The memoir I wish George H.W. Bush had written

Across a lifetime of diaries and letters, he blended duty, arrogance, intelligence, empathy, strategy, humor, confusion and candor. If only he’d put it all together.

George Herbert Walker Bush never wrote a real memoir. In fact, he seemed to avoid it.

Leading up to his 1988 presidential campaign, Bush published “Looking Forward,” a ghostwritten affair he later dismissed as “the kind of book that comes out about the candidate during an election year.” The 1998 volume on his foreign policy, “A World Transformed,” is co-authored with Brent Scowcroft and features alternating passages by the two men. (Scowcroft’s are better.) A decade later, Bush’s diary from his time as China envoy in the mid-1970s morphed into a book only after a historian pitched the idea and did all the work. And a lifetime of letters came together in “All the Best, George Bush,” a 2013 collection that the former president stresses was “not meant to be an autobiography.”

Outlook • Book review
Carlos Lozada is the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post. He has also served as The Post’s economics editor, national security editor and Outlook editor. He received the 2015 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing. Follow @CarlosLozadaWP
Illustration by Wayne Brezinka for The Washington Post based on a photograph by Bob Daughrety/Associated Press

Loved ones have written about him — his late wife, Barbara, in her 1994 memoir; George W. in the loyal “41” — and historians and former aides have taken their turns. But not Bush himself. “I was unpersuaded,” he explained simply.

It’s our loss. George H.W. Bush had the experiences, insights, revelations and blind spots that could have made for a terrific memoir. The raw material is scattered throughout these various works. Individually, they are snapshots of a life. Together, they could have redefined it.

In these pages, Bush — so often labeled the speedboating, fly-fishing scion of Kennebunkport — grapples with his advantages, early and late in life. He is aware of his rhetorical limitations but, even as a younger man, treats higher office as a certainty. He is indignant at the suggestion that he cared more for foreign than domestic policy yet privately admits the truth of the charge. A decorated Navy pilot who fought a world war and closed out a cold one, he is thoughtful about the horrors of armed conflict but lets slip a moralizing militarism that feels more 43 than 41. Remembered as awkward and out of touch, here Bush can be emotional, self-aware, even funny.

Most revealing, the candidate and president who couldn’t nail down the “vision thing” displays in his writing a clearer worldview than he gets credit for — one in which leadership, America’s and his own, is not a means but its own end. Bush, who passed away Friday at 94, had a vision. He just had to look in a mirror to find it.

President George H.W. Bush listens with a group of schoolchildren to a presentation at Everglades National Park in Florida in 1990. Bush wrote that among his top priorities were children, education and family values. (Ron Edmonds/AP )

When Bush was preparing to accept the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, he sent his speechwriter a list of notions that he believed best represented him. “Words I like: family, loyalty, kids, freedom, grandkids, caring, love, heart, decency, faith, honor, service to country, pride, fair (fair play), tolerance, strength, hope, healing kindness, excellence . . . I like people; I’m proud of USA; I like sports; I’m experienced; I love kids.” Yes, he likes kids so much he mentions them twice.

This jumble exemplifies Bush’s difficulty in conveying his personal values and political project, a condition he both disputes and acknowledges in his writings. “The criticism was off-base,”
Bush complains of the coverage he received during his 1980 presidential bid. But even as vice president, he can’t really explain, beyond banalities, why he seeks the top job. “I want to see an educated America,” he writes in a November 1986 diary entry. He also wanted to see an America that was literate, drug-free, employed, peaceful and focused on family values. “But, how do you say all these things and get it into a slogan or a formula — a catch-all. I don’t know.”

Bush received frequent letters from voters complaining about his speaking style, and when his phrases prove memorable — “voodoo economics” or “read my lips” — he wishes they hadn’t. What is mushy on the stump, however, becomes sharper with Bush in action. In “A World Transformed,” Bush and Scowcroft explain their thinking during the end of the Cold War, the Tiananmen crisis, Desert Storm and the Soviet collapse. “While there were dramatic moments, epitomized by the opening of the Berlin Wall, perhaps the most important story is that they came largely without great drama,” they write. The framework for Bush’s foreign policy “was very deliberate: encouraging, guiding, and managing change without provoking backlash and crackdown.” Bush was “no drama” before Obama.

As president, his overriding concern is the affirmation of American strength. “My own thoughts were focused on putting the United States back out in front, leading the West as we tackled the challenges in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union,” Bush writes of the earliest days of his presidency. And though he had difficulty making the public case for military action in the Persian Gulf — “I am not good at that,” he said when people encouraged him to deliver FDR-style fireside chats on the war — in private he stated it forthrightly. “Saddam Hussein will get out of Kuwait, and the United States will have been the catalyst and the key in getting this done, and that is important,” he dictates to his diary. “Our role as a world leader will once again be reaffirmed.”

George Bush with Victor Gold. Doubleday. 269 pp. (1987)
George Bush and Brent Scowcroft. Vintage Books. 590 pp. (1999)
By Jeffrey A. Engel (ed.). Princeton. 395 pp. (2008)
George H.W. Bush. Scribner. 717 pp. (2013)

Bush’s sense of leadership was wrapped up in the presidency. Though he served in the House of Representatives and twice ran for the Senate, he didn’t much like the legislative branch, where “there are a lot of weirdos who have all sorts of crazy ideas,” as he confided to Margaret Thatcher. The fall of 1990, when Bush dueled with a Democratic majority over his Mideast military buildup and the federal budget, “became one of the frustrating periods of my presidency,” he writes. “I knew that there were some areas of genuine disagreement with members of Congress over policy, but I thought the budget and the Persian Gulf should not be among them.”

Consider that. Lawmakers can disagree with the president — just not on matters of federal spending or military force.

This mix of duty and arrogance surfaces throughout his career. Bush’s posts are so brief — two terms as a congressman from Texas, two years as ambassador to the United Nations, less than two years as Republican National Committee chairman, 14 months as China envoy, one year as CIA director — that they feel like bullet points on a predestined presidential résumé. He goes to China to nail down foreign policy credentials “that not many Republican politicians will have.” While in Beijing, he plots a possible campaign for governor of Texas in between tennis matches and stomach viruses. “If the Texas Gov thing in ’78 made any sense at all I’d maybe take a look at it hard,” he writes to a Washington friend, “keeping in mind that I wouldn’t do it unless there was a possibility of taking a shot at something bigger in ’80.” And when President Gerald Ford offers him the CIA director job, Bush worries he is being frozen out of veep consideration in 1976. “Could that be what was happening?” he wonders in his diary. “Bury Bush at the CIA?” His top suspect, White House chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld, denied any scheming, Bush recalls, and “I accepted his word.” (Reminder: “I accepted his word” is Washington-speak for “I can’t prove he’s lying.”)

But when Jimmy Carter defeated Ford in 1976, even the president-elect foresaw Bush’s continued ascent. Among his final acts as CIA chief, Bush briefed Carter. In “Looking Forward,” Bush recalls that when a colleague began outlining national security challenges that could arise by the mid-1980s, Carter held up his hand. “I don’t need to worry about that,” he said with a smile. “By then George will be president and he can take care of it.”

Bush has the grace — or false modesty — to express bewilderment. “George will be president? It was an odd statement, coming from Jimmy Carter,” he writes. “I wondered what he meant.”

I’m pretty sure Bush knew.

Bush and his wife, Barbara, during his Senate run in Texas in 1964; he lost but would be elected to the House two years later. He saw public service, in part, as an obligation arising from his family’s success. (Ed Kolenovsky/AP)

At key moments, Bush’s progress came thanks to the wealth and connections of his family — from his uncle Herbie Walker, who provided money and expertise to help young George start an oil-lease business in Texas, to his father, Prescott Bush, a Wall Street executive who served for a decade as a U.S. senator from Connecticut. George Bush availed himself of these advantages, though with some ambivalence. “I am not sure I want to capi­tal­ize completely on the benefits I received at birth,” he writes to a friend shortly before graduating from Yale University. “Doing well merely because I have had the opportunity to attend the same debut parties as some of my customers, does not appeal to me.”

Who knew privilege-checking was around in 1948?

Yet using public service to ease a wealthy conscience is a Bush family tradition. “I knew what motivated him,” Bush writes of his father’s decision to run for the Senate. “He’d made his mark in the business world. Now he felt he had a debt to pay.” Speaking at a 1997 alumni reunion of the Greenwich Country Day School, which Bush had attended during the Great Depression, he decried the “elite editorialists” who had argued that a man like him couldn’t relate to ordinary Americans. “You know what the critics missed? They missed ‘values’ . . . Our parents taught us to care — and the faculty here seemed to be intent on inculcating into us the fact that we had an obligation to care.”

At times, Bush struggled to balance another obligation — political self-preservation — against these more civic-minded imperatives. As GOP chairman during the final months of Watergate (a “political nightmare,” he calls it) Bush was conflicted between loyalty to his president and the pangs of his conscience, though it is hard to miss more political considerations. Eight days before President Richard Nixon announced his departure, Bush was strategizing with White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig about the best timing for the move, suggesting that Nixon should leave before the midterms, thus avoiding a “bigger bath” for Republican candidates. “I told Haig I didn’t feel that political expediency should be a consideration for resignation,” Bush assures in his diary, then adding: “But it was hard to discount politics.”

Only on the eve of Nixon’s resignation speech did Bush send a letter urging the president to step down — a missive directed as much to the history books as to White House. He relied on it later when he became CIA director under Ford. “I am confident the record will reveal I spoke out over and over again against Watergate,” he writes to a Time magazine reporter. “I did, however, stop short of condemning the President until the final tape proved to me that he had been lying. At that point I urged him to resign.”

Always take the high road, Bush admonishes. “Jugular politics — going for the opposition’s throat — wasn’t my style,” he writes. So after going negative against Sen. Bob Dole in the 1988 Republican primary race, Bush insists that he did so “against my better judgment.” He congratulates himself for refraining from “red meat” speeches against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, omitting mention of the attempts to link the Democratic nominee to Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who committed further violent crimes while on a Massachusetts weekend furlough. “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate,” Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater infamously said. Bush’s only admission of anything untoward appears in a footnote describing Atwater’s tactics: “He was young, aggressive (some people would say ruthless), and brilliant at politics.”

And Bush brilliantly, some would say ruthlessly, averted his eyes.

Bush announces allied airstrikes against Iraq on the evening of Jan. 17, 1991. “I began to move from viewing Saddam’s aggression exclusively as a dangerous strategic threat and an injustice to its reversal as a moral crusade,” he later wrote. “It was good versus evil, right versus wrong.” (Amy Sancetta/AP)

Bush is less self-serving, more circumspect, when it comes to war. As a young naval aviator, he was shot down on a bombing run against Japanese installations in the Pacific; his two crewmates died. “I still don’t understand the ‘logic’ of war — why some survive and others are lost in their prime,” Bush reflects in a letter to his parents written aboard the USS Finback, the submarine that rescued him from his lifeboat.

Bush’s careful attitude toward foreign policy and national security became evident when the Berlin Wall fell and reporters wondered why the new president’s mood was not more celebratory. “Of course, I was thankful about the events in Berlin,” he later writes, “but as I answered questions my mind kept racing over a possible Soviet crackdown, turning all the happiness to tragedy.” Much, too, has been made of Bush’s restraint at the end of the Persian Gulf War, when he did not march toward Baghdad because, as he explains in “A World Transformed,” he worried about embarking upon “an unwinnable urban guerrilla war [that] could only plunge that part of the world into even greater instability.” In a diary entry from the fall of 1990, Bush notes that “my wartime experience does condition me as commander-in-chief and makes me cautious.”

The contrast with George W. Bush, who invaded Iraq a dozen years later, is stark, and distinctions are easy to draw between the levelheaded father and reckless son. But as the elder Bush built the coalition to oust Iraq from Kuwait, his case also became more strident than sober. “I began to move from viewing Saddam’s aggression exclusively as a dangerous strategic threat and an injustice to its reversal as a moral crusade,” he wrote. “It was good versus evil, right versus wrong.” When Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev suggested that the international community should not back Hussein into a corner, Bush replied, “If we had offered Hitler some way out, would it have succeeded?” Writing in “A World Transformed,” Scowcroft recalls worrying that Bush was becoming “emotionally involved” in the crisis and that the president risked making it seem like a vendetta against Iraq’s leader.

It wasn’t quite axis-of-evil stuff, but it was close.

What grounded Bush’s foreign policy, in part, was his ability to forge close relationships with other heads of state. “I had known many of the current foreign leaders for years, often before they took office, and that would help strengthen trust.” He admires the forthrightness of French President François Mitterrand — “when I would call him about difficult problems, he would give me a straight answer” — whom he had buttered up during a visit to Kennebunkport. He regrets that he was never as close to Thatcher as Ronald Reagan had been. And his most significant connection was with Gorbachev. “I liked the personal contact with Mikhail — I liked him,” Bush writes in his foreign policy volume. “I thought I had a feel for his heartbeat.” (It was not the final time a President Bush would attempt to glimpse the soul of a Russian leader, a family tradition with uneven consequences.)

At times Bush grew defensive about his personalistic approach to foreign policy. “Some feel emphasis on personal relationships between leaders is unimportant or unnecessary,” he writes. “Henry Kissinger once argued to me that these are no substitutes for deep national interests . . . For me, personal diplomacy and leadership went hand in hand.” Of course, this disagreement may have been personal, too. In his China diary, Bush unloads on Kissinger, calling him “intolerable,” “nasty,” “regal” and “dictatorial.” Three decades later, in the preface to the published diary, Bush tries to take it back. “When I finally did reread the diary, I was amused by some of my frustrations with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a man whom I greatly respect and consider a friend.”

On this, let’s accept Bush’s word.

Bush, right, interacts with Democrat Bill Clinton, left, and independent candidate Ross Perot in a presidential debate in October 1992. Confident he would win a second term, Bush wrote of Clinton: “He’s better at facts-figures than I am. I’m better at life.” (Joe Marquette/AP)

So effective on the international stage, Bush’s personal touch faltered at home. He knew it, and it annoyed him.

“The Libs charge that I am not interested in Domestic Policy,” he writes in a 1991 letter to a friend in Texas. “Wrong!!” But in Bush’s diary, his preferences are clear. In the early days of Operation Desert Shield, for example, he felt “fully engrossed in this international crisis, and I must say I enjoy working on all the parts of it and I get into much more detail than I do on the domestic scene.”

Bush expresses contempt for Washington politicking, for “the posturing on both sides . . . [people] putting their own selves ahead of the overall good.” He was confident that he embodied that overall good and that voters would recognize that. When he ran for reelection in 1992, Bush thought he would defeat Bill Clinton because he was the better person. “He’s better at facts-figures than I am,” he writes to Peggy Noonan. “I’m better at life.” No surprise, he resented the charge that he was aloof or disconnected — “that I never stood for anything, that I didn’t care about people,” Bush writes to one of his brothers after the loss to Clinton. “I stood for a lot of things on issues . . . but what I want to have people know I stood for were ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ and yes, as Dad taught us, ‘service.’ That’s not all bad.”

His empathy emerged in small, forgotten moments and in dramatic ones, too. As a congressman from Texas, Bush voted for the Fair Housing Act in 1968, essentially reversing his earlier position on civil rights. He suffered through boos at a rally back home but insisted that “a man should not have a door slammed in his face because he is a Negro or speaks with a Latin American accent.” At the end of the event, he received a standing ovation, and nearly two decades later, he wrote that nothing else he’d experienced in public life matched the feeling from that evening. Bush also recalls skipping Nixon’s 1969 inauguration parade to attend President Lyndon Johnson’s farewell at Andrews Air Force Base. “This was a President who not many years before had moved through crowds with outstretched hands,” Bush writes. “But because of Vietnam, the cheering had stopped, and he was going back to Texas a defeated man. I shook his hand and wished him a safe journey. He nodded, took a few steps toward the ramp, then turned, looked back at me, and said, ‘Thanks for coming.’ ”

And Bush had been vice president only a couple of months when John Hinckley Jr. shot Reagan. A military aide wanted to helicopter the vice president straight to the White House, but Bush insisted that they stop at his residence and then drive to 1600 Pennsylvania. As he explained to the perplexed aide, “only the president lands on the South Lawn.”

Symbols and gestures, perhaps, but they matter. Bush’s leadership was less about achieving specific goals than about having the United States in charge when such goals were established. “So much of the world depends on the United States,” he writes in his China diary. “So much depends on our own self-confidence in our ability to cope.” And not just anyone could project that confidence. “America needed someone in the Oval Office who could restore the people’s faith in our institutions, a leader who could revitalize the national spirit,” Bush writes in his 1987 campaign book, leaving little doubt who he thinks that leader should be.

Bush working late in the Oval Office in 1991. “I have tried to keep not only my door but my mind open to what other people think, even if I disagree,” he wrote. (Charles Tasnadi/AP)

In “A World Transformed,” Bush expresses awe and reverence for the Oval Office. Two decades later, he was hardly enthralled by its latest occupant. “He’s a blowhard,” Bush told Mark K. Updegrove, author of a 2017 book on the two Bush presidents. Indeed, with his mix of private insecurity and public bluster, President Trump is an inversion of Bush’s inward confidence and outward diffidence.

So many of the things Bush said and wrote may seem quaint, but today they are also vital and increasingly fragile. “It is not fashionable in these days of tearing down our institutions to say ‘trust me,’ ” he said in a 1976 speech as CIA director. “Yet Americans have to have faith and trust in some degree or none of our governmental systems will work.” Bush was also alert to the risks of intolerance. After the 9/11 attacks, his first thoughts were for his son in the White House, but “a second immediate thought,” he wrote in a letter the next day, “was that Muslims in this country were going to be abused.” And he insisted on listening: “I have tried to keep not only my door but my mind open to what other people think, even if I disagree,” he wrote. “It gets both sides seeing each other as human beings.”

Even in his patrician way, Bush could be disarmingly reflective, emotional and sentimental. A few years after his 3-year-old daughter, Robin, died of leukemia in 1953, Bush wrote his mother a lengthy, poignant letter about the longing he and Barbara felt for her and their wish that the feeling would always remain. “We need her and yet we have her. We can’t touch her, and yet we can feel her. We hope she’ll stay in our house for a long, long time.” When he won a House seat in 1966, Bush began a 15-month correspondence with a cranky Houston constituent named Paul Dorsey, who had voted for his opponent. The two men bonded via their missives, which continued through Dorsey’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. Shortly before Dorsey passed away, Bush visited him in the hospital.

Unlike Trump, Bush was a leader who could laugh at himself. The balloon drop at his 1987 presidential campaign announcement looked more like a “condom drop,” he quips, because several of the balloons coming down had popped overnight. As president, he established the White House’s Scowcroft Award for Somnolent Excellence, a spoof prize honoring the official who could best doze off in a meeting yet still perk up when needed. (Dick Cheney was the second recipient.) And for all his rhetorical missteps, Bush finds solace in Al Gore’s speeches. “Poor guy’s in real trouble if he’s worse than I,”
he deadpans in his diary.

The 45th and 41st presidents are also contrasts in their intellectual lives. Trump proudly declares that he has no time for reading, whereas Bush reveled in works of politics, history and world affairs. During his year in China alone, he devoured “Thunder Out of China” by Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby, “China After Mao” by Doak Barnett, “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck and “Stilwell and the American Experience in China” by Barbara Tuchman, among several other China-related works. (Ever the politico, he also took in “Before the Fall,” William Safire’s 1975 memoir on the pre-Watergate Nixon White House.)

Maybe Bush didn’t have time to write a single, lengthy autobiography, or perhaps he feared that his rhetorical difficulties articulating a vision would recur on the page. Of course, who knows what kind of book Bush would have written if inspiration had struck? On only one occasion in these works does he explicitly consider writing a book, and his subject is surprising: “Someday I will write a book on massages I have had, ranging all the way from Bobby Moore and Harry Carmen at the UN to the steambaths of Egypt and Tokyo. I must confess the Tokyo treatment is the best. Walking on the back, total use of the knees, combination of knees and oil, the back becoming a giant slope does wonders for the sacroiliac, and a little something for the morale, too. Massage parlors in the U.S. have ruined the image of real massage. It is a crying shame.”

I would have read that book. (Suggested title: “Read My Hips.”)

It’s also a shame that Bush never quite captured, in his own voice and in a single volume, that vanishing era of political leaders who mixed duty, entitlement and a sense of destiny to serve the nation. American voters rejected that formula in 1992, perhaps with good reason. But, a quarter-century later, it’s hard to regard George H.W. Bush’s presidency, for all its faults, and his life, for all its advantages, without some nostalgia.

Credits: By Carlos Lozada.