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.”