WASHINGTON — After years of holding back, former President George Bush has finally broken his public silence about some of the key figures in his son’s administration, issuing scathing critiques of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
In interviews with his biographer, Mr. Bush said that Mr. Cheney had built “his own empire” and asserted too much “hard-line” influence within George W. Bush’s White House in pushing for the use of force around the world. Mr. Rumsfeld, the elder Mr. Bush said, was an “arrogant fellow” who could not see how others thought and “served the president badly.”
Mr. Bush’s sharp assessments, contained in a biography by Jon Meacham to be published by Random House next week, gave voice to sentiments that many long suspected he had harbored but kept private until now. While he continued to praise his son, he did tell Mr. Meacham that the younger Mr. Bush was responsible for empowering Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld and was at times too bellicose in his language.
“I do worry about some of the rhetoric that was out there — some of it his, maybe, and some of it the people around him,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Meacham. “Hot rhetoric is pretty easy to get headlines, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the diplomatic problem.”
Asked for specifics, Mr. Bush cited his son’s State of the Union address in 2002, when he described an “axis of evil” that included Iraq, Iran and North Korea. “You go back to the ‘axis of evil’ and these things and I think that might be historically proved to be not benefiting anything,” he said.
The biography, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” is coming out as the country is focused once again on the Bush family and its place in the American firmament. With Jeb Bush, Mr. Bush’s second son, struggling in his campaign for the White House, the family that has held the White House the longest in the modern age now faces the possibility that its time has passed.
But the first George Bush, now 91 and frail from a form of Parkinson’s disease, has seen his reputation rise again with the passage of time, and Mr. Meacham’s largely admiring biography offers the most definitive account to date about the nation’s 41st president. Mr. Meacham, a former editor of Newsweek and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, spent years doing research for the book, which is based in part on interviews with the former president and diaries he and his wife, Barbara, kept.
In addition to the reviews of Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld, the book reveals that the older Mr. Bush suffered from a post-victory despondency after the Persian Gulf war of 1991 — a “letdown” over no longer being involved in such a huge endeavor — that led him to consider not running for a second term. It also reports that Donald J. Trump, now a leading Republican candidate for president, wanted to be Mr. Bush’s running mate in 1988, and that Jeb Bush privately urged him to drop Dan Quayle from the ticket in 1992.
On March 13, 1991, just two weeks after Iraq capitulated in the gulf war, Mr. Bush fantasized in his diary about calling it quits after a single term. He would “call a press conference in about November and just turn it loose,” he said in the audio diary. “You need someone in this job” who could give his “total last ounce of energy, and I’ve had” that “up until now, but now I don’t seem to have the drive.”
“Maybe it’s the letdown after the day-to-day” 5 a.m. calls “to the Situation Room; conferences every single day with Defense and State; moving things, nudging things, worrying about things, phone calls to foreign leaders, trying to keep things moving forward, managing a massive project,” he said in the diary. “Now it’s different, sniping, carping, bitching, predictable editorial complaints.”
The book includes diary entries about the tensions between Mrs. Bush and Nancy Reagan (“Nancy does not like Barbara”) and his private comments about Michael S. Dukakis, his 1988 opponent (“midget nerd”). It reports that as defense secretary for the elder Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney commissioned a study of how many tactical nuclear weapons would be needed to take out an Iraqi Republican Guard division, if necessary. (The answer: 17.)
It also describes Mr. Bush’s evolution on issues like same-sex marriage. While gearing up for his 1988 campaign, Mr. Bush said in his audio diary that Americans “don’t want homosexual marriages codified.”
In retirement, he attended a same-sex marriage and in September of this year sent Mr. Meacham a note to clarify his position.
“Personally, I still believe in traditional marriage,” Mr. Bush wrote. “But people should be able to do what they want to do, without discrimination. People have a right to be happy. I guess you could say I have mellowed.”
But it may be Mr. Bush’s views of his son’s administration and advisers that will draw the most attention. In his interviews with Mr. Meacham, the former president returned several times to the topic of Mr. Cheney, who handled the role of vice president very differently from the way the first Mr. Bush did under Ronald Reagan.
“He had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer,” Mr. Bush said. “It just showed me that you cannot do it that way. The president should not have that worry.”
He said he thought Mr. Cheney had changed since serving in his cabinet. “He just became very hard-line and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with,” Mr. Bush said. He attributed that to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East.”
He speculated that Mr. Cheney was influenced by his wife, Lynne, and his daughter Liz, both strong conservatives. “I’ve concluded that Lynne Cheney is a lot of the eminence grise here – iron-ass, tough as nails, driving,” he said.
Still, he called Mr. Cheney “a good man” who pushed boundaries too far. “The big mistake that was made was letting Cheney bring in kind of his own State Department,” Mr. Bush said. “I think they overdid that. But it’s not Cheney’s fault. It’s the president’s fault.”
By that, he meant his son. “The buck stops there,” the elder Mr. Bush said.
He was even harsher about Mr. Rumsfeld, who had been a rival of his since the 1970s, when both served in Gerald R. Ford’s administration. “I think he served the president badly,” Mr. Bush said. “I don’t like what he did, and I think it hurt the president having his iron-ass view of everything. I’ve never been that close to him anyway. There’s a lack of humility, a lack of seeing what the other guy thinks. He’s more kick ass and take names, take numbers. I think he paid a price for that.”
He added, “Rumsfeld was an arrogant fellow and self-assured, swagger.”
But that did not mean Mr. Bush disagreed with his son about the Iraq war, as many have assumed. Toppling and capturing Saddam Hussein were “proud moments” in American history, he said, and he did not like comparing his son’s war with his. “Different wars, different reasons,” he said. He denied that he shook his head in disapproval at his son’s decisions. “Saddam’s gone, and with him went a lot of brutality and nastiness and awfulness,” he said.
He would not be drawn into a blow-by-blow discussion of his son’s presidency. “He’s my son, he did his best and I’m for him,” Mr. Bush said. “It’s that simple an equation.”
In the course of researching the book, Mr. Meacham showed transcripts of the former president’s remarks to Mr. Cheney, who read them, smiled and said, “Fascinating.”
“I never heard any of this from 41,” Mr. Cheney told Mr. Meacham. “He would sometimes stick his head in and we’d talk, but he never indicated anything like this.”
Mr. Cheney did not argue with the notion that he had changed. “No question I was much harder-line after 9/11 than I was before, especially when we got into this whole area of terrorism, nukes and W.M.D.,” he said, meaning weapons of mass destruction. He added: “We were dealing with a completely different kind of threat after 9/11. We lost 3,000 people. It was worse than Pearl Harbor, here at home.” And so “we were justified in taking extraordinary measures to defend the country.”
He agreed that his arrangement with the younger Mr. Bush was different, but said “that’s what President Bush 43 wanted.” He added, “I do disagree with putting it on Lynne and Liz.”
The younger Mr. Bush was also shown a transcript of his father’s remarks. “He certainly never expressed that opinion to me, either during the presidency or after,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Meacham. “I valued Dick’s advice, but he was one of a number of my advisers I consulted, depending on the issue.”
His father, he added, “would never say to me: ‘Hey, you need to rein in Cheney. He’s ruining your administration.’ It would be out of character for him to do that. And in any event, I disagree with his characterization of what was going on. I made the decisions. This was my philosophy.”
As for his “hot rhetoric,” the younger Mr. Bush said: “It is true that my rhetoric could get pretty strong and that may have bothered some people — obviously it did, including Dad, though he never mentioned it.”
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