Readers looking for major political revelations, presidential secrets, and insider accounts in George W. Bush's biography of his father, "41: A Portrait of My Father," will be disappointed.
And yet, according to reviews, "41" is so personally persuasive as an emotional introspection and as an affectionate portrait of George H.W. Bush, the political details – including whether or not brother Jeb will run for president – will hardly be missed.
As Bush 43 describes it in the book's jacket summary, "41" is primarily "a love story – a personal portrait of the extraordinary man who I am blessed to call my dad," a point that The New York Times and Wall Street Journal echo in their reviews.
The Times' Michiko Kakutani calls it "an affectionate portrait of the 41st president that’s short on factual revelations and long on emotion."
At its best, the book is "folksy, sharply observed and surprisingly affecting, especially for someone not exactly known for introspection," writes Kakutani. At its worst, it is "transparent [in its] efforts to spin or sidestep important questions about his own time in office."
As a personal account, rather than a political one, "41" offers a surprisingly nuanced portrait of the elder Bush, and if readers read between the lines, insights into the life and mind of the younger Bush, as well.
The book covers the major highlights of the life of the senior Bush, now in his 90s and with a "fading memory" – his military service in World War II, his political rise as a Congressman, then CIA director, vice president, and president, as well as his strengths as a statesman known for his diplomacy and as a husband and father known for his warmth and humor.
It excels in its exploration of the seemingly trivial personal details that provide insight into Bush 41.
Like the fact that "Bush senior was unfailingly kind to the stewards, Secret Service agents, cooks – anyone who worked at the White House," as the Wall Street Journal's Fred Barnes writes. "While he was CIA director in the late 1970s, he took the employee elevator, not the one reserved for the director.... He hated what he called 'bigshot-itis.'"
Or the fact that the elder Bush liked to send corny jokes to the younger Bush to buoy his son’s spirits while he was president.
"[I]t is the examination of the senior Bush’s character that is unique and valuable," writes the Journal, which it says makes "41" "such a joy to read."
Perhaps most interesting, however, is the book's revelations about the relationship between father and son.
At first glance, the pair couldn't be more dissimilar:
"Whereas Bush senior was famous for his self-effacing New England manners and quiet diplomacy, Bush junior became known as a proud, outspoken gut player, with Texas swagger," writes the Times' Kakutani. "Whereas Bush senior’s policies were grounded in foreign policy realism and old-school Republican moderation, Bush junior’s tilted toward neoconservatism and a drive to export democracy and remake the world."
Those differences appeared to play out in their political decisions and governing styles.
Hence Bush 43's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and topple its leader, Saddam Hussein, whom the elder Bush deliberately refrained from targeting.
Various political observers have theorized over the years that the younger Bush often felt overshadowed by his father. "And they have speculated that, as president, he was driven to outdo his dad by taking Saddam Hussein down for good, and by winning a second term," the Times adds, "arguments the Bush family has dismissed as psychobabble."
Still, hints of an Oedipal relationship are fascinating and may explain some oddly revealing details Bush makes in the book.
For example, Bush Jr. freely admits that he didn't consult his father about running for governor in Texas in 1994, nor did he consult him about running for president in 2000, nor did he consult him about going to war in Iraq in 2003. It's a revelation that some may perceive as strange, considering the elder Bush's position as both Bush 43's father and a former president with excellent foreign policy credentials as well as experience invading Iraq.
Nonetheless, as the Times writes, "The oddly dysfunctional inability of father and son to discuss policy and politics – out of fear, it seems, of meddling or stepping on each other’s toes – is a recurrent theme in this book."
As such, "41" is indeed revealing. No, readers will find no political bombshells or tell-all gossip. What they will find is a deeply personal account of Bush 41 and a rare glimpse of Bush 43 as introspective son and biographer, at turns "jokey and sentimental, irreverent and sincere."