George H.W. Bush Biography NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with presidential biographer, Jon Meacham, about the late George H.W. Bush and his impact.

George H.W. Bush Biography

George H.W. Bush Biography

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NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with presidential biographer, Jon Meacham, about the late George H.W. Bush and his impact.


GEORGE HW BUSH: I, George Herbert Walker Bush, do solemnly swear...


We're remembering the life of George H.W. Bush this morning. The 41st president died Friday evening. He's remembered as a president, the father of a president, and a dedicated public servant. A lot was going on when he was sworn into office in 1989, and he would face many challenges after.


BUSH: All of us agree that the gravest domestic threat facing our nation today is drugs.

TOM BROKAW: A historic moment tonight - the Berlin Wall can no longer contain the East German people.

BUSH: Last night, I ordered U.S. military forces to Panama.

PETER JENNINGS: President Bush today signed legislation that will go a long way towards bringing 43 million Americans with disabilities into the economic mainstream.

BUSH: Just two hours ago, allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait.


ROGER MUDD: As Clarence Thomas took the oath to deny that he had ever sexually harassed Anita Hill...


JENNINGS: President Bush picked an appropriately symbolic setting today to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are joined now by his biographer, Jon Meacham. Welcome to the program.

JON MEACHAM: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mr. Meacham, the man you describe in your book is, in many ways, someone that we might describe as the last Republican moderate. Does that sound right to you?

MEACHAM: He's a - it's a vanishing species (laughter) - not even endangered. He was a remarkable figure in that, really, his political life mirrors the journey of the country - born in New England but moves to the Sunbelt, moves to Texas, never fully at home politically in Texas in the way his son was, for instance. And someone who - his father was a senator from Connecticut - George H.W. Bush very much believed in the role of reason in politics as opposed to passion. He believed in pragmatism over ideology. And even in real time - even in 1989 to 1993, you could see the world beginning to change around him into a more partisan, into a shriller world. And he was never particularly comfortable with that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, you wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times that he was, quote, "a gentleman who came of age in an ever-uglier arena, the embodiment of a postwar era of consensus that, in our time, seems as remote as Agincourt."

MEACHAM: Yeah, or Thermopylae - you know, pick your allusion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Yes.

MEACHAM: It really was. And he - I spent a lot of time working with his diary. He kept a presidential diary - very candid. It was almost therapeutic for him. He would talk into a tape recorder. And one of the things that was a recurrent theme was the annoyance with CNN political talk shows...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Really (laughter)?

MEACHAM: ...With reflexive political criticism.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I would say he's not alone in that, probably.

MEACHAM: Well, it's - you know, as Mark Twain once said, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. You know, so the world, you know, and, in fact, a lot of what we have now is rooted in the Republican, partisan House rebellion against George H.W. Bush being a statesman. He believed he had to break a pledge not to raise taxes. He believed that that was important to control the deficit, to set the conditions for prosperity - which, in fact, happened.

But Newt Gingrich and his firebrands broke away from him - almost unimaginable for you to rebel against a president of your own party. And what they learned was that if they rebelled against the statesman-like, they could go to the country and win with these ever more energized but divided bases. And President Bush fought against it. Another analog that comes from this era is - remember, Pat Buchanan challenged him in 1992...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right.

MEACHAM: ...And did very well - 40, 41 percent in New Hampshire. And in many ways, Buchanan is a predicate for the incumbent president.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is, of course, an instinct when people die to speak no ill. But his legacy was complicated. There are many black Americans today who remember him differently from others. He really pushed the war on drugs, which led to the mass incarceration of African-American men. He was the man who used Willie Horton to stoke racial fears. We only have about a minute left, but in his later conversations, did he ever look back at that legacy critically?

MEACHAM: He knew that he was not perfect. He knew that, as he once put it to me, politics is not a pure undertaking, not if you want to win. It's not. He would've resisted both those examples that you cite. But let's be very clear - George Herbert Walker Bush was an important American president. He was a decent human being. He was not perfect. He was a man of the arena. He did things to get power that we can look on with totally justified critical judgment. To my mind, we have to judge people on the totality of their lives. And what did he do with that power when he ultimately had it?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jon Meacham's biography is "Destiny And Power: The American Odyssey Of George Herbert Walker Bush." Thank you so much for being with us.

MEACHAM: Thank you.

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