President George H.W. Bush speaks during a news conference at the White House on Jan. 12, 1991. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi, File)

DESTINY AND POWER: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush

By Jon Meacham

Random House. 836 pp. $35.

Jon Meacham’s biography of George Herbert Walker Bush pulls off a neat trick: It completes the historical rehabilitation of its subject by deepening, rather than upending, common perceptions of the 41st president. Yes, Bush lacked an overarching ideology. He was as overmatched in domestic policy as he was skilled in foreign policy. He benefited from family money and influence. And his place in history will long be overshadowed, Meacham acknowledges, “by the myth of his predecessor and the drama of his sons’ political lives.”

So, if you already knew all that, why bother reading? Because in “Destiny and Power,” Meacham — using copious details, lengthy interviews and access to Bush’s taped diaries, which offer a running Oval Office monologue — also delivers a central insight: None of these supposed flaws kept Bush from meeting the needs of the nation at a critical moment in history; if anything, they helped him do so. “There is greatness in political lives dedicated more to steadiness than to boldness, more to reform than to revolution, more to the management of complexity than to the making of mass movements,” Meacham writes. For this biographer, what made Bush boring, what limited him to one term, is also what made him essential.

Bush always felt destined to greatness, to leadership. His parents imparted the notion of life as an eternal contest, whether in sports, school or politics. Winning was its own reward, not a means to fulfill an agenda. “My motivation’s always been goal — you know, to be captain,” Bush tells Meacham. “Whatever it is. That’s not good in a way, but in a way it is. It’s what motivated me all my life. . . . Whatever you’re in. Be number one.”

(Random House)

Spurred to service by Pearl Harbor, this young man in a hurry considered enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air Force (“you could get through much faster”) before becoming perhaps the youngest aviator in the U.S. Navy, flying bombing missions in the Pacific. Then came marriage to Barbara Pierce. Then Yale, which Bush completed in 21/2 years, earning Phi Beta Kappa and baseball stardom. “Bushes were to win, but not brag; succeed, but not preen,” Meacham explains.

After building a business in the Texas oil world, Bush punched his ticket in the House of Representatives; served briefly as U.N. ambassador, Republican National Committee chairman and U.S. envoy to China; led the CIA for just under a year; ran for the GOP presidential nomination; joined Ronald Reagan’s ticket; and finally captured the White House, where he guided America through the Cold War’s end and stared down a Middle East dictator. (Deep breath.) A remarkable career, but one threatened, and eventually truncated, by the compromises Bush made to achieve power, particularly as his party moved right. Meacham describes Bush’s public life as “an often confusing combination of political calculation and personal honor.”

During a failed run for a U.S. Senate seat in 1964, for example, Bush strayed beyond his instincts, opposing key parts of the Civil Rights Act and Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” to appeal to Texas conservatives. More of a Rockefeller Republican by temperament, he became a Goldwater Republican instead. Meacham describes such opportunism quite generously, saying that Bush “struggled to reconcile the impulses of a good heart with the demands of the politics of 1964.”

Later, as a House member, Bush voted for the Fair Housing Act in 1968, essentially reversing his position on civil rights, and seemed surprised by the racially charged backlash from constituents. “Boy, does the hatred surface,” Bush complained. He’s right to condemn it, but he had willingly created expectations about his views, bringing such hatred upon himself.

[George H.W. Bush’s touching, resentful and proud letter of advice to Jeb and George]

The inability to win over the Republican right wing bedeviled Bush’s career. “The nuts will never be for me,” he told vice-presidential staffers. At best, movement conservatives came to tolerate him. Reagan himself was skeptical — still annoyed by Bush’s “voodoo economics” attacks in 1980 and troubled by his views on abortion — adding him to the ticket only after negotiations with former president Gerald Ford fell apart.

Given the country’s fiscal picture, it was inevitable that Bush’s most famous promise — the “read my lips” vow from the 1988 GOP convention — would be broken. When he agreed to raise taxes in a budget deal with Democrats, Bush suffered the wrath of the right, led by Newt Gingrich and the House GOP. But he seemed to have known all along that he couldn’t keep his word, breezily telling Michael Dukakis shortly after the election that “there’s no way I can raise taxes in the first year.” First year? (“It was clear to me then that ‘Read my lips’ was a temporary promise,” Dukakis recalled.)

“What one said or did to rise to ultimate authority mattered less to Bush than whether one was principled and selfless once in command,” Meacham explains. Such calculations were evident throughout his career, as Bush gamed out what posts would help him scale ever higher. His interest in foreign affairs was in part an effort to build a presidential résumé. He strategized with President Ford about what experiences could help him become secretary of state, another possible springboard to the Oval Office.

Foreign policy, the arena of his greatest triumphs, also got Bush into trouble. Though sympathetic toward Bush, Meacham can’t get past his behavior during the Iran-contra scandal late in Reagan’s second term. “Bush had surely known enough about the initiative with Iran that his initial denial was at best misleading and at worst a lie,” he writes. But even there he finds a way to praise Bush, calling the episode “unworthy of his essential character.”

Another unworthy moment came when Bush chaired the RNC during Watergate. Bush eventually urged President Richard Nixon to resign, though his reasons were overtly political: He told White House chief of staff Alexander Haig that the president should step down early to avoid a bloodbath in the 1974 midterms. Sure, Bush was doing his job as head of the party, but it’s not exactly a profile in courage.

For all his ambition, Bush struggled to articulate why he wanted the presidency. Even in the privacy of his diary, he relies on the most generic rationale: “I know I’ve got the experience. I want to see an educated America. I want to see a literate . . . America. I want to see a drug-free America. I want to see America with opportunity and jobs.” Who can disagree?

“If Bush succeeded in becoming president,” Meacham explains, “he would do so because he had convinced enough voters that he was the kind of man — not only that, but the particular man — who could be trusted to make the big calls. Trust me, Bush was saying. I am what you want and what you need, even if I can’t quite define what I am pithily or precisely.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War was a big call. It was President Bush at his finest, building an international coalition, empowering his generals, ad-libbing his memorable “This will not stand” assertion against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. (“Where’d you get that ‘This will not stand’?” national security adviser Brent Scowcroft asked him. Bush responded: “That’s mine. . . . That’s what I feel.”)

Yet the heights of Bush’s Iraq triumph — he reached 89 percent approval, better than Reagan ever enjoyed — were followed by a “postwar despondency” for the president, “rooted in his failure to bring about Saddam’s fall, which wounded Bush’s competitive spirit,” Meacham writes. Bush also believed that, with that conflict, “the work he had been born to do was now likely done.” He became “emotionally adrift,” Meacham reports, and even fantasized about forgoing a second term.

[Did George H.W. Bush deserve a second term?]

Little surprise, his heart was never in the 1992 presidential race. “I just wish it were over,” Bush confided in late August. Though he thought little of his opponents (he considered Ross Perot “crazy” and believed that “the American people are never going to elect a person of Bill Clinton’s character”), Bush was realistic about his chances. “The common wisdom today is that I’ll win in a runaway, but I don’t believe that,” he reflected. “I think it’s going to be the economy [which] will make that determination.”

Meacham does a terrific job of portraying the president’s final moments in office. Bush’s last national security briefing, on the day of Clinton’s inauguration, feels painfully pointless, and his unannounced visit to the Vietnam Memorial on Veterans Day in 1992 is touching in its spare simplicity. “To the surprise of the few overnight observers, the president of the United States read a few names, saluted the fallen, and left as quietly as he had come.”

Bush had pledged to keep his political opinions to himself after leaving the White House, so his comments to Meacham about his son’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld (“I think he served the President badly”), and Vice President Dick Cheney (“He had his own empire there”) have elicited enormous media attention. But George W. Bush’s reflections may be the most revealing of all. Determined to avoid Bush 41’s mistakes, Bush 43 stuck to a clear creed, nurtured the base and always projected strength. “Never underestimate what you can learn from a failed presidency,” the younger Bush once said, looking back on his father’s administration. A brutal assessment, but then again, he won a second term.

Was it a failed presidency? The tragedy of George H.W. Bush, Meacham concludes, is that “he seemed a caretaker at a time when voters were in the market for a dreamer.” But with George W. Bush and Barack Obama, voters have awakened from their dreams. And George H.W. Bush, now 91, has lived long enough to see himself become the hero.

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