More Than Just A Number
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It is literally a book which has no equal.
On the cover:
George H. W. and George W. Bush
George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, has authored a personal biography of his father, George H. W. Bush, the 41st President. Forty-three men have served as President of the United States. Countless books have been written about them.
41, 43, and a Presidential Love Story
John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush don't have a whole lot in common, but they share one historic connection -- they remain the only sons of Presidents to be elected to the Presidency themselves. Because of this, upon entering office in January 2001, Bush somewhat facetiously decided to hang a portrait of Adams in the President's small, informal private study adjoining the Oval Office. It may have been a slight nod to a distant predecessor that Bush felt a unique kinship with, but it also likely served as a reminder of who he was and what he had accomplished. John Quincy Adams was a dutiful son, devoted to serving his country and honoring his father's name. George W. Bush was not the easiest son of George Herbert Walker Bush (he once told the Queen of England that he was "the black sheep" of his family), but he was no less dedicated to his father. Before he became the family's most successful politician, the younger Bush, newly-sober and born-again, became the family's "loyalty enforcer". Far more aggressive and direct than his father, George W. Bush was quick to combat what he saw as unfair attacks or potential political threats as the then-Vice President prepared to seek the Presidency himself in 1988. More often than not, George W. viewed any criticism of his father as an unfair attack because George W. Bush revered his father -- not simply his father as a political leader (although he, like a majority of historians today, believes that Bush 41's Presidency was underrated and, until recently, largely unappreciated), but as a genuinely good and great human being.
One of the unfortunate missing links of Presidential history has been the fact that John Quincy Adams, a prolific writer, never left behind a biography of his father, John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States. In fact, it is not just historians who regret the absence of such a work; John Quincy Adams himself regretted it -- he began work on a biography of his father but never completed it. After leaving the White House in 1829 following a single term in office (the Adamses were not only the first father and son to serve as President; they were also the first two Presidents to not be re-elected), JQA began organizing his father's papers and started to write a biography of John Adams. However, the younger Adams couldn't resist the duty of public service that his father had instilled in him and which JQA had been engaged in almost continuously since he was a 14-year-old secretary and translator for the first Unite Staes Ambassador to Russia. Shortly after returning to Massachusetts following his Presidency, John Quincy Adams was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served in Congress for the rest of his life. Focusing on his work in Congress diverted Adams from the attention he hoped to give to the biography of his father, robbing posterity of a full account (JQA did finish a few early chapters of the intended biography) of the life of one President written by his son, who also happened to serve as President -- until now.
At the very beginning of 41: A Portrait of My Father (Crown, $28.00), George W. Bush doesn't pretend that his book can be something more than it is. "Over the years, I suspect there will be many books analyzing George Herbert Walker Bush, the man and his Presidency. Some of those works may be objective. This one is not. This book is a love story -- a personal portrait of the extraordinary man who I am blessed to call my dad." It is this obvious bias -- this intimately personal vantage point -- which makes 41: A Portrait of My Father so unique. It is literally a book which has no equal. Had John Quincy Adams completed his biography of John Adams, it certainly would have lacked the intimacy and candor of George W. Bush's biography of George Herbert Walker Bush. JQA lived in a different time, with minimal personal expression, in which people -- especially politicians or authors writing history or biography -- went out of their way to remain formal, restrain any close individual feelings, and refrain from the anecdotes and insight that can make such stories truly feel personal. Not only would such a work have been limited by the style of the era, but it also would have suffered from the constraints of John Quincy Adams's reserved personality. In a letter to his wife, Adams once wrote, "I have no powers of fascination; none of the honey which the profligate proverb says is the true fly-catcher." That's not exactly the blurb that one would be excited to see on the back of a book in which a son reflects upon the life and times of his father.
41: A Portrait of My Father is not the first book that one President has written about another President -- in fact, John Quincy Adams may not have finished a biography about his father, but he did write a book about his two immediate predecessors, James Madison and James Monroe. Woodrow Wilson wrote a biography of George Washington, and Herbert Hoover wrote a book about Wilson (The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson) that was meant to be a tribute to the President that Hoover served under during World War I, but is actually an insightful look into the difficulties faced by Wilson as he went from a triumphant Commander-in-Chief riding a wave of popularity around-the-world following the end of the war to a paralyzed, gravely ill President whose political missteps while negotiating the peace crippled his Presidency -- literally and figuratively -- led to a collapse of many of the goals that Wilson hoped to achieve after the Armistice, kept the United States out of the League of Nations, and resulted in a rapid decline and early death. However, those books are not personal, and what truly fascinates us about our Presidents is who that person behind the desk actually is.
Even when Presidents write about themselves, we rarely get an indication of who they are as people, rather than politicians. What we get are largely highly-polished, meticulously-shaped, exhaustively-detailed, adequately well-written, but not necessarily very interesting autobiographies and memoirs. And after leaving office, Presidents continue to feel a need to come across as Presidential. When Lyndon B. Johnson left office and gathered ghost writers and researchers around him at the LBJ Ranch in Texas, his aides thought they were putting together quite possibly the best Presidential memoir in history. LBJ was earthy and engaging, full of colorful stories and fascinating anecdotes, remembered names and faces and intimate details from some of the biggest decisions and most riveting events of the 20th Century. But when he saw what his aides had written -- basically the incredible story that had some out of his mouth -- he ordered that they make him sound more Presidential, more statesman-like. LBJ's memoir, The Vantage Point, was just another cookie-cutter Presidential autobiography; not bad, but not groundbreaking. It wasn't until after Johnson's death when one of those researchers, Doris Kearns Goodwin, used what she had heard from Johnson during those sessions at the LBJ Ranch and crafted the book he could have written -- Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, one of the greatest books ever written about a President.
41: A Portrait of My Father stands alone because there is simply nothing to compare it with. George W. Bush writes that the idea for the book largely grew from the fact that John Quincy Adams didn't have a chance to complete a similar book. The daughter of the distinguished historian, David McCullough, author of John Adams, told President Bush that one of her father's biggest regrets was the lack of a John Quincy Adams biography of his father, and that she believed Bush needed to write one about his father "for history's sake." Bush writes that the seed was planted in that conversation, and I'm grateful because of it. For all of the contributions that David McCullough has made to the study of American history, this indirect contribution may end up being one of the most important.
As someone who is endlessly fascinated by the Presidents and the Presidency and has made the study of the office and its occupants a significant part of my life's journey, one of the topics that has always stood out to me is what the Presidents have thought about each other. For all of the things that are written and said and insinuated about the Presidents, only those who have served in the office truly know what the job is. When Presidential campaigns roll around, candidates and pundits and voters argue over which politician has the best experience to be the most powerful person in the world. In reality, nobody is really "ready" to be President until after they've been President for a while. There is nothing that can fully prepare anyone for the magnitude and magnificence of the job. The responsibility is just as much of a burden as it is an honor; it's the most punishing, exacting, thankless, underpaid job in the world. And only 43 people in history have ever experienced it.
That shared experience is why the words of one President about another are the most insightful commentary that we can hope for when it comes to Presidential leadership. This topic has interested me so much that I actually wrote a book, Tributes and Trash Talk: What Our Presidents Said About Each Other, that is a collection of quotes by Presidents about other Presidents. For the most part, Presidents are relatively reserved about others who have served in the office. Former Presidents have recently gone out of their way to refrain from criticizing the incumbent President, believing that the President in office not only has the best current information possible, but also deserve the respect and support of the people who know more than anybody else how hard it is to do their job. This has led to unusually close relationships between several recent Presidents. George W. Bush's joke that Bill Clinton is his "brother from another mother" stems from Clinton's extraordinarily close relationship with George Herbert Walker Bush, who was defeated for re-election by Clinton in 1992. Asked by George W. Bush to work on disaster relief following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, Bush 41 and Clinton ("42", as Bush 43 calls him) embarked on a friendship that became something like a surrogate father-and-son relationship between the two. After Bush 43 left office, he also grew close to Clinton, who is less than a month-and-a-half younger than Bush. The three former Presidents frequently banter back-and-forth in speeches and on social media.
Yet the most extraordinary relationship between two Presidents is the one that is the most normal -- the actual father-and-son relationship of George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush. For years, pundits and historians have sought clues into the relationship, hoping to uncover strained ties, hints of jealousy, or signs of resentment. But nothing close to that has ever emerged. To outsiders, the magnitude of having a father-and-son who both served as President seemingly makes every family gathering a summit, but in reality, we've learned that it just results in the world's most secure picnic due to all of the Secret Service agents. There is nothing dark or hidden or false about the relationship between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. They just happen to have both served as President of the United States.
41: A Portrait of My Father is a beautiful tribute to a man who has become almost universally-beloved by a country that decided not to re-elect him almost a quarter-century ago. It is exactly what George W. Bush told us it was going to be -- "a love story." And that's not just okay, but that's why this is one of the most remarkable books ever written by a President. I don't just mean that it's one of the most remarkable books ever written by a President about a President; it's at the top of that very short list. It's also pretty high at the top of the much longer list of any book ever written by a President. Historically, few books can match its uniquely personal perspective. Stylistically, few can match its intimacy and close connection between the author and its subject. If you're seeking objectivity, find a book about George H.W. Bush by an outsider. Not every book about a person has to be a biography; sometimes, a book about a person can just be personal. As someone always searching for the people behind the Presidents, George W. Bush's 41: A Portrait of My Father lovingly reveals two of them to an extent that we may never see again.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.