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Tom Wicker, George Herbert Walker Bush (New York: Viking, 2004, $19.95, 228 pages, ISBN 0-670-03303-0)Stefano Luconi, University of Florence


In the wake of both the events of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush has received more scholarly attention than any sitting American president. Such a disproportionate interest in his administration has further contributed to outshining the one-term presidency of his father and to relegating George H. W. Bush to the margins of the scholarship on twentieth-century U.S. political history, along with other disgraced fellow Republicans such as William H. Taft, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Gerald R. Ford. For instance, Bush ranked twenty-fourth and was placed within the category of the “average” chief executives in a 1997 poll of scholars rating U.S. presidents [Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “Rating the Presidents: Washington to Clinton,” Political Science Quarterly 112 (1997): 179-90]. Even the recent publication of several monographs about the Bush family has been stimulated less by interest in Bush Sr. than by concern about his son [Kevin Phillips, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush (New York: Viking, 2004); Kitty Kelley, The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty (New York: Doubleday, 2004); Peter Schweizer and Rochelle Schweizer, The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty (New York: Doubleday, 2004)].

Against this backdrop, one can hardly refrain from welcoming Tom Wicker’s efforts to offer a new biography of Bush Sr. Moreover, unlike previous works on George H. W. Bush [see, e.g., Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame, Marching in Place: The Status Quo Presidency of George Bush (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992)], Wicker does not confine his volume to the 1988 election campaign and the subsequent White House years, but traces the whole course of the former president’s life. The reader is, therefore, introduced to the patrician son of millionaire businessman and Connecticut’s Republican Senator Prescott Bush, the student at exclusive Andover Academy who volunteered to join the Navy upon coming of age during World War II, the Yale graduate who made money in the postwar Texas oil game, the two-term Republican member of the House of Representatives who hardly left a legislative record, the chairperson of the GOP who tried to shield his party from the aftershocks of the Watergate scandal, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the opening to China and Nixon’s secret diplomacy, the U.S. envoy to Beijing whose Secretary of State Henry Kissinger systematically bypassed in dealing with Chinese leaders, the director of the CIA when the agency became the target of Congressional investigations for its covert operations, the submissive and ineffective vice-president of Ronald Reagan, and finally the president who enabled the United States to overcome the Vietnam syndrome by means of a military triumph in the First Gulf War but could not survive a brief economic recession in the early 1990s—when the unemployment rate reached 7.3 percent—and the break of his 1988 election campaign pledge that he would not raise taxes.

The author of one of the most apologetic biographies of Richard M. Nixon [One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream (New York: Random House, 1991)], Wicker is less indulging in judging Bush, although Nixon played no second fiddle to Bush as for ambition, ideological U-turns, and smear politics. One may reasonably suspect that Wicker is more sympathetic with Nixon than with patrician Bush, because he was a self-made man. After all, in the opening pages, the author makes a point of stressing the cutting observation, of Governor Ann Richards of Texas at the 1992 Democratic convention, that Bush was born with “a silver foot in his mouth” [5].

In any case, while praising the forty-first president’s gift for making friends and cultivating good personal relations, Wicker portrays Bush as an overambitious politician who was more than willing to resort to dirty tactics and to barter his principles in order to reach his goals. On the one hand, negative ads and distortion of facts characterized Bush’s campaigns against Robert Dole in the 1988 Republican primaries and against Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton in the 1988 and 1992 presidential elections, respectively. On the other hand, the son of a prominent Eisenhower Republican and a moderate at heart himself, Bush was ready to embrace Barry Goldwater’s right-wing politics in his own unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senator in 1964 and to switch back to a more progressive stand when he faced conservative Democrat Lloyd Bentsen in another doomed senatorial bid six years later. An isolationist in the mid 1960s, Bush turned into a promoter of the United Nations after his appointment as the U.S. representative at the “Glass Palace” in New York in 1970. Similarly, he rushed to dump both his colorful stigmatization of Reagan’s economic platform as “voodoo economics” and his pro-choice position on abortion as soon as Reagan designated him as his running mate in the 1980 presidential campaign.

Wicker makes it clear that political flip-flop does not necessarily pay in the end. Bush managed to be elected to the White House, a dream dating back at least to 1974, when the inexperienced and unimposing former two-term member of the House of Representatives made a fruitless effort to become Ford’s vice-president. Yet, the continuous reversal of his stands eventually backfired and prevented Bush from winning reelection in 1992. The problem was not only with Bush’s failure to stick to his 1988 fiscal program. It also involved conservatives’ distrust in Bush’s political integrity and policies. As a result, unlike Reagan in the 1980s, Bush could not take the votes of right-wing Republicans for granted in 1992 and had to overemphasize family values and moral issues in his campaign in order to make sure that conservatives would turn out on Election Day. This strategy, however, lost Bush the support of many moderate voters and contributed to Clinton’s victory.

Wicker points out that congeniality and cultivation of friendship may have masked Bush’s dirty campaign tactics, but did not equal statesmanship. In the author’s view, Bush ran for elective offices on resumes rather than on platforms, throwing mud at his opponents whenever his aides suggested such tactics, and made only two authoritative decisions on his own in over a quarter century of public service. Specifically, he advised Nixon to resign in August 1974 and committed the United States to the liberation of Kuwait in August 1990. Nonetheless, according to Wicker, this latter decision made Bush a more prominent president than his post-Civil War Republican predecessors although his career, both inside and outside the political arena, suggests a “caretaker mentality” [3] that was unable to conceive broad plans and far-reaching ideas.

This interpretation follows in the step of previous and more scholarly studies [see, e.g., Kerry Mullins and Aaron Wildavsky, “The Procedural Presidency of George Bush,” Political Science Quarterly 107 (1992): 31-62; David Mervin, George Bush and the Guardianship Presidency (New York: St. Martin’s, 1996)]. Yet, it must have drawn extensively upon Wicker’s direct experience of the Bush administration as a political commentator for the New York Times because the author’s sources are confined primarily to a few books by fellow journalists and several autobiographies among which Bush’s 1988 campaign biography [Looking Forward (New York: Doubleday, 1987)] and his presidential memoirs [A World Transformed (New York: Random House, 1998)], written with his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, stand out.

The assessment of the Iran-Contra affair offers further evidence for Wicker’s critical evaluation of Bush. Actually, the author holds that the then vice-president was aware of the arms-for-hostages deal with Teheran and chose not to side with the opponents of such a plan within the Reagan administration, most notably Secretary of State George Shultz. Wicker also dismisses the Republican claim that the release of records revealing Bush’s backing of the agreement with the Iranian government four day before the 1992 Election Day put an end to the president’s surge in opinion polls and delivered the White House to Clinton. As Wicker remarks, not only was Bush’s surge mostly conjectural, but the independent counsel who released the documents was a Republican.

Wicker’s book is not without shortcomings. The author sometimes relies too much on Bush’s interpretation of events in the coverage of the pre-vice presidential years. Wicker, for instance, charges Kissinger’s visit to Beijing with the expulsion of Taiwan from the United Nations and her replacement with the People’s Republic of China in October 1971 [29]. As such, Wicker’s accusation ignores the fact that, although Kissinger promoted the opening to China, he was also a strong opponent of Beijing’s admission to the United Nations. Wicker also overestimates the importance of friendship in Bush’s career. For example, it is a clear exaggeration that, at the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Bush trusted in the cooperation from foreign leaders because he had known many of them “personally since his days as ambassador to the UN” [151]. Indeed, while he was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nation, Bush met none of the leaders that would run the countries holding a permanent seat on the Security Council in the Summer of 1990.

Furthermore, the author overlooks the role foreign policy played in the outcome of the 1988 presidential election. Domestic issues alone do not account for Bush’s success over Dukakis. While Wicker is correct in reiterating that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist regimes in eastern Europe in 1991 marked the U.S. victory in the Cold War, both the 1987 treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear forces and the beginning of the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in May 1988 were outstanding assets of the Reagan administration on which Bush capitalized when people cast their ballots. For instance, 94 percent of those who approved of Reagan’s handling of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union voted for Bush [Gerald M. Pomper, “The Presidential Election,” The Election of 1988: Reports and Interpretations, ed. Gerald M. Pomper (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 1989) 144-45].

Far more disappointing in the account of foreign policy is Wicker’s neglect of other key events and issues during the Bush administration to the benefit of more trivial matters. The author details the menu for a dinner that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was eventually unable to attend during the 1989 U.S.-Soviet summit in Malta [130]. Conversely, readers learn next to nothing about the problems concerning the reunification of Germany, the intricacies of the Middle-East negotiations at the 1991 conference in Madrid, and Bush’s refusal to become involved in the crisis in the Balkans. Last but not least, the narrative ends abruptly with Bush’s loss to Clinton in the 1992 elections and the subsequent U.S. intervention in Somalia is not even mentioned. Yet, besides being Bush’s legacy to Clinton, Palestine, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia would have offered additional scenarios for a better evaluation of the record of the Bush administration. Likewise, an examination of Bush’s “New World Order” plan would have cast additional light on his post-Cold War strategy.

Omissions affect domestic politics, as well. The 1992 race riot in Los Angeles resulting from the acquittal of four white policemen who had been taped while beating an African-American motorist was a clear failure of Bush’s efforts “to make kinder the face of the nation,” as his inaugural address read. But Wicker overlooks such an upheaval.

The book also includes a few errors. For example, although the author contends that Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale “failed even to carry his state” [72], he did carry Minnesota in 1984. Likewise, one of the defeated candidates in the 1992 Democratic primaries was not “Kerry” [172] but Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

These remarks aside, Wicker has offered a more balanced biography of George H. W. Bush than Herbert S. Parmet’s friendly volume [George Bush: The Life of a Lone Star Yankee (New York: Scribner, 1997)]. Still, the gaps in the coverage of the Bush administration and the author’s self-imposed restraint in making a larger use of endnotes to document his sources will make George Herbert Walker Bush a less rewarding reading for scholars than for the general public. After all, Wicker must have had this latter readership in mind. One could otherwise find it hard to explain the reason for a number of condescending footnotes which, for instance, point out that Ford’s secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, is the same Rumsfeld who is serving in the same position in the administration of George W. Bush [43].

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