“Privilege” these days mostly appears in political discourse as an epithet. In the life of George H.W. Bush, it shaped a creed.
Growing up, “pretty much every day we’d have a Bible verse, usually at breakfast,” the 41st president told his biographer, Jon Meacham. Often it was this, from Corinthians: “It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
Much of the story Meacham tells in “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush” centers on Bush’s effort to live up to that scriptural injunction.
The narrative can be summed up thus: A man who was born to privilege in America and taught that his good fortune entailed a right to rule and an obligation to serve, pursued politics with singular ambition. He won the nation’s highest office. But by the time he did, the ruling class among whom he had been raised had started to crumble. He appeared to many, including himself, as a man out of his time. Despite foreign policy triumphs and domestic successes, much of his party turned against him, and amid a sour economy, the country rejected him after a single term.
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“I feel like an asterisk,” Bush remarked to Meacham, reflecting on his place in history. “I am lost between the glory of Ronald Reagan – monuments everywhere, trumpets, the great hero – and the trials and tribulations of my sons,” particularly his eldest, former President George W. Bush.
That’s an assessment Meacham clearly does not share. With graceful prose, backed by diligent mining of the archives and access to an oral diary that Bush dictated throughout his presidency, Meacham, a former Newsweek editor who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, has set out to restore his subject to a more exalted position.
The book centers on the journey that brought Bush to the presidency and the social milieu that produced him. It not only illuminates the key moments of Bush’s presidency, but also puts a spotlight on a WASP upper class that dominated large parts of American life for decades, but has now largely vanished.
“Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush”
By Jon Meacham
Random House, 864 pages