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  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  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  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.