I was too young to really follow the presidency of Ronald Reagan. I have vague memories of the Cold War, but it always felt like a distant and insubstantial thing. It wasn’t until Desert Storm that world events really started to register through the haze of childish indifference. So George H.W. Bush is indelibly connected, for good or ill, to the opening of my world and discovery of politics. While I can’t say I paid great attention to his administration, his was the first I was even superficially aware of.
Having read George W. Bush’s memoir Decision Points (see my second review), I knew 41 would quickly be added to my list of presidential biographies. I didn’t really have expectations for this book apart from the vague notion that it would probably be a good read. And, for the most part, my expectations were met. There are a number of asides about the early life of George W. that could have been excised, but I think they were typically used to illustrate some lesson he learned from his father.
Ultimately, this book isn’t simply a loving biography of H.W. (though it is that); it also serves as a kind of prequel to W.’s memoir, showing that without his father, W. never would have become the man that he is. While I found it to be a nice companion piece to the memoir of his own administration, it is nevertheless quite a departure from his previous work. He’s chosen to eschew much of the framework and intent of Decision Points, and instead focus on telling the story of his father, making this a more traditional biography.
So while I enjoyed the book, I felt that it suffers somewhat for that. The lasting measure of his father’s career is always left outside the scope of this book. George W. Bush provides a thorough telling of the path that H.W. to the presidency, and describes the key events of his administration: the fall of the Soviet empire and end of the Cold War, Grenada, Iraq, the economy….but he never intended this to be an exegesis of his father’s presidency, and that is most emphatically not what we’re getting. Instead, we get a deeply personal account of an historical figure written by a son who loves him dearly.
W. was driven to write this book mainly because John Quincy Adams didn’t write a biography of his own father, and he felt that history is worse because there is no deeply insightful biography from such a unique perspective. He was attempting to provide that for his father, and I think he largely achieved his goals. What you’ll find, here, is the account of a man’s life from the person who most closely attempted to not only follow in his footsteps, but also to make up for what was perhaps H.W.’s greatest failure: only serving one term as president.
While I do recommend it as an engaging biography, don’t look for it to alter your perspective of the subject (as Decision Points did for me). It’s a good read, and of some historical significance, but there’s no paradigm shift.