A former president is rarely publicly critical of another former president — especially by way of a tell-all book. Even more rarely has one president been the father of another. And those categories have never intersected. Until now.
And so begins another round of Bush family drama tied mostly to foreign policy, this time in the pages of an authorized biography of former president George H.W. Bush. While generally supportive of his son’s presidency, he criticizes former president George W. Bush, former vice president Richard B. Cheney and former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for how they responded to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The 41st president suggests that the 43rd president’s 2002 speech describing Iraq, Iran and North Korea as part of an “Axis of Evil” included comments “that might be historically proved to be not benefiting anything.” He calls Cheney’s reaction to the attacks “just iron-ass” and says that Rumsfeld displayed a “lack of humility” and “was an arrogant fellow.”
The Washington Post obtained a copy of “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush” by Jon Meacham. Details of the book were first reported by the New York Times and Fox News Channel, which is preparing a special on the project.
The revelations come at the absolute lowest point of the year for Jeb Bush, who is mounting his own quest for the presidency. A poor showing in a recent Republican debate has plunged him to a new polling low as donors privately fret that campaign money could soon dry up.
A spokesman for George H.W. Bush didn’t immediately return a request for comment. In a statement, George W. Bush said Thursday: “I am proud to have served with Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. 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. I am grateful to both men for their good advice, selfless service to our country, and friendship.”
Aides said late Wednesday night that Jeb Bush “hasn’t read the book,” although he participated in its publication. In a key chapter about his father’s support for the political careers of his sons, the former Florida governor looks to dispel a long-held belief among family friends and close observers that he had been the Bush son first expected to run for president.
“If I were ‘The One,’ no one told me about it,” he told Meacham. “I didn’t get the memo. And the relationship between George and Dad is incredibly close and loving. I’ve always been bemused by people who state as fact that which is highly speculative, or untrue, which happens a lot. I don’t think my mom and dad think that way — ‘He’s the one, more than that one.’ Literally I never had a conversation about that. Ever. I’d say in terms of topics of conversation in the Bush family: Family; sports; and then… well, that’s about it.”
On the campaign trail, Bush has said that “I can’t deny the fact that I love my family, I love everything about them.”
In New Hampshire on Wednesday, he told a room full of kids that his father’s approval weighs heavily on him: “All he had to do was say, ‘I’m disappointed in you,’ and it would send me in a deep, spiraling depression.”
“I love my dad. I’d kill for him,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press” last weekend. “I’d go to prison for him because I love him so much; thankfully, I haven’t had the need to do that.”
The rifts revealed in book raise questions that will be difficult for Bush to ignore. But recent history suggests he is likely to evade questions about his family.
He told reporters in New Hampshire in May that he doesn’t feel compelled “to go out of my way to criticize Republican presidents. Just call me a team player, here. It just so happens the last two Republican presidents happened to be my dad and my brother.”
If he engages his family anew, Bush will be forced to straddle between the competing interests and allegiances to his father, a moderate Republican and champion of internationalism, and his brother, a “compassionate conservative” whose administration was packed with more hawkish neoconservatives, many of whom remain active in GOP politics. Tipping his hand in either direction runs the risk of alienating voters who still align with either man.
The challenge he faces was highlighted in February when he unveiled a 21-member foreign policy advisory team stacked with veterans of both his father’s and his brother’s administrations. He faced weeks of criticism from rival camps about the involvement of James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s close confidant and former secretary of state and Paul D. Wolfowitz, George W. Bush’s former deputy defense secretary. And it happened again in May, when Jeb Bush struggled over several days to say whether he would have declared war on Iraq based on the faulty intelligence presented to his brother.
The Meacham book finds that George H.W. Bush ultimately agreed with George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and remove dictator Saddam Hussein. Jeb Bush agrees too, recently saying in a debate that his brother “kept us safe” after the 9/11 attacks and that he considers the 2007 U.S. military “surge” in Iraq an act of political courage that reversed the course of that war.
In his own book about his father published last year, George W. Bush wrote that he made decisions about foreign policy on his own.
“I never asked Dad what I should do,” Bush wrote in “41: A Portrait of My Father.” “We both knew that this was a decision that only the president can make. We did talk about the issue, however. Over Christmas 2002, at Camp David, I gave Dad an update on our strategy.”
There are other details in the new book that could dog Jeb Bush. Businessman Donald J. Trump, who now leads the GOP presidential field, wanted to be George H.W. Bush’s running mate in 1988. In 1992, Jeb Bush privately urged his father to drop Dan Quayle as his running mate — a revelation that comes a week after the former vice president endorsed Bush’s presidential campaign.
There’s also a more recent admission by George H.W. Bush that he has “mellowed” on the issue of same-sex marriage. He still believes in traditional marriage, but also said he believes that people have a right to be happy without discrimination. Jeb Bush has made similar comments as a candidate.
The forthcoming book may serve as the final family-sanctioned retelling of the life of George H.W. Bush.
The 91-year-old is confined to a wheelchair due to a form of Parkinson’s disease. A fall at his Maine summer home in July forced him to wear a neck brace and undergo physical therapy. He rarely appears in public — most recently at a Houston Astros baseball playoff game and at a retreat for supporters of his son’s presidential campaign, also in Houston.
For years “Poppy” or “Gampy,” as relatives affectionately call him, rebuffed calls to write a memoir, but in 1999 he compiled hundreds of personal letters to family, friends and supporters in an anthology called, “All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings.”
A U.S. Navy pilot during World War II, he wrote a harrowing letter to his parents Sept. 1944 describing how he was shot out of the sky by Japanese forces during a routine bombing mission over the island of Chichi Jima, in the Bonins. He was quickly rescued by U.S. forces, but two fellow crewmen died in the attack.
“I feel so terribly responsible for their fate, Oh so much right now,” he wrote. “Perhaps as the days go by it will all change and I will be able to look upon it in a different light.”
In 1983 as vice president, he wrote a letter to his sons — George, Jeb, Neil and Marvin — after they joined him at the annual Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington.
“I’m not sure what the future holds,” he wrote wistfully. “I don’t worry about that. Win or lose, older or younger, we have our family.”
In the coming days, Jeb Bush may draw strength from a letter his father sent him in 1998. Aware of the criticisms against his own administration, the former president urged his oldest sons — then the governors of Texas and Florida — to ignore “Washington Establishment” chatter and journalists who “will have to write not only on your plans and your dreams but will have to compare those with what, in their view, I failed to accomplish.”
“That can hurt you boys who have been wonderful to me, you two of whom I am so very proud,” he said. “But the advice is don’t worry about it.”
“Read my lips — no more worrying,” he added for emphasis. “Go out there and, as they say in the oil fields, ‘Show ‘em a clean one.'”