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Biographer helps sort out history of George H.W. Bush

Unlike his modern peers, former President George H.W. Bush never wrote an autobiography, one of those doorstop memoirs aimed at influencing the jury of historians. He never was much for public introspection.

Unlike his modern peers, former President George H.W. Bush never wrote an autobiography, one of those doorstop memoirs aimed at influencing the jury of historians. He never was much for public introspection.

"It's in character for the man whose mother always warned him not to speak of the 'Great I Am' and not to be a braggadocio," biographer Jon Meacham said Wednesday in an interview.

"Most people want to have their say, but he was willing to let historians sort it out," Meacham said, adding, "That's a bet that's paid off so far."

The president known as "41" to separate him from his son George W., the 43d president, emerges as reticent, prudent, emotional - and underrated - in Meacham's new Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, published Tuesday by Random House.

Meacham will discuss the project, with New Yorker Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza asking questions, in a 7 p.m. program Thursday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. He will also sign copies of the book.

The biography is based on access to years of George H.W. and Barbara Bush's tape-recorded diaries and countless interviews Meacham conducted with the former president and family members from 2006 to 2015.

"I never counted up the hours, maybe I should," Meacham said. "I have 60,000 to 70,000 words of transcribed interviews."

He said that the president put no restrictions on the use of his diaries. Barbara Bush wanted quote approval before he published any of her recollections, but she never exercised it, Meacham said.

It all began 17 years ago when Meacham met 41; he initially wanted to annotate and edit the Bushes' diaries. As he read transcripts of the president's contemporaneous recordings, Meacham said, he realized his subject deserved a "deep dive."

He said Bush was "fascinating, with a sort of quiet, persistent charisma" and a more compelling figure than he had realized during the first Bush administration, which served from 1989 to 1993.

Having access to hours and hours of daily recorded observations was invaluable.

"He was often tired; the intonations of the voice informed the mood of the writing," Meacham said. "This is really as close as most of us are going to get to being president. You are really sitting with him, and he's narrating events as they happen."

The president's diary, recorded on analog tapes, represents an "amazing historical document," Meacham said. "It's the last diary like this we're going to see because of special prosecutors and investigations and all that. . . . I feel for my successor biographers."

Early excerpts from the book have grabbed headlines, particularly as Meacham coaxed George H.W. Bush to drop his long-standing refusal to criticize his son's administration, in office from 2001 to 2009. He said 43's rhetoric ("axis of evil," etc.) was needlessly hot in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and suggested that the younger Bush was influenced by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Bush 41 said Cheney was "very hard-line" and overeager to "use force to get our way." He described both Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a longtime political rival, as "iron-ass" characters.

Meacham's subject, with his willingness to compromise and his stiff-upper-lip sense of duty, comes across as almost quaint in the context of today's combative and gridlocked national politics.

"We are unlikely to see that kind of character become president in the foreseeable future, and I think that's regrettable," Meacham said. "He governed in an era not unlike ours - freelance partisanship was on the rise, the 24-hour news cycle was on the rise, the confessional style of politics was on the rise. He was not adept at those new realities, but what he got right he got right."

In Meacham's view, that includes the budget deal (with tax increases) that set the stage for the nation's prosperity under the Clinton administration; the Americans With Disabilities Act; the amendments to the Clean Air Act; managing the end of the Cold War; and the conduct of the first Gulf War.

"You can't really tell how tall a mountain is until it's in the distance," Meacham said.

tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718 @tomfitzgerald

www.inquirer.com/bigtent

Two tiers of tickets are available for Thursday's program at the National Constitution Center, 525 Arch St. At $25 for museum members and $30 for nonmembers, guests will receive a copy of the book. Tickets at $7 for members and $10 for nonmembers also are available. For information, call 215-409-6700 or go to http://constitutioncenter.org/debate.