Many people recognize President Reagan or President Clinton because they represent the end of the 20th century, but among them, one president remains hidden from the public eye. George H. W. Bush may not be as well-known as the other presidents are, but his contributions to the U.S. are nonetheless important. Timothy Naftali, in his piece George H. W. Bush, takes into account of all the aspects of Bush’s one term presidency. “Although Bush was emotional and a worrier,” Naftali explains, “his key decisions as president were wise and considered.”1 Bush overshadowed his shortcomings with his many achievements at home and around the world. Naftali’s work thoroughly analyses his Presidency, as he delves into the not so popular presidency of H.W. Bush.
As the book opens, Naftali first details about Bush’s life before his presidency. He was born in 1924, and was named George H. W. after his grandfather. When World War Two began, he joined the navy to become the youngest pilot in the Navy in 1943, marrying Barbara Pierce before he left to go off to war. The most well-known story with Bush’s pre-presidency was his bomb raid, in which he was shot down, having to leave his two co-pilots in the plane as he jumped off, ripping his parachute and diving into the ocean. After his military career, Bush attended Yale and graduated in three years, which afterwards, he did not follow his father’s footsteps, which was family tradition. Bush moved with his family to Texas to join the oil industry, eventually creating Zapata Petroleum in 1953. His father all throughout this was the first to introduce politics to the Bush family. Prescott Bush became a senator, and advised to his sons “that a man should seek political office only after securing his family’s finances.”2 Since Bush had his oil business, he began to pursue politics, with his first move being his election as the Chairman of the Houston Republican Party. He then moved up in 1966 by winning a congressional seat in the “ways and means” committee. Bush continued to involve himself, working closely with Nixon and his policies, which gave him much support. He also began to delegate with China and Taiwan for Nixon. As the Watergate scandal became an issue, Bush wisely decided to stay out of Nixon’s tangled relationships. After Nixon’s resignation, he decided to run for Vice President under Gerald Ford in 1974, but he did not win. However, he became an ambassador to China and later the director of the CIA. As his political life progressed, he decided to run in the 1980 election against Reagan. This ultimately fails as he gets pushed out of the race, but gets accepted as Reagan’s Vice President. When Reagan was shot an attempted assassination, Bush filled in for him, getting involved with the Invasion of Grenada, Iranian terrorism, and most other foreign policy. One of the most important issues in his pre-presidency was the Iran-Contra Scandal in 1986, with Reagan’s signature allowing the sale of 3,504 TOW missiles to Iran. As Bush’s political career soared under Reagan’s presidency, he became a popular candidate in the 1988 election.
Bush’s political life changed forever as he won the presidency. One of his first problems was the strategic review of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev. Most of Bush’s troubles came from foreign policy, like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the attempts of reunification of Germany. Some others include the Sandinista government under Noriega, the Savings and Loans crisis, and “cleaning up Reagan’s [messes]” such as his relations with the Soviet Union. In 1989, the famous Tiananmen Square Massacre killed many students protesting against the government. Bush tried his best to contact the Chinese government, as he did not want to see the Sino-American relation change. Besides foreign policy, Bush had to deal with the deep national debt that Reagan left behind in his presidency, which part of his mess. Issues such as the Savings and Loans Crisis and his electoral promise not to raise taxes plagued his presidency for most of the term.
The most important and most prominent event that Bush had to deal with was the Invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s 120,000 troops and 850 tanks in 1990. Bush thought he would use this crisis to “build a better world” as he wanted the French and the Soviets to create an arms and oil embargo on Iraq.4 At the Helsinki Summit, Gorbachev and Bush jointly declared to use “all means” against Hussein. The conflict shifted from Operation Desert Shield to Operation Desert Storm on January 17, 1999, which represented a major change from passive protection to aggressive action. Bush started off by sending air raids, which caused Hussein to fire his missiles on Israel, involving another country in the Gulf War. Bush then made the risky decision to send ground troops, with 85,000 Marines being the first. After the deaths of 147 Americans and 87 coalition forces soldiers, the Gulf war came to an end, which became the first major victory for America after World War II.
After the whole Kuwait and Saddam Hussein incident, Bush tended to the issues back home. Laws like the Clean Air Amendments in 1990, the Rio Treaty in 1992, and the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act and Civil Rights Act all contributed to internal problems in the United States. In 1991, a 100,000 people protest in Moscow led to the election of the first Russian President, Boris N. Yeltsin. Bush then signs the START Treaty with the new elected leader, which restored nuclear balance to both superpowers. With the start of 1992, Bush loses in his reelection against Clinton, which began his post-presidency work. Some incidences include conflicts in Somalia in 1993, pardoning people involved in the Iran-Contra Scandal, a royal tour of Kuwait, and helping his sons George W. Bush and Jeb Bush in politics. With the gradual fading of H.W. Bush’s popularity, George W. Bush’s controversial presidency led to many who wished that “someone like the elder Bush could come on the scene to clean up his son’s mess in Washington as he had once done for Ronald Reagan.”5 Even after his presidency was over, people longed to have someone like Bush back in power.
As Naftali details how Bush took control of his country, his message culminates in the statement made on the book’s inside cover: “The judicious statesman who won victories abroad but suffered defeat at home, whose wisdom and demeanor served America well at a critical time.”6 This explains how Bush’s foreign policy worked well, while his domestic issues did not. The “victories abroad” These victories abroad in the Gulf War, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the democratizing and dismantling of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War contrast with his weak domestic policy, which include his inability to boost the economy and his terrible speech skills, creating a barrier between him and the nation. Naftali uses this contrast to portray Bush in his strengths and weaknesses. But, as the author’s thesis states, the positive outweighed the negative, and President Bush contributed well when America needed him most.
Naftali is a Canadian-American historian who has graduated from Yale, Harvard, and John Hopkins. He has worked mostly in the counterterrorism and Cold War area of history, as his other works involve Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Khrushchev. He also presented a better analysis of the Watergate Scandal when he worked at the Nixon Library. All of these works would put terrorism and foreign policy in a different light, making Naftali’s views on Bush’s foreign policy a little more emphasized. The purpose for writing the whole Bush Biography could be solely talking about the foreign policy with Kuwait, China, The Soviets, and Iraq. In fact, a large section of the book is dedicated to Bush’s involvement in the Gulf War, making this event overemphasized than the rest of his presidency. This can create a bias, as Naftali may believe that the Gulf War is the single most important issue in Bush’s presidency. Another factor which affected Naftali and the writing of this book was George W. Bush’s presidency in 2007, which may have influenced Naftali to write this reassessment of H. W. Bush. As the last page of the book says, “George W. Bush’s controversial presidency led to a positive reassessment of his father’s time in the White House.”7 Reanalyzing H.W. Bush during his son’s presidency could potentially create a bias, as Naftali might have compared the son to the father, making Bush seem better than in reality.
From the reviews, it seems like this book was a positive addition when it came to looking at who George H. W. Bush was. Bob Timmermann, who earned his degree in History at UCLA, details in his review how “[Naftali] managed to distill the life of a man with a long resume and a Presidency filled with events of great import into an interesting narrative.”8 He concludes that this book provides a “narrative like” perspective on the life of Bush, creating more enjoyable reading material. He does not mention anything negative about the book, which is a sign that Naftali created a well written book. Walter Russel Mead, a writer for the magazine Foreign Affairs, notes about Bush and the end of the Cold War: “Naftali makes a strong case that Bush's own character and judgment played an indispensable role in the peaceful liquidation of a 40-year confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.”9 Mead suggests that Naftali emphasizes how crucial Bush was to the relation with the Soviet Union and its dismantling later on. By discussing his character, Mead dispels the idea of an awkward Bush. Just like Timmermann, Mead does not discuss any negative aspects about the book. Both reviews put Naftali’s work in a positive light, making his biography of Bush an indispensable part of the Bush story.
Reading through this book, one can note how it flows like a story, giving it a true biographical feel. Naftali does a tremendous job making the narrative of Bush’s life and presidency captivating and interesting. With his portrayal as a social misfit, Bush changes from and awkward politician to a strong and confident leader. His foreign policy around the world strengthened him to become the leader he was in the face of the Gulf War. With his work in NATO and the unification of Germany, Naftali concludes that “Bush sacrificed short term political gain for what he considered the national interest.”10 Bush’s ability to converse with other nations, charting out agreements, and working out foreign issues, makes for interesting character development, something that most readers would like to see in a protagonist. However what may deter some readers from enjoying this book may be the lengthy, unneeded descriptions of Bush’s pre-presidency and post presidency. Naftali’s analysis of the not so popular president makes for an interesting and somewhat enjoyable story to follow.
Two major themes in this biography are the rise of conservatism and progressivism in the 1980’s. In Naftali’s narrative, he depicts an energized “bloc of social conservatives”, who believed there was an “elitist plot to banish God and orthodox morality from modern society.”11 They saw the separation of church and state, sex education, flag burning, and women’s right to choose as an attack on society, which would degrade America from where it used to be. These people, mostly religious conservatives, became suspicious of Bush, as he was previously more liberal as it pertained to abortion and women’s rights. Conservatives and liberals alike began to push their policies onto him, causing a major conflict between the two. Both progressivism and conservatism go hand in hand, as “liberals” began to call themselves “progressives”, as these progressives battled against the conservatives. Progressives vied for their policies, using the façade of “progressivism.” The conservatives began to force liberals to the more extreme, causing a deeper rift between the two groups. Both of these groups of people displayed the themes of progression and conservatism in the 1980’s.
The work of Timothy Naftali, George H.W. Bush, sheds light on an obscure person in a troubled time. He brings to bear how important, yet unrecognized Bush was in his presidency, but provides how his awkwardness was made up for in his political actions. Naftali’s picture of Bush is a great addition to the library of Bush’s recorded history.
1. Naftali,Timothy. George H.W. Bush. New York. Times Books. 2007.3.
2. Naftali, Timothy. 12.
3. Naftali, Timothy. 69.
4. Naftali, Timothy. 104.
5. Naftali, Timothy. 176.
6. Naftali, Timothy. Inside Cover.
7. Naftali, Timothy. 176.
8. Timmermann, Bob. "George H.W. Bush by Timothy Naftali." One through FortyTwo or FortyThree. N.p., 21 Nov. 2009. Web. 23 May 2016.
9. Mead, Walter Russell. "George H.W. Bush." Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs Magazine, Mar.-Apr. 2008. Web. 20 May 2016.
10. Naftali, Timothy. 98.