Sunday, December 6, 2015

Heartfelt 'Destiny and Power' of Bush 41

Review by Bill Doughty

The future President George H. W. Bush was 17 years old, attending Phillips Academy Andover, when Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. When he turned 18 he went off to war. When he was 20 he was a naval aviator with VT-51 in the Pacific, flying from the deck of USS San Jacinto.

On September 2, 1944 Bush was shot down in action over Chichi-Jima, an island heavily defended communications/supply island 700 miles south of Tokyo. His squadron's mission was to take out a radio tower atop Mount Yoake.

Author Jon Meacham recounts the terror Bush felt before, during and after his plane was hit by enemy fire.
Bush was in range of the tower. The Japanese guns filled the air with flak. Flying at a thirty-five-degree angle to the surface, Bush zeroed in on the target and went straight for it. Racing ever closer to the island, the plane was hit. As the Avenger jolted forward, Bush was able to keep it on target. Smoke filled the cockpit. Flames raced along the wings.
Bush stayed the course and dropped his bombs, damaging the radio tower, according to Meacham, before accelerating back out to sea. He knew his plane was losing altitude due to the severity of the fire. "Hit the Silk" he remembers telling his two crewmen.

"Buffeted by the wind ... Bobbing on the surface ...stung my a Portuguese man-of-war ..." Bush was a target for the Japanese as he paddled with his arms and waited for help. He was rescued by the submarine USS Finback. His first concern was for his aircrew. Two were lost and never found.

Meacham's account comes in Part II of "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush" (Random House, 2015). Part II is titled "War and Marriage."

The crucible event in the western Pacific galvanized Bush's character, which had first been shaped, according to Meacham, by Bush's mother to be "courageous, competitive, caring, and tireless."  Yet a complicated amalgam of guilt and appreciation for being alive continued throughout his life:
There was no logic to the costs of combat. Bush realized, no real rhyme or reason. All you could do was your best, and take what came ... "I'll always wonder, 'Why me? Why was I spared?'" Bush recalled. He spent the rest of his life striving to prove that he was worthy of being saved when others were doomed.
Undoubtedly his wisdom gained in combat and service in the Navy at such a young age helped inform his decision-making decades later as commander-in-chief.

Meacham's masterwork biography includes a generational perspective of Bush's family, including with his partner First Lady Barbara Bush; his time at Yale; his achievements in business; life in Texas; diplomacy in China; the "Age of Reagan;" the winning of the Cold War; his Presidency; and the "Twilight" years since.

While most of the book understandably focuses on politics, Meacham makes it personal; he takes us into the mind of the former president, thanks to extensive interviews, access to Bush's recorded diary and well-documented research.

Our only complaint is that there could have been more space devoted to Bush Sr.'s service in the Navy. There's a brief but warm mention of the commissioning of USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77). Still, there's more here than in other biographies of our 41st president.

Former Chief of Staff John Sununu, for example, devoted barely one page out of nearly 400 to his former Boss's naval career in "The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H. W. Bush" (Broadside Books, 2015).

Sununu writes:
"Underneath his kinder and gentler exterior are a bona fide toughness and a commitment to complete his missions. After he was shot down – he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism – he arrived in Hawaii for reassignment. He was offered a choice of returning to the United States or rejoining his old squadron, which was still battling in the Pacific. Bush elected to return to his squadron."
Nearly all of the rest of Sununu's book is a subjective behind-the-scenes look at the Bush 41 administration. Nearly all political. Meacham's work is much more objective, more insightful and, ironically, more heartfelt.

Read a review of "Flyboys of WWII" on Navy Reads.

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