Jon Meacham on Bush 41: Seeding the Historical Record

CIA Director George H.W. Bush listens at a meeting following the assassinations in Beirut, 1976 © David Hume Kennerly

Random House executive editor Jon Meacham, who moonlights as a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, has earned praise and a fair amount of media attention for revelations in his new book Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. Before it had even been published, the New York Times reported on Bush’s “scathing critiques” in the book of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for their arrogance and hawkish rhetoric during their years in George W. Bush’s White House.

“I think he wanted a full historical record,” Meacham said in an interview this week with Signature. “That’s the reason he gave me the diaries and was as candid as he was about Cheney and Rumsfeld. For all sorts of reasons, he believes in the virtues of history and wanted the record to reflect that he had had those particular reservations. You don’t keep a diary like that if you don’t care about history.”

Earlier this week, we caught up with Meacham by phone between appearances at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Miss., and Square Books in Oxford, Miss., to talk about Destiny and Power.

Signature: You have written about Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and now George Bush. Have you just gone where curiosity takes you, or are you taking more of a bingo card approach?

Jon Meacham: There’s no rhyme nor reason to it. The Bush project came up because I had gotten to know him journalistically and ultimately was able to have access to documents and diaries that made the story more nuanced and layered. My test for a book is, one, whether there’s an opening in the historical conversation; two, whether there are documents or sources that justify a new look; and, three, does it resonate — does the story tell us something about who we are now and where we’re going. If a topic can check those three boxes, then I’m willing to jump in.

SIG: This is the first book you’ve done that doesn’t have a closed-ended historical record. How different of an experience or approach did you have to writing a book when you can’t read everything, see every page, read every book, talk to every person?

JM: I consider this the beginning or an early contribution to a historical conversation about Bush. My goal with the diaries in particular was to get as much on the record as possible. We’re going to publish the diaries separately as a posthumous project. I basically had to acknowledge the limitations that you described and accept that there were thousands of people who participated in these events who might know something more or might disagree. My goal here was to try to give as human a portrait as possible and recognize that the historical, scholarly work on him is really just beginning.

SIG: What periods of Bush’s life do his diaries cover, and what will your collection of those actually cover?

JM: I want to do a volume of pre-presidential diaries. His China diary has already been published by Jeff Engel, which is a great. There are some notes from the RNC, and there’s the vice presidential diaries, and then there’s his White House diaries.

SIG: So several volumes probably?

JM: I think it probably has to be two volumes, but I’m just now beginning to put all of that together. The documents themselves are so amazing, and it’s a worthwhile project. The only condition on the project was that I couldn’t separately [from Destiny and Power] publish the diaries until he was gone, though I could use anything in them.

SIG: You note in the book that you did multiple interviews with him from 2006 to 2013. How much did you talk to him?

JM: I have about 50,000 or 60,000 words of transcripts. The key thing was that he was always willing. If I called up, he was willing to do an hour or two hours. We also had a lot of informal time, which was important for getting a sense of the man.

SIG: Will your interviews and transcripts go into the oral history collection at his presidential library at some point?

JM: That’s a good question. I don’t know.

SIG: Bush figures into a lot of the bigger events of American history from World War II through the end of the 20th century. Do some of those stories look a lot different from his perspective than the generally accepted narrative?

JM: The most significant thing is how he experienced the first Gulf War. One of the reasons he became as hawkish as he did was that he feared the Saudis would not stand up against Saddam. The diary tells a story that had not been told before about how he got from contemplating intervention to this will not stand.

We tend in the popular mind to put diplomacy in one category and use of force in another, and the two seem separate. One thing that’s very clear from his life is that the two were always complementary and not competitive. He learned diplomacy and the importance of personal relationships at the UN, and he learned to play the long game when he was in China. Because of the series of jobs that he had held, he came to the presidency with layers of experience that enabled him to assess almost any given global situation from a 360-degree angle. Not a lot of presidents have had that kind of capacity.

George HW Bush UN

SIG: I’m not sure who the last president before him would have been that had the degree and balance of military and diplomatic experience that Bush had.

JM: I think he’s unique. I really do. I kept waiting for one of these jobs to be insignificant — something that I could move through quickly — but they were all important. He learned in Congress. He learned a lot at the UN. He learned a lot in China.

SIG: A lot of people have come to frame the Iraq invasion in 2003 and the aftermath as something that Bush 41 had wisely chosen not to do a decade before. Did you see evidence that he had considered a lot of reasons not to go to Baghdad that wound up happening after 2003?

JM: He saw those as different wars with different reasons. The strategic environment in 2003 was different than the strategic environment in 1991. He regretted that Saddam remained in power, but he did not regret the decision not to go into Baghdad.

SIG: Was that something debated in the White House that he made the decision not to do?

JM: No. No one ever said, Hey, let’s go all the way to Baghdad. Dan Quayle told me that. It just wasn’t part of the conversation for someone to come in and say, This is how we can take over Iraq. They were very focused on removing him from Kuwait and keeping the coalition together. They expected that somebody inside Iraq would take Saddam out.

SIG: You said during an interview on PBS NewsHour that Bush had more in common culturally and temperamentally with the Founding Fathers than he did with his successors. Did Bush consider privilege as a limitation on his understanding of working-class issues or middle-class issues?

JM: He would argue that he lived in Texas for forty years and that he served in a demographically diverse Navy. He questioned the idea that when Democrats of means go into public service they’re great but Republicans of means don’t understand the working man. He saw a double standard at work there. He knew that he was fortunate, and he was incredibly grateful that he had the family and the background that he did. He also worked hard to get where he got politically.

SIG: When did you first read Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes about Bush’s 1988 campaign?

JM: I remember devouring that book when it came out in 1992.

SIG: How much of what you think about Bush was formed by that book?

JM: It shaped my thinking about him from that point, which was long before this book. It’s easily the best portrait of him — that and a piece by Walt Harrington for the Washington Post Magazine in 1986 were the two things that I realize now really shaped how I saw him.

SIG: Is the “read my lips” tax pledge over-attributed as a reason Bush lost his reelection effort in 1992?

JM: I think it was a factor. 1992 was a perfect storm. Bush’s victory in 1988 was anomalous in that we don’t usually have twelve years of one-party rule in the White House. You add that to a recession, Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, Bush getting weakened with the right over his “read my lips” pledge, which led to Pat Buchanan coming into the campaign and softening Bush up for Clinton and Perot.

SIG: The design of the book — a very accessible table of contents, short chapters, drop caps, maps, etc. — feels very classic and very current. Can you talk about the design a bit?

JM: In a world where so much is digital, Random House has a particular commitment to making the physical book a beautiful object. A lot of people spent a lot of time making this a handsome book. I think it’s beautiful. The black-and white photos as the beginning of each section are like scenes from a movie.