George H.W. Bush on the Tea Party, the Clinton Marriage and Dukakis

New book offers more candid thoughts from the 41st president.

Former President Bill Clinton, former President George H.W. Bush, and his wife, Barbara Bush, stand for the National Anthem at the Kennedy Center in Washington, March 21, 2011.
Nov. 5, 2015, 7 p.m.

Oth­er ob­ser­va­tions about pres­id­ents, polit­ics, politi­cians, and him­self from George H.W. Bush in Jon Meacham’s new bio­graphy:

—Bey­ond cri­ti­ciz­ing his son for let­ting Vice Pres­id­ent Dick Cheney ac­cu­mu­late too much power, Bush con­cluded the 43 ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pub­lic tone was harsh­er than it should have been. “I do worry about some of the rhet­or­ic that was out there,” Bush re­called in an in­ter­view, “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.” He ex­pressed re­ser­va­tions about his son’s cit­ing Ir­an, Ir­aq, and North Korea as an “ax­is of evil,” sug­gest­ing it was coun­ter­pro­duct­ive; such mus­cu­lar rhet­or­ic “might be his­tor­ic­ally proved to be not be­ne­fit­ing any­thing.”

—Bush is widely ad­mired as an un­com­monly nice and de­cent guy, but in a rare mo­ment of snark, 41 de­scribed his Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger Mi­chael Duka­kis in the spring of 1988 as look­ing like “a little mid­get nerd” com­ing out of a coal mine some­where.

—Re­call­ing the 1980 New Hamp­shire mo­ment when he looked weak and in­de­cis­ive in a battle over the mi­cro­phone with Ron­ald Re­agan at the Nashua primary de­bate, Bush told his di­ary: “I looked like a fool. Not my finest hour, to say the least.”

—Tea-party con­ser­vat­ives and re­li­gious ex­trem­ists aren’t high on 41’s list. After an angry 1988 con­front­a­tion with a Ten­ness­ee Re­pub­lic­an zealot who re­fused to shake his hand, Bush dic­tated: “There’s something ter­rible about those who carry (polit­ic­al views) to ex­tremes. They’re there for spooky, ex­traordin­ary right-winged reas­ons. They don’t care about party. They don’t care about any­thing. They’re the ex­cesses. They could be Nazis, they could be com­mun­ists, they could be whatever. In this case, they’re re­li­gious fan­at­ics, and they’re spooky. They will des­troy this party if they’re per­mit­ted.”

—Former House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich is praised for his in­tel­lect and ideas. But after Gin­grich reneged on his pledge to sup­port the 1990 budget deal that raised taxes, Bush fumed to his di­ary: “He has no plan of his own. He just cri­ti­cizes. … It just makes me furi­ous.”

—The Bushes are am­bi­val­ent about Bill Clin­ton—im­pressed by his polit­ic­al skills but troubled by his phil­ander­ing and dis­respect for the pres­id­ency. After a 1999 trip to France, Bush noted that Pres­id­ent Jacques Chir­ac thought Amer­ic­ans had “lost it” over Clin­ton’s dal­li­ance with Mon­ica Lew­in­sky. “Oddly,” he wrote, “no one I talked to in France fo­cused in on ‘lack of re­spect for the of­fice’ [to] say noth­ing of ly­ing un­der oath or ob­struc­tion of justice. … [But] I like the man. … You can­not get mad at the guy.”

Bar­bara Bush con­curred: “What ab­so­lute nerve,” she told her di­ary after at­tend­ing a White House event where Clin­ton quoted John Adams about how only hon­est men should serve as pres­id­ent. “He was im­peached be­cause he lied to the Amer­ic­an pub­lic and the spe­cial pro­sec­utor. I have come to the con­clu­sion that he really does not know right from wrong.”

As for the Clin­ton mar­riage, Bar­bara Bush wrote: “The re­la­tion­ship between Frank­lin and Elean­or (Roosevelt) sounds rather like the re­la­tion­ship between Bill and Hil­lary. Re­spect for each oth­er, but sep­ar­ate lives. Who knows.”

—Bush seemed genu­inely wor­ried he might be im­peached if he launched the 1991 Ir­aq War without con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al and it went badly. He men­tions the I-word five times in his di­ary in the month lead­ing up to the in­va­sion. “If it drags out and there are high cas­u­al­ties,” he brooded in Novem­ber 1990, “I will be his­tory; but no prob­lem—some­times in life, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

—After the 1991 Gulf War, there were ru­mors Bush was dread­ing the up­com­ing reelec­tion cam­paign. In fact, his di­ar­ies sug­gest he ser­i­ously mused about re­tire­ment. “As this di­ary knows, I’m quietly think­ing about not run­ning,” he wrote in early 1991.

“I’ll prob­ably get over it, but I want out; I want to go back to the real world. … I want to walk in­to the drug­store in Ken­neb­unk­port, build a house in Hou­s­ton, or teach at the lib­rary at (Texas) A&M, with less pres­sure. … You need someone in this job who has some more en­ergy, and I’ve had it up un­til now, but now I don’t seem to have the drive.”

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