Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush

by Jon Meacham

Hardcover, 2015




New York : Random House, 2015.


"In this brilliant biography, Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, chronicles the life of George Herbert Walker Bush. Drawing on President Bush's personal diaries, on the diaries of his wife, Barbara, and on extraordinary access to the forty-first president and his family, Meacham paints an intimate and surprising portrait of an intensely private man who led the nation through tumultuous times. From the Oval Office to Camp David, from his study in the private quarters of the White House to Air Force One, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the first Gulf War to the end of Communism, Destiny and Power charts the thoughts, decisions, and emotions of a modern president who may have been the last of his kind. This is the human story of a man who was, like the nation he led, at once noble and flawed. His was one of the great American lives. Born into a loving, privileged, and competitive family, Bush joined the navy on his eighteenth birthday and at age twenty was shot down on a combat mission over the Pacific. He married young, started a family, and resisted pressure to go to Wall Street, striking out for the adventurous world of Texas oil. Over the course of three decades, Bush would rise from the chairmanship of his county Republican Party to serve as congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, head of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, director of Central Intelligence, vice president under Ronald Reagan, and, finally, president of the United States. In retirement he became the first president since John Adams to see his son win the ultimate prize in American politics. With access not only to the Bush diaries but, through extensive interviews, to the former president himself, Meacham presents Bush's candid assessments of many of the critical figures of the age, ranging from Richard Nixon to Nancy Reagan; Mao to Mikhail Gorbachev; Dick Cheney to Donald Rumsfeld; Henry Kissinger to Bill Clinton. Here is high politics as it really is but as we rarely see it. From the Pacific to the presidency, Destiny and Power charts the vicissitudes of the life of this quietly compelling American original. Meacham sheds new light on the rise of the right wing in the Republican Party, a shift that signaled the beginning of the end of the center in American politics. Destiny and Power is an affecting portrait of a man who, driven by destiny and by duty, forever sought, ultimately, to put the country first"--Provided by publisher."'He was the last of a kind, and his rise, his fall, and his rebirth in the twilight of his life offers a window on a great deal of American history.' Meacham creates an intimate and detailed life story of a man whom many know only through his politics, or from a distance. From interviews and exclusive access to Bush's presidential diaries, Meacham brings Bush and the great American family he came from, vividly to life, beginning with the family's story working in a tool company in the Midwest in the late 1800's and on through George H.W. Bush's childhood in Connecticut, his heroic service in World War II, his decision to strike out on his own and try to create an oil business in Texas, to his political rise to be congressman, ambassador to the U.N., head of the CIA, vice president, then president, and the only man since John Adams to see his son become president. Written with Meacham's trademark compelling narration and historical depth and contemporary insight, this stunning biography reveals the unusual self-reflections, as well as the distinctive American life of a man from the Greatest Generation who pursued a life of service as a guardian of America in the way of Eisenhower, and was one of the last gentlemen in our political world"--Provided by publisher."Advance praise for Destiny and Power: 'Altogether fair, insightful. A portrait made especially compelling by the author's remarkable access to Bush's private White House diaries. This is a timely, first-rate book!'--David McCullough; 'What a spectacular and moving portrait this is--not only of a remarkably classy man but of the era that shaped him! It is hard to imagine a biographer more fitted than Jon Meacham to write what will surely be the definitive work on George Herbert Walker Bush'--Doris Kearns Goodwin; 'This astonishing book is both timely and timeless. A fascinating and insightful portrayal of the life of an exemplary American citizen'--Walter Isaacson; 'Jon Meacham's timely and intimate biography of George Bush 41 is a welcome reminder of this modest president's call to service, from the cockpits of World War II to the Oval Office and the end of the Cold War'--Tom Brokaw; 'This riveting biography by the incomparable Jon Meacham gives George H.W. Bush his well-deserved place in history. Destiny and Power is full of surprises, revealing 41's important role in scene after crucial historical scene of the past seven decades'--Michael Beschloss"--Provided by publisher… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member fingerpost
Jon Meacham was granted extraordinary access to Mr. Bush, his diaries, his family, and those with whom he worked during his long career. He gives us a very human portrait of an ambitious man who felt duty-bound to serve others. We Bush as a child briefly, then as an oil man, Congressman, ambassador to China, chairman of the Republican Party, CIA director, Vice President under Ronald Reagan, and the President whose popularity reached astonishing highs after the Gulf War, but fell so dramatically that he soundly lost his reelection bid, and as a retired elder statesman, whose sons follow in his footsteps.
I am a fairly liberal-leaning Democrat, and have always viewed George H. W. Bush as the finest Republican politician of my lifetime. Destiny and Power solidified his place in my mind, and made me appreciate President Bush even more. He exemplified honor, dignity, and decency in a quiet and understated way.
An excellent book about a truly exceptional man.
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LibraryThing member maneekuhi
I find Meacham's presidential bios very interesting and very readable. He seems to focus on just the right level of detail and analysis on all the major points in his subject's life. I enjoyed this book very much, and came away from the book liking Bush '41 more than going in. Though I never voted for any of the Bushes I felt a lot of respect for Bush '41. I thought he elevated the office in a way that many of his contemporaries did not match. He was truly a gentleman President (ala FDR) and enhanced the office of the Presidency in the eyes of world leaders as well.

Here are a few things that surprised me and/or that I feel are worth noting, in no particular order. The Bushes, early on, lost a three year old daughter, Robin, to leukemia. Bush mentions her many, many times throughout the entire book. Heart-wrenching. It is no surprise that he is an emotional guy. The word "cry" is mentioned a lot, but Bush 41 was tough when he had to be. There exists throughout the 600 pages evidence of a very strong, very loving, emotional bond within the family for one another. Barbara is mentioned often, particularly her view on things, while Laura is mentioned rarely, though affectionately and respectfully. While Meacham, in the epilogue, summarizes that Bush made a number of shifts in issue positions, largely for political reasons, I felt these were out-weighed by the number of occasions where he chose "to do the right thing" knowing he would pay a stiff penalty, e.g, raising taxes following "read my lips".

Bush showed strong patriotic fervor for his country in enlisting fresh out of high school (soon after Pearl harbor) and is thought to be the youngest navy pilot at that time. Though his plane was badly crippled from anti-aircraft flak he flew on and dropped his bomb load on target before parachuting. Lots of detail here on his relationship with the Reagans, one that built slowly and was cherished eventually by both men - though apparently not with Nancy R. Bush had a rather varied career pre-presidency that included not only the CIA but also the RNC. I forgot that he was very close to the White House in the latter assignment during the Watergate days.

I was surprised how tired Bush was from the job "only" 2 1/2 years into it; this was following victory in the first Iraq War, but apparently these post-victory crashes are par for the course. I'm sure in the days ahead I will think of a dozen other tidbits that I enjoyed and wish that I had included here, but bottomline - Highly Recommended.
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LibraryThing member TexasBookLover
Jon Meacham
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
Random House
Ebook, 978-0-81299-820-7 (also available in hardcover, large print paperback, as an audio book, and on Audible), 864 pgs., $17.99
November 10, 2015

When George Herbert Walker Bush was five years old his school report cards included the category “Claims More Than His Fair Share of Time and Attention in Class.” His parents didn’t worry about this category. Bush’s nickname was “Have-Half” because he split everything he had with friends. Eighty-five years later he is much the same.

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush is Jon Meacham’s account of the life of the forty-first president, “a child of one generation’s ruling class, the head of another’s, and the father of yet a third.” Meacham presents Bush as a man of humility and compassion as well as ambitious and deeply competitive, a believer in compromise, diplomacy, and the power of personal relationships.

A well-balanced account, Destiny and Power progresses briskly and never belabors a point. Meacham provides insightful analysis of family dynamics in Bush’s formative years, a recitation of the facts liberally leavened with anecdotes, and a good mix of formal and candid photos. Meacham had access to Bush’s diaries that he spoke into a hand-held recorder which provides a sense of immediacy—Bush’s thoughts in real time.

Meacham is fond of his subject and writes thrillingly of the “dazzling, epochal news” of the fall of the Berlin wall and chillingly of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush’s diary allows us to watch his thinking develop as he struggles toward “This will not stand.” But Meacham doesn’t mince words regarding controversies such as Iran-Contra, deemed “unworthy of [Bush’s] essential character.”

Meacham reinforces the point throughout the book that “with Bush one got both hardball and high-mindedness, with the former being played in order to give him the power to put the latter into action.” However, Meacham doesn’t address the damage done to American political discourse resulting in polarization. Bush’s personal story is the larger story of how the Republican Party moved to the right in Texas and nationally.

Meacham explores the relationship between Bush and George W.’s presidency, including personal correspondence between them as George W. prepares to invade Iraq, as well as what Bush thought of “axis of evil” rhetoric and his estimation of Dick Cheney’s vice presidency. Bush “returned on several occasions to the subject of Dick Cheney, whom he believed . . . had his own empire there.” Cheney, upon reading the transcript, smiled and said, “Fascinating.”

Bush’s legendary life is conveyed with profound details such as telling his diary on the eve of Operation Desert Storm, “The face of war looks at me,” and Gorbachev’s gift to Bush Christmas morning, 1991, when he called “to announce the end of the experiment in Communism born in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.” Meacham humanizes that legendary life with charming details: Bush’s “Merry Christmas” socks, his staff stocking hotel rooms with pork rinds and Dr. Pepper, and the occasional shower with Millie, the springer spaniel.

Bush may be, as Meacham says, “the last gentleman” who used “privilege to build, not to consume or to coast.” If so, the nation will be poorer for it.

Originally published in Lone Star Literary Life.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,
Jon Meacham, author; Paul Michael, narrator
It is obvious from the start of the book that Jon Meacham has respect and genuine affection for George Herbert Walker Bush. That is not a good reason to dislike or fail to appreciate the excellent job he did of defining Bush 41’s, life, unless you are an ideologue who cannot accept any positive presentation of a member of the Republican Party. For me, the book was well researched, informative and interesting. Although it is quite long, and sometimes repetitive, I found it to be a steady paced commentary on the life of the 41st President of the United States, with the information presented taken largely from the his diaries and the diaries of the First Lady. Bush is a man who represents the past, a time of far better manners and decorum both in and out of the White House. That is a fact that I believe cannot be disputed. The narrator did a fine job modulating his voice so that even though it could have been slow going to read such a tome, it was always engaging.
Raised with old-fashioned values and a code of ethics largely no longer in existence, he is the last of a dying breed. He was taught to respect women and to care about those less fortunate than he. He was taught to “always do the right thing”. He was taught to honor and love his country and those were the same values he and his wife of more than 70 years, Barbara Pierce, tried to inculcate into their own children. Bush fell in love with Barbara while still in his teens and they married before he finished his term of duty during WWII when he was 20 and she, only 19.
Bush enlisted in 1943, at age 18, after graduating high school. He believed it was the honorable thing to do, to serve his country, and he found it hard to reconcile the fact that the President following him into the Oval Office had actually actively avoided the draft and service to his country. However, Bill Clinton was only the first of those to follow who saw no need to give to their country but rather to have their country give to them, which was quite a contrast to the request of former Democrat and President, John F. Kennedy, who requested that we “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” The times have definitely changed in today’s America.
I am not sure if he has been given the credit that is due him by his adversaries. He was criticized for not doing enough on the domestic front, yet he passed the American Disabilities Act, improved the Clean Air Bill and approved the Fair Housing Act. He also ushered in the end of the Cold War and successfully liberated Kuwait when it was invaded by Iraq. He has been unfairly maligned because he raised taxes, breaking his promise when he said “read my lips”. However, the deficit could not be curbed in any other way, and he chose to do what was best for the country, not himself or his future in politics. Also, one must not forget that both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democrats, at that time, so he had little choice to do otherwise. He could possibly fight them and shut down the government, or he could compromise. Always the gentleman, he chose to compromise and put the needs of America first.
As the ultimate gentleman, he resisted going negative when campaigning, even though it meant he would lose. In his heart and mind, he always hoped and thought he would win, believing in the integrity of the electorate, sadly, a mistake, because they believed the lies that the biased media disseminated. During his run for reelection in 1992, the press coverage of Bush was 96% negative, proving that the fourth estate, once the watchdog, was now dead, or at the very least, under-performing. The media prejudice has since been proven, but the practice has continued. Shortly after he lost, his approval rating rose 15 points because they stopped hammering him and/or his associates with false accusations and innuendo.
Bush was a man uniquely qualified to serve as Chief Executive. His past experience was broad and prepared him well. He was Republican Party chairman in Texas, and the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, he was a member of the House of Representatives, he was US Ambassador to the United Nations, he was the U.S. Envoy to China, he was director of the CIA, and he was Vice President before being elected to the highest office in the land. He served only one term, losing to a younger, more charismatic candidate, a man he eventually grew to like and respect, but a man who disappointed him because of his behavior and draft dodging. Still, Bush believed that Clinton’s private life should not be politicized and publicized as it was with the Lewinsky scandal. He knew that the President had important business to conduct and saw first hand that Europe was shocked by what they believed was the unnecessary attention given to the scandal. He understood the stress caused by the vitriol of the press when it was unleashed, but perhaps not the actual transgression. In the face of adversity, Bush always turned his attention to the future, not the past.
To put it succinctly, this is a good book about a good man that was written by a good author! Meacham has presented an even handed picture of a man who put service to his country before service to himself, a man even held in high esteem by Barack Obama, a progressive Democrat, who honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and praised the man and his service in the highest terms, noting his “humility and decency, and his seven decades of devotion to the United States.
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LibraryThing member msaucier818
An excellent biography of President George H.W. Bush by Jon Meacham. George H.W. Bush could gain the title of the Most Interesting Man in the World. World War II Fighter Pilot, Successful Businessman, Ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. Envoy to China, C.I.A. Director, Vice President, President, and father to two sons who were Governors with one becoming President himself. What a fascinating life story.

I don't agree with all of his politics, but I have a new great respect for the man. He was a moderate who genuinely wanted to get things done in government to help people. He did not trust the radical members of either party. He lived a life of integrity, and he was self-aware and knew his limitations. A highly recommended read for anyone interested in a great biography or the history of the Cold War.
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LibraryThing member writemoves
Jon Meacham is an excellent writer. This book was obviously well researched as just about all of Meacham's books are. After reading this book, my high opinion of George H.W Bush has grown. I think he was a good President but had a difficult problem in communicating to the American public. As good as President as I thought he was, I found him to be a very impressive man of principles. Meacham did a very good job in showing how Bush was extremely loyal, particularly to Ronald Reagan. In some ways, Bush's loyalty may have hurt him politically, particularly when he ran for President in 1988. It's's also interesting the contrast between Bush 41's Iraq strategy versus Bush 43's wartime strategies. It's a very long book – – over 800 pages, but worth the effort and time.… (more)



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