George H.W. Bush Hits Cheney, Rumsfeld

New book reveals the former president believes his son was poorly served by his top advisers and that there was tension between Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney during Rumsfeld's farewell ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington, December 15, 2006. Former President George H.W. Bush is publicly criticizing key members of his son's administration in a new biography.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Nov. 5, 2015, 6:50 a.m.

Former Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush be­lieves Dick Cheney was al­lowed to amass far too much power in his son’s pres­id­ency and that the former vice pres­id­ent’s  “iron-ass” philo­sophy served George W. Bush poorly.

In a sur­pris­ing cri­tique of the vet­er­an Wash­ing­ton pol who was his sec­ret­ary of De­fense from 1989 to 1993, the eld­er Bush told award-win­ning his­tor­i­an and bio­graph­er Jon Meacham that Cheney en­joyed a dis­pro­por­tion­ate voice in the Bush 43 gov­ern­ment—and faults his own son as an un­in­dicted co-con­spir­at­or in Cheney’s dom­in­ance.

“The big mis­take that was made was let­ting Cheney bring in kind of his own State De­part­ment,” Bush sur­mised. “I think they over­did that. But it’s not Cheney’s fault, it’s the pres­id­ent’s [43] fault”—an ex­tremely rare cri­tique of his son’s eight years as pres­id­ent.

“He had his own em­pire there and marched to his own drum­mer,” Bush said of Cheney. “[But] you can­not do it that way. The pres­id­ent [43] should not have that worry.”

Bush called Cheney “a good man” but said he sensed the ex-veep had be­come a changed per­son after the 9/11 ter­ror at­tacks. ”He just be­came very hard-line and very dif­fer­ent from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with,” Bush re­called in an in­ter­view with Meacham. “Just iron-ass.”

These re­col­lec­tions are among scores of com­pel­ling and some­times gos­sipy be­hind-the-scenes dis­clos­ures in Meacham’s Des­tiny and Power: The Amer­ic­an Odys­sey of George Her­bert Walk­er Bush, be­ing pub­lished next week by Ran­dom House.

In a cinema-ver­ité candor un­usu­al from former pres­id­ents while they’re still alive, the 91-year-old Bush also has oc­ca­sion­al sharp words for former First Lady Nancy Re­agan, ex-Sec­ret­ary of De­fense Don­ald Rums­feld, the news me­dia, his own Vice Pres­id­ent Dan Quayle, Re­pub­lic­an right-wing ex­trem­ists, and long­time nemes­is H. Ross Perot, whom he dis­misses as “a highly wired-up, strange little ego­ma­ni­ac, nur­tured on con­spir­acy the­or­ies … out­rageously ill-suited to be pres­id­ent of the United States.” Perot was so para­noid, Bush said, “I would vote for Bill Clin­ton in a minute be­fore Ross Perot.”

Un­like her hus­band, Nancy Re­agan is de­scribed as treat­ing the Bushes with “re­strained but real hos­til­ity … par­tic­u­larly to Bar­bara.” The Bushes be­lieved, ac­cord­ing to Meacham, that Nancy was “form­al, dis­tant, even cold” to them both and froze them out of many White House so­cial func­tions.

In a note dic­tated to his di­ary in June 1988, Bush ob­served: “Nancy does not like Bar­bara. She feels that Bar­bara has the very things that she, Nancy, doesn’t have, and that she’ll nev­er be in Bar­bara’s class. I knew there was some ten­sion, but get­ting it con­firmed al­beit second-hand was a little troub­ling. Bar has sensed it for a long time. Bar­bara is so gen­er­ous, so kind, so un­selfish, and frankly I think Nancy Re­agan is jeal­ous of her.”

In an in­ter­view two dec­ades later, Bush re­membered, “Nancy and Bar­bara just did not have a pleas­ant per­son­al re­la­tion­ship.”

He’s also can­did with him­self, ac­know­ledging that reneging on his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge at the 1988 Re­pub­lic­an na­tion­al con­ven­tion was the states­man­like thing to do,  but “it did des­troy me” polit­ic­ally.

Draw­ing on dozens of hours of in­ter­views between 2008 and 2010 with Bush 41, Bar­bara Bush, and fam­ily mem­bers as well as un­res­tric­ted ac­cess to thou­sands of pages of his vice-pres­id­en­tial and pres­id­en­tial di­ar­ies, Meacham has provided telling glimpses in­to the 41st pres­id­ent’s in­ner­most thoughts and re­col­lec­tions. Bush’s con­tem­por­an­eous re­flec­tions are par­tic­u­larly use­ful in flesh­ing out his per­son­al­ity and sense of ser­vice and what he was really think­ing at key his­tor­ic­al mo­ments.

Though the Bushes freely co­oper­ated with the au­thor and opened many doors oth­er­wise un­avail­able to journ­al­ists and his­tor­i­ans, Meacham calls his book “an in­de­pend­ent work.” Nobody had the right of re­view or ap­prov­al, he adds.

Clearly, Meacham ad­mires his sub­ject; the tone is re­spect­ful but not rev­er­en­tial. In fact, Meacham cri­ti­cizes the eld­er Bush at sev­er­al points in the nar­rat­ive. He doc­u­ments that des­pite his in­sist­ence he wasn’t “in the loop,” Bush in­deed knew all about the Re­agan ad­min­is­tra­tion’s arms-for-host­ages deal with Ir­an and calls Bush’s truth-shad­ing “un­worthy of his es­sen­tial char­ac­ter.” He also writes that Bush was “an in­con­sist­ent lead­er of pop­u­lar opin­ion and a poor man­ager of his own polit­ic­al cap­it­al.” In the 1984 Re­agan reelec­tion, “Bush’s per­form­ance on the cam­paign trail … was un­even at best, miser­able at worst.”

Bush’s sharp com­ment­ary on the role of Dick Cheney in his son’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, however, is cer­tain to start tongues cluck­ing all along the Wash­ing­ton power cir­cuit. It has been a closely held secret in Bush fam­ily circles for years that the eld­er Bush be­lieves Cheney had giv­en Bush 43 bad ad­vice, par­tic­u­larly with re­spect to the Middle East and Ir­aq—an as­ser­tion Cheney vig­or­ously dis­putes.

Also at fault, Bush be­lieves, was Cheney’s ul­tra-hawk­ish, “hard-char­ging” staff and his wife, Lynne, and daugh­ter Liz, who pushed the con­ser­vat­ive vice pres­id­ent even fur­ther to the right.

“I’ve con­cluded that Lynne Cheney is a lot of the em­in­ence grise here—iron-ass, tough as nails, driv­ing. But I don’t know,” Bush said in an in­ter­view.

Re­gard­less, “Bush 41 be­lieved that Cheney and a ‘hard-char­ging’ staff had fueled a glob­al im­pres­sion of Amer­ic­an in­flex­ib­il­ity—an im­pres­sion that the dip­lo­mat­ic­ally-in­clined eld­er Bush thought had made the 43rd pres­id­ent ap­pear less reas­on­able than he in fact was,” Meacham noted. “As the eld­er Bush saw it, the ‘iron-ass,’ or un­com­prom­ising views of Cheney and Rums­feld had failed to serve his son well.”

When the au­thor showed him a tran­script of 41’s re­marks, Cheney said, “No ques­tion I was much harder-line after 9/11 than I was be­fore.” He po­litely re­jec­ted the no­tion that his wife and daugh­ter bear any re­spons­ib­il­ity for his mus­cu­lar views—and countered that he was what some al­lies and de­tract­ors alike be­lieve was the most power­ful vice pres­id­ent in his­tory be­cause that was ex­actly what George W. Bush de­sired.

“He wanted me to play a sig­ni­fic­ant role, and he was true to his word,” Cheney said of 43. “And I did set up a strong or­gan­iz­a­tion to fo­cus on what it was that he wanted me to fo­cus on, which was all the na­tion­al se­cur­ity stuff.”

A spokes­per­son for Cheney did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment from the former vice pres­id­ent.

Cheney’s long­time ment­or, Don Rums­feld, takes some shots as well. The eld­er Bush and Rums­feld were rivals for dec­ades, view­ing each oth­er with sus­pi­cion; 41 still be­lieves Rums­feld con­spired to bounce him from Ger­ald Ford’s 1976 short list as run­ning mate after Rums­feld and Cheney suc­cess­fully urged Ford to dump Vice Pres­id­ent Nel­son Rock­e­feller.

Bush shed no tears after Rums­feld was sacked by George W. Bush and re­placed at the Pentagon by Robert Gates. “I think he served [43] badly,” 41 said in an in­ter­view. “I don’t like what he did, and I think it hurt the pres­id­ent, hav­ing his iron-ass view of everything. I’ve nev­er been that close to him any­way. There’s a lack of hu­mil­ity, a lack of see­ing what the oth­er guy thinks. He’s more kick-ass and take names, take num­bers. I think he paid a price for that. … Rums­feld was an ar­rog­ant fel­low and self-as­sured, swag­ger.”

Former Vice Pres­id­ent Dan Quayle also takes a few zingers from the man who made him a heart­beat away from the Oval Of­fice. While stoutly de­fend­ing his se­lec­tion of Quayle, Bush com­plained that “I’m thor­oughly an­noyed” when Quayle “has to go out and shore up the right-wing” after Bush’s meet­ing in Malta with So­viet lead­er Mikhail Gorbachev. “Dan makes a mis­take,” Bush wrote.

His be­ne­fact­or mused in the sum­mer of 1991 that while he be­lieved Quayle would be an able run­ning mate in 1992, “I worry though that he might not be quite ready to be pres­id­ent.” He also wor­ried that his veep has “got a lot of right-wing re­flexes” and “he does not pro­ject pres­id­en­tial tim­ber, and right now, he’s be­ing com­pared un­fa­vor­ably to the plastic Al Gore.”

Among oth­er play­ers in the book, Don­ald Trump rates a cameo ap­pear­ance. In early 1988, 41 re­por­ted to his di­ary that Don­ald Trump told Bush polit­ic­al guru Lee At­water that he [Trump] would be in­ter­ested in be­ing 41’s run­ning mate. The then-vice pres­id­ent de­scribed the no­tion as “strange and un­be­liev­able.”

De­Frank, who has covered George H.W. Bush since Novem­ber 1974, was asked by the au­thor to read the manuscript be­fore pub­lic­a­tion.

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