George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
As the 43rd US president writes an ode to the 41st, David Usborne wonders – could this tome backfire for the 45th?
The political chattering classes in Washington fancied themselves part-time psychoanalysts as they pondered the news that George W Bush, the former president, has briefly relinquished the paintbrush in favour of the pen at his home in Dallas to author a memoir of his father, George H W Bush, also a former president.
Crown Books, the publisher, said the tome will cover all of “the elder President Bush’s life and career, including his service in the Pacific during World War Two, his pioneering work in the Texas oil business, and his political rise as a Congressman, US Representative to China and the United Nations, CIA Director, Vice President, and President”.
George Sr, who celebrated his 90th birthday this year by parachuting from a helicopter, is possibly the only modern president (or politician aspiring to be president) who hasn’t written a memoir of his own, so it makes sense to have someone else do it. And why not his son, whose blossoming in retirement apparently is without limit? He has already done one book since leaving office, Decision Points. It sold two million copies in two months.
Still, the question inevitably arises. What will the purpose of the as yet unnamed book be? Is it to be really nothing more than an ode from the 43rd president of the United States to the 41st? Or will it be an apology gift, an attempt by the son to make up for the damage he did to the family business that the father founded when he took it over?
There is still no forgetting George W’s abysmal poll numbers at the end, the result of his squandering America’s one-time budget surplus, his invasion of Iraq in 2003 on entirely spurious grounds and, of course, his success steering the economy into the worst ditch since the Great Recession. That the family reputation was ruined might matter less if it wasn’t for his brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida, who could seek the presidency for himself in 2016.
Even as he was in office, especially in the first years marked by the 9/11 attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, George Jr was shadowed by the notion that his every decision was motivated variously by a desire to outdo his father, avenge his father or prove himself to his father, nowhere more so than on policy towards Iraq.
Passages in the forthcoming book dealing with the first Gulf War, when George Sr drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait but declined to oust him will be scrutinised especially closely. Is it really the case that George Jr came into office fixated on finishing the job that his father didn’t? He spoke publicly of his belief that Saddam plotted to have his father killed. Wanting to kill him then was perhaps a normal filial reaction.
While, as Crown Books tells us, 41 and 43 are the only case of a father and son both serving as president of the United States since John and John Quincy Adams, they hardly represent the only instance when father-son ties have coloured American politics at the very top. Joseph Kennedy was a very long shadow indeed over the Oval Office of John F Kennedy. If JFK served partly to please his dad, surely Mitt Romney ran twice for the same reason. In the end both Romney’s, Mitt and George, will be remembered for trying and failing to become president.
The Jeb issue remains tricky meanwhile. Bush-watchers will be eager for any hint in the book of what has often been said that George Herbert Walker and Barbara all along wanted Jeb to carry the family flame back into the Oval Office. If so, the plan went belly-up when Karl Rove engineered for George Jr to become governor of Texas in 1994 while that same year Jeb fell short running for governor in Florida. (He won the next time around.)
For Jeb, a book burnishing the reputation of his father will surely be a helpful thing if he has any serious thoughts about seeking the Republican nomination two years hence. But the problem for him is clear. This book may end up being more about the author than the subject. And that might not help at all.
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