Mark Updegrove is best known for his association with Pres. Johnson: he is the President and CEO of the LBJ Foundation here in Austin. This follows an 8-year stint as Director of the LBJ Presidential Library.
His latest book, however, is about the most famous Republican dynasty: the two presidents named Bush. According to the author, they were not just two Republican presidents, but this country’s last two Republican presidents.
Actually, as he explained in a recent talk at the University of Texas, it was George W. Bush who actually made the startling suggestion. “My original title for the book was 41 and 43: A Love Story. Then George Bush told me in an interview: ‘I may be the last Republican president.’”
The book is based on a series of interviews: 6 with the elder Bush (president 41), and 9 with W (president 43). “The Bushes are famously circumspect, and wary of psycho babble,” explained Updegrove. He first approached 41, who said he would agree to cooperate with the author if his son approved. After pitching the idea to 43, Updegrove said he was “shocked” when W. replied “I’ve decided this story needs to be written.”
Just what this story is was elucidated by Updegrove with two vignettes. The first was set at Camp David, Christmas 1990, where the extended Bush clan gathered. “It was fraught with tension for the elder Bush. Was he going to send ground troops into Kuwait? He had a dream in which his father [Prescott Bush] was still alive: he went to a hotel room and there was his father, and they embraced. He wanted his father’s guidance and counsel.”
In 2001, says Updegrove, “George W. Bush was faced with a similar situation with Saddam Hussein, but he had his father to turn to. For the first time as president, he asked his father for advice. There has been speculation about how Bush senior has directly or indirectly influenced his son, so this story had to be written.”
The author says that so much time has passed since 41’s term in office that, at age 93, “he is one of the few presidents who has lived to see an accurate reflection on his presidency. He may be regarded as our best one-term president, but for W it is going to take us far longer to assess his presidency. It’s complication, he has even been called a war criminal. For Johnson it took two generations for passions over the war to cool down, and I think it will take two generations to get an accurate take on W’s presidency.”
They had very different styles. Updegrove termed 41 as “the ultimate diplomat. He didn’t declare victory in the Cold War since he wanted to maintain relations with Gorbachev. W., by contrast, is a natural politician, but he was not a master diplomat. W called himself The Decider: he believes he has this innate ability to decide. According to W, Rumsfeld and Cheney ‘never made one effing decision.’”
Whatever one may think of the Bush presidencies, Updegrove’s book is a major addition to the literature and will help shape the decision of future historians about what those 12 years in the White House meant to America and the world.
Photo with this article copyright by Dr. C. Cunningham