Family Traditions

All The Best George Bush By George Bush

Reviewed by David Cogswell

Spring 2000

George W. Bush, the son of the former president, has already spent more than anyone ever to become president. The visible part of the campaign tab is only part of the massive effort to put Junior into the presidency. The book All The Best, George Bush by George the Father is part of the campaign. Its role is to promote a nostalgic longing for the dear and respectable former president of a fondly remembered, simpler time. The past is always remembered as a simpler time. But in 1992, when an incumbent was thrown out of office in favor of a n upstart governor of Arkansas, a lot of people didn't feel so fondly about the Bush presidency.

The George Bush of the Gulf War was about as close to the real guy as we will ever see in public. Playing geopolitics is really his passion, and after so many years of having to do it covertly with the CIA and behind the curtain in the Reagan administration, he was finally able to do it openly and turn it into a great drama the whole world watched. If CNN's coverage was to be believed, the whole country was giddy with patriotic zeal. Bush became a John Wayne president and his approval ratings skyrocketed. After the war, they turned downward and finally plummetted.

While the economy went haywire, George barely noticed. Domestic policy wasn't his thing. "The Vision Thing," as he called it, was also a problem. What he loved was geopolitical gamesmanship. He was a protege of Nixon and Kissinger. He was Kissinger's man in Beijing as Mssrs. K and N ravaged Cambodia. The Contra war in Central America, the Panama invasion, Grenada: for that kind of adventure, he was champing at the bit. When it came to the price of milk for the masses, he had no attention span. Like Herbert Hoover saying "prosperity is just around the corner," he maintained that nothing was wrong. He finally acknowledged that the economy was "in freefall" and mumbled "I think I knew it." When the voters saw that he had no idea, it was curtains for George.

After lying low for several years, George Herbert Walker Bush is back with a new memoir timed to coincide with his son's campaign to recapture the throne for the Tories. All the Best, George Bush is designed to reinforce the image of George Bush Senior as an all-American good guy who worked his way up from humble beginnings to the highest office in the country, and served with great dignity. The image of Bush that is circulated in the media is that of a man of "character" who stands for the great American values: hard work, integrity, democracy. These descriptions are not consistent with a close examination of the facts of his career, but there is no danger of any such examination in this book. It is not without its measure of interest, but its value cannot be realized unless it is seen for what it is: a work of fiction.

The letters format, with its loose structure is good for communicating a message of symbols, emotions and generalities, without revealing much historical fact. "This book is not meant to be an autobiography," says Bush in the introduction. "It is not a historical documentation of my life." In this Bush speaks the truth. It is propaganda. Propaganda with a retail price of $30. But it is as close to a real document as we will probably ever get from him. From his induction into the ultra secret Skull and Bones at Yale through his long involvement with the shadowy underworld of the intelligence community, he has lived in a culture of secrecy.

The letters -- or the selections we are shown -- may be more or less authentic for what they are, but the picture they present is a tiny portion of the real George Bush. During the absentee presidency of Ronald Reagan, Bush was a principal behind-the-scenes operator, as would later become clear in the investigations of the Iran Contra affair. When Reagan was hit in the chest two months after taking office, the 70-year-old man needed a prolonged convalescence and was barely present when the foundations of his administration were being laid down. If there was one skill besides acting that Reagan mastered, it was delegation. He was one of the most hands-off presidents ever. This created a massive power vacuum that Bush was extremely aggressive and skilled in exploiting. He took a command position as new covert operational structures were built within the government with names like the Special Situation Group, the Crisis Management Center, the Terrorist Incident Workding Group, the Task For on Combatting Terrorism and the Operations Sub Group. His contacts in the CIA served him well in the implementation of the mechanisms to wage the Central American war in spite of a congressional prohibition. When the Iran Contra scandal unraveled, everything led back to Bush's closest associates, who all got pardons one Christmas Eve a few years later when Bush was president.

The "folksy" image Bush presented to the public is theater. It has little to do with what he is really about. In real life he is both better and worse than the public image. As a covert operator, he is formidable. He knows the channels, has the connections, is well schooled in the techniques of the intelligence communities. The muddle-headed character he presents to the public is Bush attempting to do Reagan, pretending to be the simple guy who stands for old-fashioned American values, who maybe doesn't care for book-learnin' so much, but is earnest and sincere. The real Bush is a smooth operator, much smarter than the public image suggests, but also much more evil. A contrary view to balance this book can be found in the online publication The Unauthorized Biography of George Bush []. It is thoroughly documented, so questions about its content can be investigated.

The Bush of All the Best... is the public image. He carries the fumbling, good-hearted George character into the book, and it makes for some strange reading. The nostalgic, hackneyed language evokes the movie heroes of his youth like Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne: "I have gotten to know most of the fellows in the platoon," he writes at age 18. "They are a darn good-hearted bunch..." Or, "Dear Mum, Gosh it was wonderful hearing your voice today -- It was swell of you to call. I got the message just after I came back from church..."

The language in the book is intriguing. He tells us that Barbara lost her love letters, and he puts the word "love" in quotation marks. One can only surmise what he meant. When Barbara's father approves of their wedding plans, George says he is "terribly glad."

His soul searching about career options rings especially hollow. "So far I haven't been able to make up my mind on what I want to do... Further education isn't out of my mind by a long shot... It took the war, and the Navy to show me how advantageous a good education can be. I say advantageous and not necessary, for I do feel that I would get along with a bit of initiative and honest endeavor provided I could get some employer to give me a chance." In real life, George had no worries about finding "some employer." The family's influential friends were among the wealthiest and most powerful bankers in the world, including Bernard Baruch and the Harriman family, Averell and Bunny.

Plowing through 600 pages of this kind of language is difficult. It reveals a strange mind. As a politician whose public presentation is so at variance with his true motives the prose creates a strange sense of disassociation. I found myself recalling the letters of Ted Bundy, the serial killer whose public image was so smooth, in The Killer Beside Me by Ann Rule. Language has a magical way of revealing the underlying incongruencies, the contradictions between the lines.

The book shows the image the Bush camp wants to present, crafted with the help of some of the best market research money can buy. The research tells what voters will "buy" and the product is fashioned for them. Once a president gets into office, however, there is a no return policy. Voters who wanted real tax reform or affordable health care are not likely to get it.

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