Around the Institute

Jon Meacham on the Life and Legacy of Bush 41

December 7, 2015  • Zach St. Louis

Above, watch the full conversation featuring “Destiny and Power” author Jon Meacham with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson.

“He is the last gentleman in American politics,” said author Jon Meacham of President George H.W. Bush at a recent Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Book Series event at the Aspen Institute. “He is the last president we’ve had who fully understood that compromise was not a dirty word, but was the oxygen of democracy.”

Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” offered his perspective on the life and legacy of the 41st US president, which he detailed in his latest biography “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.” Speaking with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson, Meacham discussed Bush’s political ambitions and his relationship with his children, as well as his successes and shortcomings as president of the United States.

Rise to the Presidency

“George Bush would not have been president if he did not go to Texas in 1948,” said Meacham, explaining that Bush’s choice to move away from home and turn down the offer to work for the family business was one of the most essential decisions he made on his path to the presidency. Bush moved to Texas to work for the oil company Dresser for two reasons, according to Meacham: “to make a lot of money fast,” and because “he didn’t want to live in the shadow of his father and grandfather.” In Meacham’s view, that became a critical move for his political future.

Meacham described Bush, a congressman in the 1960s, as a “moderate man who called them as he saw them.” He cited that while in Congress, Bush voted with Democratic President Lyndon Johnson 53 percent of the time and Republican President Richard Nixon 55 percent of the time, demonstrating that he didn’t subscribe to party politics, posing the question: “Can you imagine a Republican congressman voting with a Democratic president that often today?”

Meacham calls Bush getting elected as president in 1988 a “political anomaly.” He explained that 12 years of one party in the presidency had not happened since the era of Truman and Roosevelt, and for this reason, he was unsurprised that Bush lost in 1992. He felt that the entire time, “Bush was living on borrowed historical time.” 

The Bush Family

As a father, Bush was the fun parent who was completely adored by all of his children. However, as Meacham noted, he wasn’t around much during their upbringing, largely because of travel in the oil business throughout the 1950s. Nonetheless, all of his children described him as a loving father and Neil Bush, the fourth of the Bush children, even described his father as a “camp counselor.” It was Mrs. Bush who was the disciplinarian and who kept the family in order around the house.

After his son George W. became president, George H.W. Bush was largely approving of his political moves. One large difference between the two that Meacham noted was in George W. Bush’s decision to go further with military intervention in the Middle East than his father had. On this point, Meacham explained that Bush had “anxieties” about that choice, but ultimately expressed to his son that he was making the right decision. 

The Legacy of 41

“Bush was an effective president historically,” Meacham said. “He passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed the 1990 budget deal, ended the Cold War, and waged a successful war in the Middle East.” “He was fully engaged in the job and loved the job… George Bush was exactly where he wanted to be.”

Meacham closed by saying that Bush was a moderate, saying that “the middle way is not always the best way, but sometimes it is, and you’re certainly not going to find the right way if you don’t engage the opposition.” In his view, this idea of compromise was something that George Bush inherently understood and is precisely what is missing from contemporary American politics. 

Zachary St. Louis is a public affairs coordinator with the communications department at the Aspen Institute.