By Tom Benning, The Dallas Morning News
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas — For most of George W. Bush’s public life, observers have tried to define him in part by looking back at his father, George H.W. Bush.
But now, the younger half of the nation’s second father-son presidential duo has reversed the script with a new book, “41: A Portrait of My Father.” In it, the 43rd president uses his experiences and insights to spotlight the achievements of the 41st.
The book helps fill a void in presidential history, as the elder Bush’s single term hasn’t gotten the attention of the Reagan and Clinton eras that sandwiched it. But the younger Bush makes no bones about the fact that it is a “love story.”
“I hope this book is part of the larger mosaic that emerges about George Bush,” he said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “I recognize, by the way, that there are going to be a lot more objective people writing about him.”
The 294-page book, to be published Tuesday, is a breezy collection of anecdotes — “the style of George W.,” the author said with a grin. But in looking back at his dad’s life, Bush also offers notes about current policy and political debates.
He said he hoped that a new U.S. strategy in Iraq — a key country in both Bush presidencies — will stem the tide of Islamic extremists. He’s encouraging his brother Jeb to run for president in 2016, even after experiencing and observing how tough that process can be.
And though George W. Bush says he hates the word “legacy,” he didn’t shy away from sharing a personal view of the first Bush presidency for future generations to consider.
“The decisions he made have stood the test of time,” Bush 43 said.
The book truly is unique in the pantheon of presidential biographies. That’s partly why the younger Bush took up the task.
After leaving the White House, Bush 43 met with Dorie McCullough Lawson, whose father, David McCullough, wrote acclaimed biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams — the latter, of course, part of the nation’s only other father-son presidential duo.
Lawson told Bush that one of her dad’s big regrets, as a historian, was that John Quincy Adams never wrote a book about his dad. And “for history’s sake,” Bush remembers her saying, he should write about his own dad.
Given George H.W. Bush’s long tenure in the public eye, the younger Bush said he wasn’t really surprised by anything he found in his research. But he said he was most impressed by his dad’s “willingness to take risks.”
Some examples are clear: joining the Navy during World War II or leaving his privileged East Coast upbringing to raise a family in West Texas. Others are less obvious: running for the Senate as a Republican in Democratic-dominated Texas or asking for a diplomatic posting in China.
“This is an independent thinker, a person who defies what people naturally think about him,” the younger Bush said.
Bush 43 said the key to his dad taking those chances was a nurturing home environment, particularly wife Barbara.
“Love mitigates risk,” the younger Bush said.
Bush 41 extended that attitude toward his children, even as he took up increasingly stressful political jobs, the younger Bush said.
“I’m convinced that Jeb and I would not have decided to run for office had he been a lousy father,” he said.
The question surrounding the Bush family these days, obviously, is whether Jeb Bush will run for president.
In the media blitz leading up to the book’s launch, George W. Bush echoed prior statements that he hopes his brother runs. He told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that it’s a “50-50” chance that the former Florida governor will enter the 2016 fray.
But reading 41, it’s clear that George W. Bush remains hurt by aspects of the family’s White House campaigns: news coverage, the “shallowness of the presidential debate process,” and, of course, his father’s failed re-election bid in 1992.
Why would he encourage anyone, much less a loved one, to run for president?
“Throughout our family history, there was a notion of serving others,” George W. Bush said.
But he was also quick to brush aside any notion of dynastic ambition — even as his nephew, Jeb’s son George P., prepares to take statewide office as Texas land commissioner.
“There’s no family blueprint that says, once upon leaving office, the next generation will immediately run two years hence,” he said.
Still, there are aspects of the Bush presidencies that continue to come full circle.
In the book, George W. Bush devotes several pages to Iraq. He looks at war-time decisions — including the Bushes’ differing calls on taking out Saddam Hussein.
“I believe the decision that Dad made in 1991 was correct — and I believe the same is true of the decision I made a dozen years later,” Bush writes.
But he also addresses the uncertain future in Iraq, where he says “developments and decisions” after his administration have “regrettably” allowed for Islamic State extremists to take hold. And he writes that he hopes “we will do what it takes to defeat ISIS.”
Asked Monday to elaborate, the former president first harked back to the “Bush doctrine.”
“Part of the strategy was to be relentless in the pursuit of justice, to not allow there to be a safe haven, to take every threat seriously and to spread freedom to marginalize the capacity of these killers to recruit,” Bush 43 said.
On the heels of the White House’s decision to send more troops back into Iraq, Bush also said that he hopes President Barack Obama’s goal _ which Bush described as a “noble” effort to “degrade and defeat” Islamic State fighters — will succeed.
“We’ll see,” Bush said, noting his post-White House practice of not publicly second-guessing his successor. “It seems to me, from afar, that the president and his advisers are adjusting their strategy to achieve that goal.”
Though “41” takes those serious policy turns, it serves mostly as a character sketch of a man the author loves.
A repeated theme is how George H.W. Bush has befriended or offered comfort to his political rivals, from Bill Clinton to Geraldine Ferraro to Al Gore. (One notable exception is Ross Perot, the third-party candidate who possibly cost Bush 41 the 1992 election.)
In the book, George W. Bush recalls how his parents warmly welcomed the Clintons to the White House after the bruising presidential campaign. Years later, the elder Bush explained to his son why he did that: “I had no choice.”
“But you have choices in life,” George W. Bush said in the interview. “His nature is such that even though the defeat stung, he didn’t become bitter.”
Bush added: “He’s a humble guy.”
AFP Photo/Saul Loeb
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