And so we have yet another political memoir (or mem-wow, as a former colleague called the genre) by an elder statesman who tells it like it is, but didn't have the guts to murmur a peep when that might have mattered.
"After years of holding back," as The New York Times puts it, former President George H.W. Bush has finally broken his silence about the key architects of the undermining of his neophyte son's presidency, which did such irreparable damage to America and its standing in the world.
The elder Bush acknowledges in Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush that he never spoke up privately, let alone publicly, nor uttered a discouraging word to his son, George W. Bush, that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "served the president badly," as he tells author Jon Meacham. He uses the term "iron-ass" to describe both men, who he says repeatedly undercut the president in the service of their own agendas.
Let's assume for a moment that Bush père had spoken up. Or that the many Republicans who accurately viewed Sarah Palin as a kook and cipher spoke up when John McCain selected her as his 2008 running mate, or at least after McCain's humiliating defeat. Would the course of history have been altered?
Would the Republican Party have pulled back from its mad march into the suicidal right-wing nuttiness personified by Palin?
And most relevant in a contemporary context, would the legacy of Bush frère not be so toxic and the dynasty that Poppy Bush built and nurtured not be coming to what appears to be an ignominious end with Jeb Bush's flailing bid to become the standard bearer of a Republican Party that no longer welcomes moderation because people like his father, who could have made a difference by speaking up, did not?
The first George Bush, now 91 and weakened from Parkinson’s disease, has seen his reputation again rise as George W's has remained in the pits and Jeb's long goodbye of a campaign whimpers into irrelevance.
Yet the admiring new biography by Meacham, to be published next week, does not address What Ifs despite the elder Bush's assessments of Cheney as an empire builder and Rumsfeld as so arrogant that he refused to sanction the views of others. These "others" were the lonely voices who risked being labeled unpatriotic by counseling against the folly of invading Iraq and using torture in violation of U.S. and international law. Let alone expressing reservations about a gravity-defying economic policy that pampered Wall Street and the rich and plunged the U.S. into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The elder Bush's criticisms of his son are muted.
He soft pedals the 2002 State of the Union address, when young George described an "axis of evil” that included Iraq, Iran and North Korea, telling Meacham that "You go back to the 'axis of evil' and these things and I think that might be historically proved to be not benefiting anything. . . . I do worry about some of the rhetoric that was out there -- some of it his, maybe, and some of it the people around him. Hot rhetoric is pretty easy to get headlines, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the diplomatic problem."
There is a wistful undercurrent to Destiny and Power, according to people privy to pre-publication copies.
"I feel like an asterisk," Bush told Meacham during an interview session at the family's retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine. "I am lost between the glory of Reagan -- monuments everywhere, trumpets, the great hero -- and the trials and tribulations of my sons."
"What," he asked on another occasion, "if they just find an empty deck of cards?"
THE TABOO IS SHATTERED
Any mention by the Republican presidential candidates of the stain the George W. Bush presidency left on American and the GOP had been off limits until Donald Trump noted late last month that Bush happened to be president at the time of 9/11, implying that he ignored warnings of the attacks. Which he did.
This prompted an angry rejoinder from Jeb Bush, who sought to shift blame to Bill Clinton, who was not president at the time, and his assertion that "my brother kept us safe." Jeb Bush's success in a crowded Republican field was going to be determined, to a great extent, by not allowing his brother's legacy to define him, but that is exactly what happened during the several days of verbal fisticuffs that followed.
But with the news of the explosive contents of Destiny and Power, the taboo has been shattered, and with it the frail public unity of the Bush clan.
George W. himself joined Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in pushing back against George H.W., and it should be noted that there as long been a lack of cordiality between the elder Bush and Cheney, who was his secretary of defense. (Bush also seems to imply in Destiny and Power that Cheney's wife and daughter are to blame for his metamorphosis from not a particularly nice guy to a really not nice guy, a questionable variation on the old His Wife Made Him Do It theme.)
"I am proud to have served with Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld," George W. declared. "Dick Cheney did a superb job as vice president and I was fortunate to have him by my side throughout my presidency. Don Rumsfeld ably led the Pentagon and was an effective secretary of defense."
Meacham told CNN this morning that George W. was surprised by his father's criticism.
"He said, Dad never said any of this to me either during the presidency or after," Meacham said. "He said he would never have said, 'Hey, you've got to rein in Cheney, he's ruining the administration', and anyway, I disagree with him. These are my policies."
The Bush clan is "fearless about history," Meacham replied when asked why they would choose to publish the biography while both are still living. The elder Bush was also apparently dismissive of the narrative that his younger son, Jeb, was meant to run for the presidency and follow in his father's footsteps, not George.
"George H.W. Bush said, 'Oh, all that talk of Jeb was the one, that’s bullshit,' " Meacham recounted.
Out on the stump, Jeb loves to tell the story that he's "a guy who met his first president on the day he was born, and his second on the day he was brought home from the hospital." But maybe not so much anymore. Jeb, of course, is uncomfortably caught in the middle as he is buffeted by historic forces beyond his control and is again compelled to talk about his brother -- while trying to not talk about his brother's unnecessary wars and catastrophic economic policies, let alone that their father portrays his brother as something of a hapless pawn -- as his campaign to make history by becoming the third Bush president circles the toilet bowl.
"My brother is a big boy," Jeb said. "His administration was shaped by his thinking, his reaction to the attack on 9/11. I think my dad, like a lot of people that love George, want to try to create a different narrative, perhaps, just because that’s natural to do. . . . We have to get beyond, I think, this feeling that somehow 1991 is the same as 2001."
That is a valid point, but it brings us back to the importance of truth telling in public life. It is, of course, commendable and sometimes imperative, but not when the truth telling comes much too late to conceivably make a difference, let alone alter the course of history.
George H.W. Bush is a war hero, something George W. would never aspire to be. The elder Bush may be forgiven his fawning treatment of a son of whom he cannot speak ill except indirectly by blaming his monomaniacal advisers. While Destiny and Power is being described as a breath of fresh air and the elder Bush may have mellowed with time, he was and remains a coward.
Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968. Click HERE for an index of previous Politix Updates.IMAGE FROM DONKEYHOTEY/FLICKR. USED WITH PERMISSION.