WASHINGTON — Former President George H.W. Bush’s unusually sharp indictment of his son’s presidential advisers touched off a round of recriminations Thursday that exposed rifts within America’s leading political dynasty and complicated its efforts to recapture the White House.
Bush’s assertion in a new biography that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld undercut George W. Bush’s presidency rattled the extended Bush political world and forced the second Bush son now seeking the presidency, Jeb, to straddle an awkward line between family and politics.
At 91 and in the twilight of a long and storied public life, the George H.W. Bush evidently felt free to express views he had long suppressed in the interest of family harmony. Cheney, he said, was “very hard-line” and too eager to “use force to get our way”; Rumsfeld was an “arrogant fellow” full of “swagger.” He used the same phrase, “iron-ass,” to describe both men.
The comments, included in Jon Meacham’s “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” to be published by Random House next week, drew a biting retort from Rumsfeld on Thursday. “Bush 41 is getting up in years and misjudges Bush 43, who I found made his own decisions,” Rumsfeld said in a statement.
The father’s comments also prompted the son to come to his advisers’ defense.
“I am proud to have served with Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld,” said George W. Bush. “Dick Cheney did a superb job as vice president and I was fortunate to have him by my side throughout my presidency. Don Rumsfeld ably led the Pentagon and was an effective secretary of defense.”
No one was put in a more uncomfortable position than Jeb Bush, who has labored to define his own identity separate from that of his famous father and brother while mounting his own campaign for the White House this year. Once again he was compelled Thursday to talk about his family rather than his plans for the country. On the campaign trail, he suggested his father was trying to find a way to take the heat off George W. Bush by faulting advisers for troubles in his administration.
“My brother is a big boy,” Jeb Bush told NBC News. “His administration was shaped by his thinking, his reaction to the attack on 9/11. I think my dad, like a lot of people that love George, want to try to create a different narrative, perhaps, just because that’s natural to do.”
Jeb Bush said Cheney “served my brother well as vice president and he served my dad extraordinarily well as secretary of defense.”
He added: “We have to get beyond, I think, this feeling that somehow 1991 is the same as 2001.”
The seemingly divergent messages from Bush family members represented the latest chapter in a long-running and at times operatic drama. For years, the relationship between the two Bush presidents has captivated the nation, generating endless speculation, articles, books, television reports and a big-screen movie — “W.” — that starred Josh Brolin and was directed by Oliver Stone.
Caught in the middle now is the next son, who is trying to accomplish what no family has done in U.S. history with a third Bush administration.
Those who have worked for either of the two presidents strongly testify to their deep love and scoff at what they call overwrought Oedipal theories of rivalry and resentment. Last year, George W. Bush published his own biography of his father, venerating him in loving terms. The elder George Bush has often bristled at criticism of his son. Both men hate being “put on the couch,” to use a phrase each one employs.
Yet few who know them well would assert that they see the world exactly the same way. The younger, brasher and more conservative George W. Bush has made clear that he shaped some of his policies in the White House based on the lessons of what he saw as his father’s mistakes. Friends of the older, more genteel and moderate George Bush have often said he was deeply uncomfortable with the more hawkish elements of his son’s administration.
In the new book, George Bush expresses his love and support for his son and sticks by his decisions to go to war in Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power. But he gently chides his son for “hot rhetoric” like his “axis of evil” speech and says the real responsibility for the way Cheney and Rumsfeld operated belonged to the president.
“The buck stops there,” he said.
What was so surprising about the comments was not their sentiment but rather that the older Bush would express them in public. When Meacham went back to show him a transcript of his remarks and ask if he wanted to clarify, the ex-president took none of it back.
“That’s what I said,” he told Meacham.
The remarks reflect a long history with Cheney and Rumsfeld. The elder Bush and Rumsfeld were rivals going back to the 1970s, and although Cheney served as his defense secretary, Bush told Meacham that Cheney had changed as vice president.
Speaking with Fox News on Thursday, Cheney took the comments in stride, saying he viewed “iron-ass” as a compliment.
“I took it as a mark of pride,” he said. Given the devastating losses on Sept. 11, 2001, he said, many would agree that “I was aggressive in defending, in carrying out what I thought were the right policies.”
Having never written a true memoir of his own, the elder Bush effectively decided to use Meacham’s book as a last chance to make his case for history.
Bush opened up to Meacham in a series of interviews from 2006 to 2015 in which he spoke more candidly than many politicians would. He described his youth, when he “lusted” after pretty girls, including a couple who “had nice racks.” He also mused about his friend Bill Clinton’s marriage.
“I don’t feel close to Hillary at all,” Bush said, “but I do to Bill and I can’t read their relationship even today.”
Like so many former presidents, he measured himself against the 42 other men who have held his office. “I feel like an asterisk,” he told Meacham wistfully one day at the family’s cliffside house in Kennebunkport, Maine.
“I am lost between the glory of Reagan — monuments everywhere, trumpets, the great hero — and the trials and tribulations of my sons,” Bush reflected on another day in Houston, where he also has a home.
On still another occasion, he fretted about the judgment of historians.
“What if they just find an empty deck of cards?” he asked.
Diaries that Bush gave to Meacham opened a contemporaneous window into his time in office. Even in private, Bush seemed determined through the first war with Iraq in 1991 but afterward fell into an emotional despondency, a “letdown,” once he was no longer at the center of a profound mission. He considered not running for a second term.
“I’m not in a good frame of mind now,” he dictated into his diary shortly after U.S. troops vanquished Iraqi forces and expelled them from Kuwait. “My whole point is, I really don’t care and that’s bad — that’s bad. But I’ll get in there and try.”
For a president who lost re-election in 1992 after being perceived as out of touch, Bush sensed his political doom even when he was at the peak of his postwar popularity.
“The common wisdom today is that I’ll win in a runaway, but I don’t believe that,” he dictated in March 1991 as he returned on Air Force One from a rally with troops. “I think it’s going to be the economy” that “will make that determination. I think I can talk proudly about what happened in Desert Storm, but I think it will be overshadowed in the fall of ’92 by other issues.”
On that, at least, he proved prescient.