For as long as they have been in the public eye, members of the Bush family have been known for fierce loyalty, protective of one another in the face of attacks from the outside. Rarely have they engaged in a public quarrel among themselves – until revelations this week from a forthcoming biography of former president George H.W. Bush.
In the book, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham, the 41st president makes clear his displeasure with two of the leading figures in the administration of his son, former president George W. Bush – and both the 43rd president and his brother, who would like to be the 45th, were forced rather awkwardly to take sides.
The elder Bush, in interviews conducted over a period of several years, offered sharp criticisms of former vice president Richard B. Cheney and former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, saying both ill-served his son after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he did not fully absolve his son for some of what took place. As he put it, “The buck stops there” in the Oval Office.
The 41st president suggested 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 said Cheney had “his iron-ass view of everything” and that Rumsfeld displayed a “lack of humility” and “was an arrogant fellow.”
“The lion in winter still has claws,” said Mark McKinnon, who served as media adviser to George W. Bush.
Details of the book, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” were first reported by the New York Times and Fox News Channel, which is preparing a special on the subject. The Washington Post obtained its own copy of the book, which will be released next week.
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.”
Rumsfeld, whose rivalry with the elder Bush dates back decades, offered a terse response to the book in a statement: “Bush 41 is getting up in years and misjudges Bush 43, who I found made his own decisions. There are hundreds of memos on that represent advice DoD gave the president.”
Appearing Thursday on MSNBC, Jeb Bush was asked whether he agreed with his father’s critiques of Cheney and Rumsfeld.
“My brother’s a big boy,” Jeb Bush said in response. “His administration was shaped by his thinking, his reaction to the attack on 9/11. I think my dad, like a lot of people that love George, wanna try to create a different narrative perhaps … just because that’s natural to do, right? But George would say, ‘This is under my watch, I was commander in chief. I was the leader. And I accept personal responsibility for what happened, both the good and the bad.’ And I think that’s the right way to look at it.”
Bush added that he believes Cheney served “my brother well as vice president, and he served my dad extraordinarily well as secretary of defense.”
The revelations in the book come at the lowest point of the year politically for Jeb Bush’s candidacy. A poor showing in a recent Republican debate has plunged him to a new polling bottom, and some donors privately fret that campaign money could soon dry up.
Jeb Bush’s family name has been a mixed blessing from the start of the campaign – helpful for the goodwill that exists for his father and mother, but harmful because of divisions over his brother’s presidential record and worries about a third presidency for one family in the space of three decades.
The public tensions among the Bushes prompted many of those who served one or the other in the White House to keep their heads down Thursday, hoping to avoid being drawn into a spat in which there were likely to be few winners.
McKinnon offered this explanation for why the elder Bush decided to make his feelings known now: “I think George H.W. Bush is thinking a lot about the legacy of the family and how it will be written and thought about in the future, and he wanted to have his own last word.”
McKinnon said the criticisms of Cheney and Rumsfeld squared with what many Americans already believe and in that way could be liberating for Jeb Bush. “I think there’s such goodwill about George H.W. and Barbara Bush that when they speak people know it’s from their heart, it’s candid and honest, and it only reminds them of the good things about the Bush family,” he said.
Other Republicans suggested the public disagreement would cause Jeb Bush a problem only to the extent that it distracts him from the issues he wants to talk about in his campaign. Still, to the extent that he engages his family anew, Bush will be forced to straddle the competing interests and allegiances to his father, a moderate Republican and champion of internationalism, and his more conservative brother, whose national security team was populated with hawkish neoconservatives. 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 A. Baker III – George H.W. Bush’s close confidant and former secretary of state – and Paul D. Wolfowitz, George W. Bush’s former deputy defense secretary.
It happened again in May, when Jeb Bush struggled over several days to say whether he would have invaded Iraq based on the faulty intelligence presented to his brother. He eventually said that if what is known now was known then, the invasion would have been a mistake.
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” 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 led the GOP presidential field for months and is now close behind retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, wanted to be George H.W. Bush’s running mate in 1988.
In 1992, according to the book, 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. Asked about that by NBC’s Kasie Hunt on Thursday, Bush said he did not recall offering that advice but also said he would not dispute his father’s recollections.
The book also includes a more recent admission by George H.W. Bush that he has “mellowed” on the issue of same-sex marriage. He told Meacham that he still believes in traditional marriage but also said 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 because of 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 he was 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.”
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.”
In closing, he added for emphasis, “Read my lips – no more worrying. Go out there and, as they say in the oil fields, ‘Show ’em a clean one.'”