Inside the presidency of George H.W. Bush

Former US President George Bush
Former US President George Bush sits in the front row of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.
Timothy A. Clary | AFP/Getty Images 2000

In a tense last meeting of President Richard Nixon's cabinet, George H.W. Bush, who was then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, told Nixon that it was time for him to go.

"That took a lot of fiber to tell a president of the United States — to his face — that resignation was the right course for the country and for the party," Jon Meacham said.

'Destiny and Power' by Jon Meacham
'Destiny and Power' by Jon Meacham
Courtesy of publisher

Meacham's new biography of Bush, "Destiny and Power," explores many such moments in the life of the man who become the 41st president. The book has been lauded as one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Meacham joined MPR News host Bob Collins to discuss the biography, and his research process. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author had unprecedented access to Bush himself, as well as his family and the diaries he kept in office.

Bush "cared about history" in keeping the diaries, Meacham said. The president would dictate them several times a week, from the Oval Office to Camp David to Air Force One. Meacham was also given access to the diaries of Barbara Bush, who had kept a written record of her life since 1948.

Bush "didn't like looking back," Meacham said. "He was a man who was always about the next thing. He led a hectic, almost frenetic life, from the time he was 18 years old."

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On the day he turned 18, he graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Navy. He was shot down during World War II, returned from the Pacific to marry Barbara Pierce, and enrolled at Yale. From there, he built a career in oil in West Texas, becoming a millionaire by his early 40s.

Then, he turned his eye to politics. It was not a surprise for his family, Meacham noted.

"His father introduced him to the French ambassador in Washington in the 1950s, saying 'This is my son George. He's going to be president of United States some day.'"

Meacham explores both the life and legacy of Bush in his book — a legacy that became intertwined with comedian Dana Carvey's impression of him on Saturday Night Live.

Carvey famously described his Bush impression as a mix of Mr. Rogers and John Wayne. But Bush embraced the joke: He even invited Carvey and his wife to spend the night at the White House.

"When I was fact checking the book this summer, in the course of an hour one day, I spoke to Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, and Dana Carvey — who did most of the interview in character," Meacham said.

In writing the biography, Meacham found Bush to be a "much more serious figure, a much substantive figure" than popular culture considers him.

"This is the last American president who truly tried to create an atmosphere of consensus and compromise to do big things," Meacham said. "There's a lot to learn, I think, from his presidency, about how to get some big things done if you're willing to risk being a one-termer."

To hear the full interview with Jon Meacham about his biography of George H.W. Bush, use the audio player above.