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Book Review: 41 - A Portrait of My Father by George W. Bush

In 41: A Portrait of My Father, author and former President George Walker Bush acknowledges that there is nothing objective about the biography he writes about his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President of the United States. Many times in the book, the younger Bush acknowledges the deep love that he has for his subject. He also acknowledges that this book is not a critical analysis of the first Bush presidency. There are no stark secrets exposed nor any controversies explored. The book is, at its core, an expression of affection by a son for his father as the father approaches the sunset of his life. But it a mistake to dismiss this book as literary fluff, particularly because of the fascinating life that its subject has led and the content of its subject's character.

41

Author Bush cites, as the inspiration for the book, a conversation he had with the daughter of the outstanding historian David McCullough, famous for his epic biography of President John Adams, also the father of a subsequent president. McCullough notes, with regret, that President John Quincy Adams never wrote a biography of his father, and how history was poorer for it. Unlike the Adams family, Bush 43 has the added advantage of being able to do so while his father is still living. His enthusiasm for the task is very apparent.

It is an understatement to say that the elder Bush has lived an interesting life. Born to a prominent family, George H. W. Bush's life story is not that of someone who always took the easy path. He enlisted in the Navy the moment that he was of age to do so and became the youngest pilot in the US Navy at the time. He did not seek the safety his connections might have afforded him, and instead courageously participated in a number of combat missions, leading to an escape from death when his plane was shot down during a combat mission. He was an accomplished athlete and was captain of his baseball team in a college world series. He passed up on the opportunity to take advantage of family connections, instead plunging into the oil industry in an unfamiliar part of the county. Throughout his career he held a number of interesting jobs: congressman, Ambassador to China, Chairman of the RNC during Watergate, Director of the CIA, Vice-President and ultimately the big chair in the White House. During that time he had his share of triumph and defeat. His oldest son describes all of these events from the perspective of a close family member, giving the reader a perspective unavailable to most historians.

A recurring theme in the book is that of family. George H. W. Bush and his wife, the former Barbara Pierce, recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary, the longest of any president and first lady. The couple experienced the death of an infant daughter from leukemia. More so than most biographies, all of the subject's milestones are recounted within the context of the family, and doing so reveals much about the man's character.

As a writer, George W. Bush has a very conversational style. He writes well and the book flows well and is very readable. One criticism is that many times, the author drifts into writing about his own presidency, explaining some of the difficult decisions he had to make. This is understandable at times, given some similarities in the issues the two presidents confronted (e.g. war with Iraq, the hurricanes Ike and Katrina). The author also shies away from a number of controversies. For example, he says very little about how his own turbulent years of substance abuse affected his father. But he is bipartisan in doing so. Ironically, both Presidents Bush have developed a close friendship with President Bill Clinton, the man who prevented the 41st President from serving two full terms. The 43rd president also glosses over Clinton's indiscretions, despite the importance of the 1992 election in the life story of the book's subject. This is not a book about any sort of meanness. Bush takes the high road throughout the book.

Any prejudice that the reader may have against the book's author should be set aside in favor of a delightful reading experience. The story of a man with such a fascinating set of experiences, which include skydiving on his 75th, 80th, 85th and 90th birthday, and such a wonderful outlook on life, is too good to pass up on. That it is told by a close family member from a loving perspective makes it all the more interesting. George H. W. Bush's life is a wonderful example of how to age with dignity, grace and with a marvelous attitude and for that reason alone it is a pleasure to read.
Tags: author: b, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: biography, subject: history
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