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The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush: a book review

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham (Credit: Random House Publishing)George H.W. Bush grew up in a house on Grove Lane in Greenwich, Connecticut. The front yard, littered with grand trees to the average spectator, took on the appearance of obstacles to the Bush children. Dorothy Bush expected her children to fearlessly climb, to compete with each other and seek to outdo one another in excellence in the pursuit of success. In this instance, success was expected and took the form of overcoming both fear and trees. And overcome they did.

In Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, author Jon Meacham is as gracious as his subject—affectionately known as 41. Delving into the life and events and personalities that encompass the Bush world, Meacham chronicles the former president in a way characteristic of Bush himself. He spent nine years conducting interviews, exploring with full access the diaries of George H.W. and Barbara Bush, and interviewing both family members and friends. The result is a book that serves the reader a fully-orbed, introspective look at a person that shunned such introspection throughout his life.  However, just as Meacham served the leader, Bush sought to serve the country in any capacity he could.

There are three defining characteristics of the Bush legacy that Meacham draws upon throughout the book: privilege, service, and practicality. Bush was the grandson of men who made fortunes in steel and finance. His father, before he became the U.S. senator from Connecticut, was a prominent Wall Street banker. With such a lineage, Bush was educated at Greenwich Country Day School, Andover, and Yale. His peers: the WASP (white, Anglo Saxon protestant) elites. However, this privilege was undergirded with a strong expectation of service.

For the Bush family, privilege was value neutral, neither good nor bad. It was less a social issue and more a stewardship issue. The Bush family understood that "privilege entailed service." Meacham writes how the family would often read a verse from the Bible. One of their fondest was 1 Corinthians 4:2. "It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful."

And faithful 41 was. Bush served his country in a variety of roles. After Pearl Harbor, Bush enlisted in the U.S. Navy and rose to become an aviator. He served as congressman, envoy to China, ambassador to the United Nations, chair of the Republican National Committee, director of the CIA, Vice President, and President.

Winning and losing elections along the way, Bush was not immune to setbacks. However, his refusal to give up when it was hard, to complain when events appeared unfair, and to brag during the good periods is what set him apart from others and distinguished the Bush family. Bush learned to abhor bragging, shunning what his mother called "the great I am." Meacham observes that Bush "was driven less by ideas about politics than by an ideal of service and an ambition—a consuming one—to win."

But winning came at a cost. Coming of age during a precarious time in the nation, Bush was not a galvanizing figure that sought to appeal to the extremes. Meacham noted that "the old politics of the possible was being replaced by the politics of purity." The future president was not Joseph McCarthy, nor was he Ronald Reagan. He was a man who had a "tendency to find a middle course between the extremes."

Bush remarked that politics was not a "pure undertaking" but rather a "practical one." And in this practical world, the irony of ironies was readily apparent to Bush and identified astutely by Meacham: "He accepted a fundamental irony of history: One plays by the conventions of politics in order to be in power when the hour calls for unconventional decisions."

Perhaps it is ironic that 41 grew up seeking to fearlessly climb trees in his front yard. Trees, after all, bear fruit that they do not enjoy and in doing so bless others besides themselves. Maybe Bush is the personification of very tree he had to climb. He had to get over himself in order to bless those around him. If history is any indication, it appears as though he never stopped climbing.

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