ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Jon Meacham's biography of George H.W. Bush isn't even out yet, but it's already made news. In "Destiny And Power: The American Odyssey Of George Herbert Walker Bush," the 41st president of United States criticizes two key players in his son's administration. We're hearing about that in another part of the program. Also in the book, the story of George Bush's view of the war he led against Iraq. Like the rest of Meacham's biography, it's based on his extensive interviews with the elder Bush, with many others, and with unique access to Bush's audio diaries.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: This is a terribly serious problem. It's perhaps the most serious problem that I have faced as president because the downside is so enormous.
SIEGEL: We'll come to that in a moment.
Jon Meacham, welcome to the program.
JON MEACHAM: Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: I want to start with a question about George H.W. Bush's politics. You quote him as saying in 1981 when he was Ronald Reagan's vice president and had formed an affectionate view of Reagan, I spent 16 years fighting the man and what he stood for.
But at the start of those 16 years, back in 1964 when he was running for Congress in Texas, you describe him as agreeing with Barry Goldwater about just about everything. What did the first President Bush figure he stood for?
MEACHAM: His conservatism - George H.W. Bush's conservatism - at heart was always more of a moderate conservatism. He was a Texas Republican in 1964, and if you were a Texan running for office in that time, you were a Goldwater man. He regretted his more extreme positions almost immediately. He had opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, though once he ultimately made it to Congress, he voted for open housing, which eliminated racial discrimination in the sale of real estate. He would say and do almost anything to amass power, but once he had that power, he tended to do the right thing. And because of the nature of the Republican Party as he was coming along, he had a right wing that was forever growing when he was essentially more of a moderate temperament. It was never the best fit for Bush in the base of the party.
SIEGEL: Of course, he in the end ran afoul of the Republican right when he made a budget deal as president with congressional Democrats that included some tax increases, after having famously promised, read my lips - no new taxes.
Given what you write, it's hard for me to believe that he ever thought he could really get a budget deal without imposing some kind of tax increase. Was it again a Faustian bargain where you do one thing to get power and then act differently once you have it?
MEACHAM: Rather than a Faustian bargain, I would argue that it was Machiavellian - that he thought if he were to take positions that he might not particularly feel strongly about in order to amass power, that was not cynical but instrumental.
SIEGEL: George H.W. Bush's great successes as president were in foreign affairs - managing the breakup of the Soviet bloc in Europe and organizing a military response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Here he was on August 2, 1990, in Aspen, Colo., at a joint news conference with then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. And this is a comment he makes on some U.S. allies in the Arab world.
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H.W. BUSH: I am somewhat heartened by the conversations I had with Mubarak and with King Hussein, Mr. Saleh, all of whom I consider friends of the United States, and all of them who are trying to engage in what they call an Arab answer to the question - working diligently behind the scenes.
SIEGEL: Jon Meacham, you've had access to the contemporaneous audio diary recordings that Bush made as president. And here, courtesy of your publisher, is part of what he said on August 5, three days later, as he was heading back to Washington.
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H.W. BUSH: I've been afraid some of them would peel off and support a puppet regime. One of the worst offenders has been my friend, King Hussein, who is simply out there apologizing for Saddam Hussein and being almost a spokesman for him. He told me he wanted an Arab solution. So did Mubarak. Both of them are in the handwringing stage, and neither of them is being a constructive influence.
SIEGEL: We didn't hear the frustration (laughter) in public. How telling are these tapes that you're working from?
MEACHAM: This is why this is so riveting. Here is a man, he's on Marine One, he's coming back from Camp David. When he lands, he will say this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait. You so rarely get to listen in behind the press conference, and what George Herbert Walker Bush left posterity are his real thoughts. And he did not believe the Arab world, and in particular Saudi Arabia, would do what they said they wanted to do, which is to stop Saddam.
SIEGEL: There ensued a dramatic debate in Congress over authorizing the war against Iraq, and we learned from you, via the tapes, that President Bush felt that even if he'd lost those votes, he would've gone to war and risked impeachment over it.
MEACHAM: Totally fascinating. He was willing to go in the face of an active negative vote. Now, I commend that because when we think about George Bushes who feel that they should take unilateral action in the Middle East, when we think about George Bushes who talk about good versus evil in terms of that part of the world, the first George Bush who spoke in those terms and who thought in unilateral terms was George Herbert Walker Bush.
SIEGEL: In a way what you're saying is that when it came to wars in Iraq, the apple didn't fall that far from the tree, is what you're saying.
MEACHAM: Historically speaking, the conventional wisdom - as you and I well know - was that in 2002, 2003, George W. Bush was acting in ways that his father never would have acted. What this diary reveals is that his determination, even his stubbornness to reverse Saddam's aggression was deep and deeply felt, and it came pretty quickly. He really believed at this point because of the Soviet Union's problems, that he, George H.W. Bush, was about to create a world - later the phrase, a new world order. The Cold War standoff was ending, and George H.W. Bush had no interest in allowing the dictator of Iraq to upset what he believed to be a unique historical moment, what he called on several occasions in his diary, a fascinating time of change in the world itself.
SIEGEL: You use a word at one point to describe George H.W. Bush - charisma.
MEACHAM: A quiet, persistent charisma.
SIEGEL: A quiet, persistent charisma. In a completely unscientific survey of people who sit near my office at work, I can't find anyone else who would use the word charisma and George H.W. Bush in the same sentence.
MEACHAM: Have they met him?
MEACHAM: There you go. George H.W. Bush became president of the United States as a retail politician. He lacked the glamour of a John Kennedy. He lacked the stage presence of a Ronald Reagan. But he made a friend of damn near every person he ever met.
The reason I did this book was, in 1998, I went to Walker's Point and was struck by how much more of a complicated and interesting figure George H.W. Bush seemed than the Dana Carvey, buttoned-down wasp, the out-of-touch man of 1992 was. And I don't think you can understand the history of our time without understanding how George Bush became president.
SIEGEL: Jon Meacham, thanks for talking with us about George Herbert Walker Bush and about your book.
MEACHAM: I'm very grateful, thank you.
SIEGEL: The book is "Destiny And Power: The American Odyssey Of George Herbert Walker Bush."
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