George W. Bush’s critics, if they bother to read 41: Portrait of My Father, will likely complain that what the book shows best is nepotism, the doors that can be opened by tribal connections. To the less cynical eye, however, this volume is a testament to the meaning and value of the institution of the family.
It is not a stretch to say that the book is, as much as anything else, a storehouse of examples of parents shaping children’s lives—from George W.’s opening dedication to his father and mother, to the last paragraph, which reveals his grandmother’s enduring influence. “George H.W. Bush is a great President and an even better father,” his son writes at the beginning of the book. If this comment seems surprising, remember that the elder Bush, when asked about his most important accomplishment, said, “The children still come home.”
Joy and laughter permeate the biography, even when it deals poignantly with the death of a beloved child (3-year-old Robin’s death from leukemia) or a humiliating public defeat (Bill Clinton’s win). The stories illustrate the Bush family—including two presidents, 41 and 43—supporting each other in good times and bad; providing experiences that stretch the younger generation and encourage them to do their best without exerting undue pressure or imposing parental choices.
The book, though, is not syrupy; it is gritty and unflinching about the costs—and rewards—of taking risks and being competitive. When George W. refers to his father’s “courage, loyalty, and service,” he add, “Those were the traits that his mother and father had instilled in him.” When the reader tallies up George H.W.’s accomplishments (and reads the unvarnished accounting of the early years), there is no escaping the very hard work it took for him to achieve the “trifecta of war hero, Phi Beta Kappa, and captain of the baseball team” in his youth and the stellar career accomplishments of his later life: ambassador to the UN, liaison to China, director of the CIA, vice president (coming out of Watergate “with his reputation and integrity intact”), and, finally, president.
The biography is plainspoken about the power of love and marriage. George H.W., on his 90th birthday, was asked about the happiest moment of his life. Not surprisingly, he replied that it was the day he married Barbara—a wedding that took place when then-Lieutenant Bush was furloughed from duty during WWII. George W. describes his parents’ nearly seven decades of marriage as a “lasting, lifelong partnership that endured profound trials, produced great joys, and set an inspiring example for my siblings and me.” Again, that fact was undergirded with profound reality and truth: Barbara Bush told her son that the secret to a long, happy marriage is that both husband and wife have to “go three-quarters of the way” and “be willing to alter their own needs in order to satisfy the other’s.”
Perhaps a key to understanding the importance of family in the Bush saga is George W.’s account of his parents’ moving to primitive West Texas from the luxury of the Northeast. He writes, “They didn’t approach life in West Texas as a hardship to be endured; they embraced it as an adventure—their first of many as a couple.” It is clear that George H.W. and Barbara were a team and that “with each other, they could make the most of any situation.”
We also see in the narrative how faith and religious teaching played a central role in molding the future presidents. Prescott Bush (father of George H.W.) taught his children “that the measure of a meaningful life is not money but character,” and that wealth comes with the “obligation to serve the community and nation that makes prosperity possible.” When the Japanese surrendered at the end of WWII, the family “went to church, where they gave thanks to God.”
There’s tough love, too. In one particularly meaningful anecdote, George W. recounts that his mother, disgusted with his drunken behavior, sent him to see his father. As he stood there, George H.W. lowered his book, took off his reading glasses, and stared at this son. Then he put his glasses back on, picked up his book, and began reading without another word. George W. describes feeling “chastened.” That incident “became a powerful source of independence” in his life as he realized that there was nothing he could do that would make his father stop loving him.
In the end, Portrait of My Father is about living life to its fullest, serving your country with integrity, and appreciating all who have contributed to your life. George H.W. Bush is now a grandfather in his 90s, wishing for his grandkids lives of happiness and joy.
When the son notes of his father, “In hindsight, the experience and judgment he gained along the way equipped him to become one of the best-prepared Presidents of the modern era,” he wasn’t referring directly to his stable family life. But it is clear from Portrait of My Father that the elements of a strong family and a strong faith are a worthy and strength-giving inheritance indeed.