In 1999, just as his son George W. Bush was launching a bid for the presidency, former president George H.W. Bush was launching a bestselling book, “All the Best: My Life in Letters and Other Writings,” which reintroduced Americans to the 41st president and his family. Now, with son Jeb weighing a bid for the presidency in 2016, the senior Bush has released an updated version of “All the Best,” complete with new letters, new photos and new insights into one of America’s most prominent political families.
One could dismiss this volume as an unnecessary investment for all but the most ardent followers of the Bush dynasty. It contains only about 70 new pages of letters — some of them short and laced with anachronistic, even corny humor. One could also dismiss this edition as self-serving penmanship: Did the former president know that he planned to publish some of these letters at the time he wrote them to people like Time magazine writer and presidential historian Hugh Sidey? At least in some instances, the answer appears to be yes.
Yet whenever a former president draws back the curtain on his inner thoughts and post-presidential life, this written record is worth its weight in gold. The new edition of “All the Best” gives readers an opportunity to reacquaint themselves with Bush 41 and to celebrate his myriad contributions now that he’s been out of office for two decades and is approaching age 90.
In one new entry, we see Bush Sr.’s early impressions of the man who ousted him from the White House. Bush has just flown aboard Air Force One with President Bill Clinton — in the midst of a Senate impeachment trial — to attend the funeral of King Hussein of Jordan in February 1999. The letter shows Bush warming to his successor, yet he laments that “the office of the President has been disgraced,” referring to Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.
On the eve of the controversial 2000 election, as his son George W. is battling for the presidency, we see the father writing a reassuring e-mail to his son Jeb, then governor of Florida: “I don’t know what will happen in Florida tomorrow. But I do know no one could have done more than you to help George carry that state. . . . I hope God will bless us with victory in Florida and across the land; but whatever happens our family will be strong and solid and your brother George and your Dad will say Jeb gave it his all and we love the guy.”
After the election, Bush 41 seems content to stay on the sidelines. Except when his son is being unfairly treated.
In a speech delivered in Houston in November 2002, the elder Bush defends George W.’s threatened military action against Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein. He invokes the imminent danger of WMDs, a position that came to haunt his son’s administration: “I came to assure you that our President does not want war, does not want a conflict where innocent people lose their lives. What he wants is to make Iraq’s brutal dictator give up his ruthless quest for weapons of mass destruction.”
In the heat of battle against presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004, Bush 41 expresses deep dismay that Democrats are calling his son “liar” and that “hatred filled the airwaves and oozed into the print media, too.” He writes to Sidey, “The whole atmosphere is horrible and for this loving Dad it is impossible.” Later that day, however, he proclaims that Kerry is “toast” and allows himself a moment of political self-indulgence. “Victory,” he writes, after it is clear that his son has won a second term. “How sweet it is.”
Politics is the art of mending fences, and Bush Sr. seems pleased to do so with his former adversary Clinton. He writes to Clinton in 2006, following their work in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: “This note is to simply let you know that I so appreciated your words about our relationship, about our friendship. It was from your heart — I hope you know I feel the same way.”
There’s also a touching letter after the two men have visited Southeast Asia, following the devastating tsunami in 2004. Bush writes, “I thought I knew [Clinton]; but until this trip I did not really know him.” He admits that Clinton is “very considerate” and “bigger than life.” Yet Bush jokes that his successor operates on “Clinton Standard time” — always late — and can’t resist being the center of attention. Bush adds affectionately: “In grade school they had a place on our report cards ‘Claims no more than his fair share of time and attention in the class room’. Bill would have gotten a bad mark there.”
As this famous public figure grows older and records his reflections at his own pace, the reader can peer into an era in American life that’s sadly disappearing with the Greatest Generation. The elder Bush:
●Types an e-mail to his granddaughter Barbara from the White House in 2003, enjoying the use of technology to share a fun moment with her: “There is a black cat on my bed rubbing against my arm pit. What should I do? Now the cat is on the table. Help!”
●Writes aboard Air Force One while returning from the funeral of Pope John Paul II, overcome by memories of his trips abroad as president. Bush 41 admits that he was particularly struck by the pope’s casket: “It was plain wood, no plush handles or rails to hold. It was plain brown wood, just like I hope to have for my own casket.”
In one of the book’s most recent letters, from 2010, the ever-patriotic Bush defends his public rebuke of Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, a fellow Republican, after Wilson called President Obama a “liar” during the State of the Union address. This outburst, Bush chided, lacked “civility and decorum,” regardless of the political differences Wilson might have with Obama.
Now one of the longest-living presidents in U.S. history, Bush 41 — who turns 89 this month — comes across as one who no longer frets about securing his place in history.
In 2009, after his wife, “Bar,” has undergone open-heart surgery, the elderly father writes an e-mail to his five children and reports that their mother is doing well. “They did put in the pig valve instead of the metal one,” he writes playfully, “so she may be oinking around for a while when she gets home.”
In a touching reflection about the importance of his family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, built by his grandfather more than a century ago, Bush writes with eloquence: “My beloved Barbara and I go to sleep in our bedroom literally a stone’s throw from the sea. We can hear the pounding of the ocean waves when the ocean is angry and strong; and we can hear the gentle murmurs of that same sea when all is calm. I can feel all this in the fiber of my soul.”
In the end, the new edition of “All the Best” is a valuable update of the life of an honorable American leader. It captures the reflections of a man who has scaled the highest mountain of political success — then moved beyond ambition and discovered peace and fulfillment in simpler things in life: his friends, his family and a genuine love of the country he once led.
ALL THE BEST, GEORGE BUSH
My Life in Letters and Other Writings
By George H.W. Bush
Scribner. 717 pp. $35