- - Tuesday, January 5, 2016



By Jon Meacham

Random House, $35, 836 pages

At a time when an aloof, unengaged president seems to spend most of his time on vacation, on the putting course — or puttering around the Oval Office — it is pleasant to be reminded of a chief executive who was energetic, conscientious and unashamedly patriotic without being a chauvinist or a demagogue. George Bush the Elder was probably the last in an honorable but played-out American political tradition, the patrician president. He may have had a head start in life, but he ran the rest of the race on his own merit, building one of the most impressive public careers in the latter half of the 20th century.

In “Destiny and Power” author Jon Meacham, a gentlemanly biographer of a gentlemanly statesman, encapsulates this: “His was one of the great American lives — strong parents, a sparkling education, heroic service in World War II, success in Texas oil, congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, director of Central Intelligence, vice president of the United States, forty-first president, and the only president since John Adams to see his son also win the ultimate prize in American politics.”

Mr. Bush, he adds, had a “capacity to charm — with a handwritten note, a phone call, a quick email, a wink, a thumbs up … .” I can attest to this personally. In 1992, I helped draft the speeches of several key players at the Republican Nominating Convention, among them former President Bush and retired Gen. Colin Powell. After the speeches were delivered I received one of those handwritten Bush notes. After briefly thanking me for helping with his own speech, Mr. Bush spent most of it congratulating me for my work with Colin Powell, whose address had been one of the highlights of the convention. Certainly not the act of a typically self-centered politician.

There is, unfortunately, a fly in the ointment. Mr. Bush’s gentlemanly charm, his ability to appeal to and bring out the best in people — was largely based on personal contact. And no modern president has time to send a handwritten note or a friendly wink or pat on the shoulder to every voter in the land. Instead, he must publicly project his personal warmth through the camera. My old boss, Ronald Reagan, was a master of this. His television smile, his on camera quips and moving, sentimental moments were an accurate projection of what the man was like in person. Unlike Mr. Reagan, to use a vinous analogy, Mr. Bush didn’t travel as well, and didn’t seem to appreciate how important it was for the voters to see him as he really was.

One of the first changes in the White House staff after Mr. Bush succeeded Mr. Reagan was the downgrading of the speechwriting department housed in the Old Executive Office Building. I became aware of this on a visit when I discovered that my rather lavish old office suite directly facing the West Wing had been replaced by more modest quarters on the outer perimeter of the building. It was as if Mr. Bush and his senior staff thought that the “business” of governing was much more important than communicating it to the public. Occasionally, when they realized that they needed to spend a little time on external PR, they proved to have tin ears, falling for the kind of shallow, splashy sound bites that would come back to bite the president himself later. The ultimate example was “Read my lips, no new taxes,” an unnecessary bit of rhetorical hubris made at a time when Mr. Bush was already riding high, but which would prove a nail in the coffin of his re-election campaign after he backed off on his pledge.

Politics aside, the Bush years marked major achievements around the world with American power wielded with wise restraint but great effect. From a governance perspective, the first Bush presidency was a great success. But in 1992, tired, politically tone-deaf and facing Bill Clinton — the sharpest, slickest politician ever to become a bad president — the last of the gentleman presidents never stood a chance.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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