tv Overheard With Evan Smith PBS February 27, 2016 4:30pm-5:01pm PST
- [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. also, by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. - i'm evan smith, he's a pulitzer prize winning biographer, and former editor in chief of newsweek, - [evan] whose latest book, destiny and power, the american odyssey of george herbert walker bush, has just been published. he's jon meacham, this is overheard. - [evan] let's be honest, is this about the ability to learn or is this about the experience of not having been taught properly? how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa? you can say that he made his own bed but you caused him to sleep in it. you saw a problem and over time, took it on and-- let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak. are you going to run for president? i think i just got an f from you actually.
(crowd applauds) - jon meacham welcome. - thank you sir. - nice to see you again. - delighted to be here. - and you have another winner on your hands? - well i hope so, i hope so. - who knows these days in the book business. - in the book business but it's been a long time, a long journey. - it has been. why him? - because he matters. he's a consequential president with an extraordinary life. it's an american saga. if we wrote this as a novel and submitted it, it would get bounced for being improbable. - not believable enough as fiction. - no, here's what we're going to do. on his 18th birthday, he's going to graduate from high school and go to boston and enlist in the navy. at the age of 20, he's going to be shot down out of the sky, rescued by a us submarine after losing two men. he thinks about those men everyday the rest of his life. in an interview with me 70 years later, 60 years later, he breaks down into tears wondering whether he did enough to save them, del delany and ted white,
on that saturday over chichi-jima in the pacific. always wondered why was i spared? and i think his whole life, in many ways, has been an attempt to live up to their sacrifice. to prove himself worthy of his survival. - is it enough though for him to be worthy of a book like this? is that enough of a reason to write one? the book publishing world today is different than the book publishing world of old. and if you're going to spend time on a book, you can do something that is the right decision but ultimately is not going to be read by a lot of people, it's not going to be a commercial success. he's not the sexiest subject especially since he's still so present in our recent memory. - i think he is a sexy subject. - you want to argue for 41 as a sexy subject. - rather self evidently i would argue for that. - there you go, yes. - i disagree. i think he lead this extraordinary life. - right, do you think we appreciate that though as much as you appreciate it? - well no that's why -- - and that's the exercise that you vendor in?
- do we need to walk through this? (crowd laughs) - i guess this is how it works. you write a book, we read it then we get it. - you read it and then you appreciate okay? - and that's what this is about. - i can slow this down if you want. (crowd laughs) - here's the thing. i don't get any smarter so it's okay. i absolutely understand that he is worthy. and i understand that may well be enough. but you understand, you can spend your time and your credibility as a pulitzer prize winning biographer on anybody and you chose him. - sure, i did choose him. and in fact, with predictable modesty, he asked me the same question. - [evan] why me? - basically, i have a note from him after i published a book on andrew jackson that i called american lion and he said, "it's a little overwhelming to follow "in the footsteps of a lion." he said to his chief of staff one day, "what if he just finds an empty deck of cards?" which is classic bush speak. - it's so bush isn't it? - because it's either not a full deck or an empty suit blended together. (crowd laughs) it's a little bit like, this was a little like writing a biography of dana carvey. there were moments.
- yeah, right. - you know, you could hear it you know? unleashed orgy of death. (crowd laughs) one of the joys of doing it and we'll get back to why, is at one point this summer, in the course of a single hour in fact checking it, i spoke to henry kissinger, dick cheney and dana carvey, who did the entire interview in character. (crowd laughs) and so i'm still not sure. it might have been the president. - well it sounds like fun. - it was great fun. and i said, "well what are the elements "of the impression?" and carvey said, "it's an underlay "of mister rogers with some john wayne thrown in." which is actually a brilliant way. - that explains it. - explains the whole thing. i met him in 1998. our mutual friend michael (mumbles) and i went up to walkers point to interview him and brent scowcroft about their book on foreign policy. within an hour, i would say, i found him to be a much more complicated and interesting figure than i had appreciated walking in. - you only knew him from a remove. - sure, sure, i'd been in college
when he was president. i went to (mumbles) which is downton abbey meets deliverance. (crowd laughs) - i'm sure that will go right on their web site. - yeah, right there, right there, right there. and i was a little fuzzy because i had a really good friend there. his name's jack daniels and so, the whole gulf war was a little bit of a blur for me. - hard to remember much about it. - exactly, he's a good guy though jack. so i sort of had the popular image and i realized, this man became president not because he was uncharismatic, not in spite of it but because he had a quiet, persistent charisma and he won people over one by one by one over a 1/2 century of political life that began in harris county texas, that began in a national way in this city, not far from here when he announced his senate candidacy in 1963 for the '64 race. he bent history quietly. reagan bent history showily.
this man confronted a world that was in one place and left it in another place. it was better off because of what he had done. - how much of his success politically, you bring up reagan. how much of his success politically was because he followed reagan? often we go from the thing we have to the thing that is not the most opposite but is at least different enough. - right. - right. - right. - it compensates for what we didn't have before. stylistically, temperamentally, if not ideologically, they were not exactly the same person. - they weren't, they weren't. in fact, reagan didn't want him on the ticket. he wanted gerald ford on the ticket in 1980. it went until 11:35 pm on the penultimate night of the convention before the phone rang and bush became vice president. both bush's have since said to me in interviews, that if that deal had worked, if reagan/ford had pulled that off in detroit, that neither one of them would have been president, neither bush would have made it. - it all pivots off of that one. - it does pivot off that decision.
- off that one. - but he was vice president and balanced the ticket, as you say ideologically, to some extent geographically, he had won pennsylvania and michigan in the primary so there were these things called moderate republicans then. - oh we'll get back to that, we'll get to that. - triceratops but i think that right now, it's hard to get back to where the view of reagan was in '87 and '88 but it was not where it is now. he was seen as a much more vigorous, detail oriented figure so he clearly, he would not have been president if he hadn't been vice president. but i think that the country was ready for someone who, in the essence of his campaign had to be that though he had lived life differently, he saw life the same way and he shared values with the broad american public. - you told me before we came out here that within 1/2 an hour a little bit like a first date, you either know or you don't know relatively quickly if this is going to be the one
or someone who maybe the one. you knew within a 1/2 an hour that you wanted to something with him or on him. did he want to do something with you as quickly? - we worked out on a number of years, 2006 we sort of decided that we were going to go steady and he shared his diaries with me, his audio diaries. - which were not really known to the world. - not very much. - many people did not know that he was as faithful a diarist an audio diarist. - he dictated a couple of times a week as president. at camp david, on marine one, on air force one, in his study, on foreign trips. they're more immediate because they are audio. he's talking about what it's like to be president which is really interesting because if you only knew him through the diaries, you would think he was more self absorbed than in fact he was. he had no other place to share these sentiments. he had no other place to complain.
when he complained every once in a while about the press or whatever was going on, because as he once told me, no one ever wants to hear the president of the united states say, "oh woes me." - right. - you're just damn lucky to be there. - but of course, even his complaining is george h. w. bush style complaining. - absolutely. - even his darkest moments, at his most frustrated moments he's still himself. - absolutely, this is an authentic human being and what you saw was what you got. what struck me, with this exception, he was a much more emotional man. bill clinton said, "he felt our pain." george bush really did. he just thought it was not part of the dignity of the office to show it. and one of the moments that broke my heart, and i put it in the prologue of the book was, they lost a child in 1953 to leukemia, a daughter robin and in what must have been one of the world's worst cases of white house advance, he was shown in to a children's' leukemia ward in krakow in '86, '87 as vice president
and he suddenly realizes whee he is and he starts to cry and the press is behind him and he realizes that if he turns around, the story becomes about him and not about them. so he won't turn around until he gets himself under control. that's a george bush that people never really knew. as i got to know him and i read these diaries and i listened to them, this goes back to your first question. it struck me, that if you have an emotionally complex, politically significant, globally vital president, that's worth a number of years of work and a story that should be told. - and the fact is, from a process standpoint, having access to the audio diaries provides his voice in real time assessing events and moments, news, what have you. then in form, you're thinking about him thinking about his presidency and for us, as readers, we hear his voice in this book
in a way that most biographies don't really allow. - that's a great point. for the good of the country, this is as close as i'm ever going to be to being president of the united states. it's just you're there. - you feel very present at key moments. - you're at malta with the ship listing during the storm with gorbachev. you're on marine one when he decides, on august 5th, 1990 as he's coming in to say this will not stand, he says, "if we don't do this, we could be facing "a new world war." a new world war. the president of the united states, you can hear the blades going saying this. and so you're with him in a way that as you say, most of the time we have to circle around our subjects, we infure, there's very little inference here. this is the record. this is what he felt as president. - and in part, what's happened over the years as people in politics have gotten wiser to those of us in the press,
we are actually shielded. as much as we think that the barriers or the walls have broken down between us and our subjects and now there's much more intimacy and we can see them 24 hours a day, seven days a week on social media and everything else. it's hard actually because they're on to us. and this, in a weird way, is the most unfiltered look you're going to get at a presidency almost ever because anybody who's come since this president is going to be much more careful about showing these moments to all of us. - he was probably unwise to keep the diary legally speaking. - when has there been a president who did this sort of a thing and it has not been said in the end, boy it was, look at, you know. - yeah it's true. - maybe lbg has been made better by that and i frankly would argue that he has been made better too but i just don't think we're going to have this kind of access again. - i don't think so either. and i think that he understood that. he kept them in part because he worried that if something happened to him, if he were to die early, he wanted barbara to have something that she could use
to make a book, to do a book and support the life. - remarkable. - he was thinking about the family and the future. - you had access to him, you had access to her, mrs. bush, you had access to the president in '43 and to all the siblings, you had access to the circle, anybody you didn't get access to who you wanted to get access to? - i would like to have talked to ross perot and just didn't. - tried? - i asked about it. - you were told no or hell no or you were told nothing in response? - i was told that it was not a subject he liked returning to, the '92 campaign. - it's one of the most interesting parts in the book. - and so mainly because it would have been interesting. i don't know if it would have changed the story. what was so striking about, we talked for nine years, the president and i did. - [evan] how often? - three or four times a year.
- in long blocks of time for each of those. - we'd do a morning, an afternoon, maybe a morning and then a morning. one of the most interesting things that happened was, he's not the most linear thinker as you know. - one remembers. - so therefore, a linear approach to interviews did not work. so if i did it chronologically he would get bored and start playing with tennis balls and stuff. i adopted a bushian style. i would just say gorbachev or your mother. and it would sort of work. - and he would just start talking. - and he would start talking. he would say, "loved her." (crowd laughs) i spent a lot of time listening to that voice. - i bet you did, that's great. - gorbachev, gorby. (crowd laughs) that's almost at the key, at the point. - that goes back to the dana carvey so perfect. - it really is but he was, i asked him
because it's a central question about george h.w. bush is the tension between service and ambition. because if you ask him most of time, what drove you, he says, "service." so i said, at one point, "mr. president, "with all due respect, you could have "opened a soup kitchen and served." "you saw an ultimate authority in a neclear age." "something else is going on here." and he sort of went ah. so that was in the morning in houston. that afternoon we were having a drink with mrs. bush about six hours later say. and all of a sudden he looks up and with that big left hand he said, "be number one." "whatever you're in, be the captain of the team." "meet your goal, i'm a goal kind of guy." "in some ways that's bad but in some ways that's good." and he sort of went back down. so the question had been bouncing around in his head for six hours and he finally answered it
in a honest, compelling way. he said a couple of things that presidents just don't say. admitting one's ambition at that level was one. another was that he felt like an asterisks. he felt lost between the glory or reagan and the trials and tribulations of his son. that's not a false modesty. what makes him so interesting psychologically is there is humility, there is modesty, there is dignity but there is raw, raw ambition and drive and a hunger, a physical hunger not figuratively, a physical hunger to shape the lives of other people. otherwise he wouldn't have gotten there. we all know lots of really charming guys who made a lot of money down here or who are on wall street. you can absolutely see what his life would have been like. - had he not done this. - [tom] had he not gone to texas. he wouldn't have been president if he hadn't come to texas. but that's who his is and that's who he was. the news of this book when the book was about to be published related
to his view, articulated in his very particular parlens of the advisers to his son, president 43 and there were footing right? he had a commentary about dick cheney and donald rumsfeld in particular. do you get the sense that he was waiting all these years for somebody to ask? - no, i think people ask all the time. - so why did he tell you what he thought as opposed to anybody who'd asked previously. - you don't think it's my charm and good looks? (crowd laughs) - i do, personally i think that. - the good looks part, i think, was the key. - is that what it is. - i've wondered that a lot. and he actually says at one point, this quotation's in the book, he says, "what you want to know "and what you need to know "but what i'm not going to tell you "is when i disagree with my son." so again, he's sort of-- - he's on to you. - oh yeah, the amiable partition was also the director of central intelligence. (crowd laughs) - he knows how to keep a secret. - oh my god, absolutely. - but he had to know that he was making news in saying what he said to you.
- he did, he did and it was over and it wasn't a drive by comment, that went on over several years. and i went back to him last december 14th and i said, "this is what's in the book "or going to be in the book "and i can't take it off the record sir but "if you want to say i said this in "the heat of the moment-- - want to amplify it. - "i've changed my mind." i'll do a parenthetical and he looked me dead in the eye and he said, 'that's what i said." so he wanted it to be known. i think two things. i think one is and also included in the comments about rumsfeld and cheney was his criticism of the sons using the phrase, access of evil specifically. so he thought that the tone had been to hawkish. i think they were rather close on the substance, closer than has been appreciated. the style was different. - the stylistic difference. so the news, as i say, the take away from the news reports in advance of this book were what i described.
my take away, for what it's worth, from this book was how far we've come in such a short period of time in terms of the view of government, the view of politics, the view of republican politics specifically. he seems like a man out of time, this seems like another century not just 25 years ago. the idea that republican politics of that era were what they are as you correctly describe in this book. fast forward to today, not even in the same universe right? vastly different, this man could not get through a republican primary today full stop. - no, absolutely. he's the last eisenhower republican in an era where that was already moving out of style and we now live in, i don't know what kind of republican, what phrase you want to use. it's more like the age of gingrich. where you are partisan to a fault. - in some ways though if you bread crumb today back to that era. pat buchanan in '92. the speech at the convention. what molly ivins famously described
it was better in the original german. - remember that? (crowd laughs) - yep, yep, yep, yep. - in some ways, the pat buchanan challenge to h.w. bush, not the first time there's been a challenge but it sort of gave you a window on the world that might be. - well i would argue that the moment that the politics you're talking about were born, came in the fall of 1990 when newt gingrich, a member of the republican house leadership, refuses to go to the rose garden to announce the budget compromise and instead goes out the other door of the white house and goes back to capital hill where he's welcomed by a rally of conservatives and the presidentú is just enraged but can't do anything about it. - right. - and so that moment, in the fall of 1990, i think is a big one. it was the rose garden rebellion. and suddenly, the world he knew, the world george h.w. bush knew, the world of his father, who'd been a senator from connecticut. when he went to the house from the 7th district
of texas in 1967, he invited the moving men to stay over by the way, so barbara had to go buy sheets at the sears because the first night in their house, he had guests. he voted with lyndon johnson 53% of the time. in '67 and '68. and so you would think, well it's a republican and a democrat, so that number must really go up when nixon becomes president in '69, '70. it skyrockets from 53 to 55%. he was a moderate man. conservative, a moderate conservative but he's not a movement conservative. - and the definition of conservative as we know, among the many things that has happened in the last number of years. the definition of conservative has changed. the notion of the center has base line shifted a couple of clicks to the right and it's just unrecognizable versus (mumbles). - and as he likes to say, labels are for cans and that's a sensible political sensibility. i believe it personally but what you're saying
is exactly right, that you have a donor class, and you now have an electoral system that doesn't really allow for a 53 or 55% person. - or the kinds of decency and elegance and bearing that george h.w. bush had. we have just a couple of minutes. of course i have to take the prerogative that i enjoy here and ask you about jeb bush, who you talked to for this book. - i did. - it's interesting to contemplate the jeb bush presidential campaign up to this point against the '88 and the '92 experiences of his father. can you tell us what the hell is going on with jeb bush? (crowd laughs) through the lens of his father and the reporting on this book. - well there are two things. one thing that would be reassuring, i think, to governor bush and his supporters would be that, you rightly point out, that george h.w. bush could not get through a republican primary. he damn near didn't get through the first time. - [evan] right, even then.
- he came in third in iowa behind pat robertson and bob dole in 1998. - but new hampshire was his firewall. - it was, it was but it was in part because he turned right. he promised not to raise taxes and he went negative on bob dole with an ad. the lesson, i think, of both the son and the brother is no bush has become president without going negative in an effective way. john mccain in south carolina. george w. bush got clobbered in new hampshire, south carolina was his firewall. - throttled mccain. - throttled mccain. so this isn't all a game of cricket or croquet and at some point, the bush's have always had to fight and fight hard and so there's world enough and time for that for governor bush. i just don't know if the party itself has become so ideologically incoherent
that when you think about a nominee of this desperate group of people, is it even possible to have someone who reflects each of these elements because these elements are so confusing. - right, the reality is that jeb bush is certainly not running in the party of george h. w. bush, he's arguably not running in the party of george w. bush. - that's the really striking thing. - those who have said he may have just been out of politics for so long, having been governor for some time but some time ago, the world may have changed. - it's not a particularly coherent party right now and this book is shot through with, as you said, use your image, bread crumbs of this. where george h.w. bush, in 1963, in mrs. bush's diary, there's a line, the nuts will never love him. she was talking about the birchers. - the nuts. - the nuts will never love him. (crowd laughs) when he's vice president, he's getting ready to go to the conservative political action committee and he says, "well i might as well go "but we might as well face it,
"the nuts have never been for me." as mark twain once said, "history may not repeat itself but it rhymes." (crowd laughs) jeb bush is hearing the rhymes here. - and the question is whether "the nuts" will be for him. - and whether he can actually consolidate the non nuts. (crowd laughs) this is a pretty technical historical. - it made more sense than you think it did. - i don't want to overwhelm you with historical dorkdum but the non nuts, are there enough non nuts to overcome the nuts? - right. well as one nut to another, (crowd laughs) i wish you well with this book. - thank you. - it's a treat to get to see you again and to see your continuous success. - always fun. - wonderful, jon meacham, thank you. (crowd applauds) - [voiceover] we'd love to have you join us in the studio. visit our web site at klru dot org slash overheard to find invitations to interviews,
q&a's with our audience and guests and an archive of past episodes. - i said, "mr. president, do you mind "if i offer a theory here?" he said, "sure." i said, "i think you downplayed "the number of occasions you actually "consulted your father because you were "fearful of appearing overly dependent "on the previous generation." and w. said, "that's not a bad observation." - [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by, mfi foundation. improving the quality of life within our community. also, by hillco partners. a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation.