where otherwise he might not have?

JM: What I do know about that is that that one of the occasions where 43 did ask for 41’s advice and I think 41 made a couple of calls and reported back the intelligence community was in favor of Tenet, and it’s one of those things, if you read Decision Points extremely carefully, President Bush ‘43’s memoir, you found a number of occasions where he did ask his father for counsel, but when asking in general, he tends to downplay and, as I said to ‘43 at one point in an interview, I said that I think you downplayed this for fear of appearing overly-dependent on the previous generation and ‘43 replied, “That’s not a bad observation” which I took as a “Yes.”

HH: (Laughs) That’s a very W. elocution, that’s a very interesting way for him to put it. The other way interesting character here is Scowcroft, and those of us who study very carefully Republican politics know the general’s role in H.W.’s world and his not-so-much role in W.’s role. What do you put that down to? Why wasn’t Scowcroft more of a player in ‘43’s two terms?

JM: Well, after 2002, it all had to do with the Wall Street Journal. As you know (laughs), and Scowcroft’s op-ed that was headlined “Don’t Attack Saddam,” I thought a lot about this obviously and it really is the case that George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft were moderate conservatives. They were Ford-Eisenhower Republicans, and George W. Bush was quite simply was a “movement conservative,” he wasn’t a moderate conservative. I reject the idea that Bush, Sr. was moderate, I don’t think that’s quite right. He was a moderate conservative, he was a conservative, but he was one who was more at home in the Ford White House and the Eisenhower White House in a weird way than he was in Reagan’s. And I think that at least a lot of people for a long time simply didn’t credit ‘43 for being what he was which was a different kind of conservative than his father was or that Scowcroft was.

HH: Now you take the – I agree with everything you just said – now goes the big history question, ‘41 has been president, he’s been the director of the CIA, he’s done eight years under Reagan, he knows all about Iran-Contra – great segment on that, by the way – but he also is fully read-in on the effort to arm the Afghan rebels, he creates the Mujahedin, they create the relationship in Pakistan. He’s fully ready and then he continues that policy with Dick Cheney until the Soviet Union collapses and then we scamper. Did he evidence any knowledge that that scampering led to Afghan Civil War which led to the flourishing of Al-Qaeda under the Taliban.

JM: That’s a great question, and I think the answer is no we didn’t climb inside that. I think that Afghanistan is such a long-term, complicated tale that there’s plenty of blame to go around I’m afraid. There is, I’ll be right back with John Meacham to talk about that blame, don’t go anywhere, especially on the day after a terrorist attack in San Bernardino. Stay tuned, America.

– – – – – – – – –

HH: 44 minutes after the hour, I’ve got one of America’s preeminent biographers, John Meacham on the phone with me. In 2008, we spent a lot of time on Andrew Jackson, a couple of years ago on Thomas Jefferson. Right now, he’s written a brand-new book about George Herbert Walker Bush, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. Got to ask you, John Meacham, this is just a biographer question, who is it easier to work on, dead people or living people?

JM: The dead, my friend (laughs). Well, it’s a really interesting question because, it has taught me a lot, working on the living and the particularly, the living with a other living people around them is trickier in part because you hope you have enough distance and perspective. You hope that 25 years is enough, at least to start this historical conversation about George H. W. Bush, but one of the things that it has taught me was that when writing about the dead, you should be just as fair, just as attentive to nuance as one naturally is in writing about the living because the living are there to read it. And so it’s actually reaffirmed and re-inspired me when I return to the “graveyard” to be as nuanced as I would be in dealing with former presidents who are still around.

HH: Interesting, I think it was [Henry James] the Figure in the Carpet that you have to spend a lot of time thinking about everything in order to get to the “figure in the carpet.” And just my Destiny and Power assessment is, he’s a fighter pilot, and that never ever left him. Do you agree with that?

JM: Oh, he thinks about it everyday. His explicit shoot-down on September 2nd, 1944 when he was hit by Japanese flack in an Avenger torpedo bomber, he lost two crewmen, Ted White and Del Delaney. He thinks about them everyday and he had a kind of – it was Roger Ales – who helped formulate the argument in ‘88 that goes directly to your point that the was man who saw life as a series of missions and whereas FDR and JFK, Ronald Reagan, saw the world narratively, George H. W. Bush saw the world in terms of missions and results, and I think that as a pilot, that’s an apt metaphor for a missile life. David Boyle, who was really helpful to me on this and was a good observer of President Bush as his old boss used a great phrase. He said that “Bush was results-oriented, that he really believed that he got to the right answer in policy that the people would be with him even if he didn’t spend a lot of time explaining it.

HH: And the whole self-deprecation. I remember that Gorbachev summit where he said, “Just a couple of tough guys out on the water” because people thought they were insane to be going back-and-forth with these boats. He was laughing, all self-deprecation. It really is, George H. W. Bush. Let me ask you, though, about 1980. He did not accomplish the mission in ‘80 and in fact that famous Manchester Union leader debate, Mr. Breen called Mr. Green, he flinched. Does he know he flinched then?

JM: He does, we talked a lot about this. It was Nashua and he said, “It was not my finest hour to say the least.” It was a case where he didn’t follow his own instincts and his own instincts were those of inclusiveness as opposed to exclusiveness. It’s how he ran his life. It why he was nicknamed “Have Half” Bush as a child because he would also a cut a treat in half to give it to the other kid, and he wrote a very interesting moving letter to all the guys he had tried to keep out of the debate right afterward. I have a “deep in the weeds” dork theory that part of the problem was Gordon Humphrey, who was a movement conservative who did not like Bush had gone to Bush right before the event happened and it just sent Bush off into a personal fit in a way and it enabled Reagan to have this terrific scene, and it almost cost Bush everything because Reagan always remembered that he had frozen that night.

HH: Yes, he froze Bush, a staffer told Newsweek. It was a crisis and our man failed to respond and Reagan always took that picture in his mind. I thought that was fascinating reading. I also thought it was fascinating when Jeb Bush, now seeking the presidency, complained this isn’t fair, Dad, you write on page 251, he said, “Nobody owes us a damn thing, we’re going to leave this city with heads high in Detroit and I don’t want to hear that anymore. Do your best, don’t look back. That’s the code.” That’s pretty amazing. That’s very “Bushian.”

JM: It is, and it’s absolutely right. One of the things that was so fascinating about the project was that’s the Bush code and it’s real, it’s as real as anything can be. But you know, these diaries are really interesting because they are the one place where he would occasionally complain. I think they kind of played a kind of therapeutic role for him because he said things to himself and to history that he wouldn’t say to anyone else around him. And he once told me, “No one ever wants to hear a president say, ‘Oh woe is me,’ you’re just damn lucky to be there.” And that’s absolutely true, but in these audio diaries, he could unload about the press, unload about George Mitchell (laughs), whatever was bothering him that day.

HH: Now the best advice a candidate could ever get is on page 547 of John Meacham’s Destiny and Power, when W. asks ‘41 about running for governor. He says, “Do it with all you got, keep like cool, work like hell, don’t let the meanness surface get you down. Don’t overreact, see the other guy’s point-of-view, see his merits, but convince people you are the better man, for you are.” That’s pretty plain-spoken, very direct.

JM: And a letter written in 1977, that was an early example of how ‘41 and ‘43 were going to deal with each other in an official way. That’s a letter that Bush sat down to write at home in Houston in ‘77 when George W. was about to run for Congress and he basically says, in another point of that letter, “I’m happy to give you advice, but I’m only here if you need me, but if you have to run away from me out there in West Texas because I was at the UN and went to China, do what you have to do.” An early example, and it’s very hard to explain to people who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, that the Bushes really did see each other, though they all love each other and it’s a great family, they were and are independent political actors.

HH: And they might learn from each other in the way that baseball teams learn from each other but they’re competing. I’ll be right back, one more segment with John Meacham and then I’m going to talk with Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College. Destiny and Power is Meacham’s new biography of George Herbert Walker Bush ‘41. Stayed tuned, America. It’s the Hugh Hewitt Show.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

HH: John Meacham, I want to ask you about one particular moment that I’m just never going to forget. The middle hour of our grief speech that ‘43 gave at the National Cathedral as the rubble was still smoking, his father was there, and after he gave it, he reached over and grabbed his hand, and I can’t help but think that the former president knew what the current president had in front of him and had to have been humbled by that. Did you talk to him about his concern for his son in the aftermath of that catastrophe in America?

JM: Oh absolutely, and the worries ranged from an immediate concern on September 11th itself about assassination or fears for his son’s security, though he had great confidence in the Secret Service and said so at the time. He would often say – President Bush ‘41 that his son was facing problems that no president had faced since Lincoln, since it was bloodshed on American soil, and occasionally he would use Pearl Harbor as an example because of the nature of the attack obviously. I think it helps explain – people say, “Oh, why wasn’t ‘41 calling up and saying, ‘do this, don’t do that,’” it’s mainly because well, A, it’s against the Bush code as we just discussed, but B, he knew that his son was facing something that he hadn’t and that very other presidents had and he didn’t want to get in the way. He didn’t want to complicate what was already an immensely complex task.

HH: And a last question, do you think that Jeb is weaker presidential candidate than W. because his father cannot offer whatever sagacious advice because he’s older and he’s much more restrained and Barbara is going to be much more restrained. Does that leave Jeb less able to tap into the family reservoir of knowledge and experience?

JM: I don’t think so. I think that if I’m right that ‘41 and ‘43 talked mostly about family and sports and might have complained once or twice about the mainstream media, just once or twice, I don’t think that Jeb’s issues with the base have to do with not being able to talk with his father, I think they are very much like his father’s problems with the base, particularly on the immigration question, where you have a base of movement conservatives who have a certain amount of distrust whose last name is Bush which brings us full-circle. If we’re right that George W. was simply from a different part of the party despite the fact that his father, which is beside the fact of his genetic code, then Jeb is more like his father, it seems to me, in terms of his relationship with the base, and that’s not helping right now.

HH: Great place to end it, John Meacham. Thanks for spending time, congratulations on another great book. Destiny and Power by John Meacham is in bookstores everywhere, the American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush is indeed that, an American story. You will greatly enjoy.

End of Transcript

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