By Lindsey Liles
Vice Chancellor John McCardell of Sewanee, The University of the South, settles into his chair across from Jon Meacham, author of the acclaimed biographies of Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and most recently George Herbert Walker Bush. It is November 22, and the seats of Convocation Hall at Sewanee fill with professors from all disciplines, students, community members, and even families with small children. McCardell briefly introduces Meacham as a Sewanee graduate and fellow Phi Beta Kappa member. Today, Meacham is here to discuss his book, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (Random House 2015), which is now on the New York Times best seller list. The book paints a picture of Bush as president, but also of Bush the man, and presents his triumphs alongside his dark moments. It is a holistic and honest presentation baring the heart of Bush himself.
Meacham points out that it takes 25 years for journalism to become history and about the same amount of time “to look back fully” on a presidency. In response to questions from McCardell, Meacham discusses Bush’s early years, his family, his move to Texas, his presidency, and the politics that shaped his life. Meacham has had unparalleled access to Bush and his family, particularly since 2006 when he was given the audio diaries Bush made during his presidency, diaries which Meacham analogizes in importance to those of John Quincy Adams. During the discussion, Bush emerges as the last great leader of the World War II generation, a man of statesmanship and honor who did the right thing even when it was against his own political interest.
Bush came from a Midwestern family, but he was born in Massachusetts, raised in Connecticut, spent summers in Maine, and eventually became a Texan. Meacham notes that Bush’s move to Texas in a red Studebaker was a fortuitous one—the political gravity of the country was moving in that direction. “History is full of roads taken and not taken, and [Bush’s] turn to Texas was vital,” says Meacham. In the years that followed, Bush presented himself as a Texan, and it was in Texas that his ambition to become president took hold.
First, however, he held various political offices, including two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan, despite the fact he coined the term “voodoo economics” to describe Reagan’s economic policies, a phrase that got under Reagan’s skin. Meacham believes that Bush’s most significant accomplishment as president came after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Bush put together a coalition of 35 different nations, including Arab countries, to drive Saddam out, which was done quickly and successfully. Meacham holds that only Bush could have done this, and in succeeding “he had done what he was meant to do.” After this success, however, Bush faced the election of 1992, which pitted him against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Bush lost to Clinton and accepted the defeat gracefully in the public eye, but his diary reveals that he was privately devastated.
In talking about the writing of the book, Meacham expresses his belief that he has painted a “true portrait” of Bush, although he allows that “you don’t get to be president without being charming.” But Meacham was not so charmed as to not hold Bush accountable for various missteps, such as his failure to explain in a timely fashion the Iran-Contra affair and why he broke his “no new taxes” pledge.
The talk winds down amid laughter and applause, and Meacham makes his way to the book signing, where a line is forming. There is a dignity, but also a comfortableness to it all. Maybe Meacham is correct in describing Bush as “Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne.” In any event, those who attended the talk leave with the impression that our 41st President was a complicated, interesting, charming, and honorable man.
Photo at top: George H.W. Bush biographer Jon Meacham (ΦBK, The University of the South, 1991).
Lindsey Liles is a senior English and Biology major at Sewanee: The University of the South. Sewanee is home to the Beta of Tennessee Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.