It's long been a mystery what President George H.W. Bush thought of President George W. Bush's response to the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. Bush 41, of course, had stopped short of ousting Saddam Hussein; Bush 43 had gone ahead and done just that. But what was said behind closed doors in Crawford or Kennebunkport?
In his book about his father, published last year, the younger president said he made his decisions on his own.
"I never asked Dad what I should do," Bush wrote in 41: A Portrait of My Father. "We both knew that this was a decision that only the president can make. We did talk about the issue, however. Over Christmas 2002, at Camp David, I gave Dad an update on our strategy."
H.W.'s response? "You know how tough war is, son, and you've got to try everything you can to avoid war," he said. "But if the man won't comply, you don't have any other choice."
But now, a new biography of Bush 41 reports he had a lot more on his mind perhaps left unsaid.
Jon Meacham's Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, due out later this month, offers some of the nonagenarian's candid, critical comments about his son's closest advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, according to news reports prior to its formal release.
Bush Sr.'s toughest talk was reserved for Rumsfeld, whom he called "an arrogant fellow."
"I think he served the president badly," Bush told Meacham, Peter Baker of the New York Times reported, quoting the book. He added: "I've never been that close to him anyway. . . . There's a lack of humility, a lack of seeing what the other guy thinks. He's more kick ass and take names, take numbers. I think he paid a price for that." (Rumsfeld resigned as secretary of defense in 2006 after conditions in Iraq deteriorated. He declined comment about the biography to Fox News.)
Bush also said Vice President Cheney was very different from Secretary of Defense Cheney. Cheney served under Bush 41 for four years, including during Operation Desert Storm.
"He just became very hard-line and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with," Bush reportedly told Meacham, speculating that 9/11 had affected Cheney's views. "Just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East."
Bush said Cheney, pushed to be more conservative by his wife and daughter, "had his own empire and marched to his own drummer." Whose fault was this?
Bush 43's, Bush 41 said.
"The big mistake that was made was letting Cheney bring in kind of his own State Department," Bush told Meacham. ". . . But it's not Cheney's fault. It's the president's fault." He added: "The buck stops there."
In the biography, Bush Sr. also took a dim view of some of his son's talking points.
"I do worry about some of the rhetoric that was out there — some of it his, maybe, and some of it the people around him," Bush said. "Hot rhetoric is pretty easy to get headlines, but it doesn't necessarily solve the diplomatic problem."
So: What did the son think of the broadside? The biography's author asked him.
"It is true that my rhetoric could get pretty strong and that may have bothered some people," he told Meacham. "Obviously it did, including Dad, though he never mentioned it."
Bush 43 added that his father wouldn't give him such explicit advice.
Bush 41 "would never say to me, 'Hey, you need to rein in Cheney,'" George W. Bush said. "'He's ruining your administration.' It would be out of character for him to do that. And in any event, I disagree with his characterization of what was going on. I made the decisions. This was my philosophy."
Cheney, meanwhile, seemed tickled by Bush 41's view of him as an "iron-ass."
"I took it as a mark of pride," Cheney told Fox News. "The attack on 9/11 was worse than Pearl Harbor, in terms of the number of people killed, and the amount of damage done. I think a lot of people believed then, and still believe to this day that I was aggressive in defending, in carrying out what I thought were the right policies."
Cheney also said his family's influence on his notions of national security was debatable.
"We smile about it, we laugh about it," Cheney said of Bush 41's views. "Same with my daughter, with Liz. It's his view, perhaps, of what happened, but my family was not conspiring to somehow turn me into a tougher, more hardnosed individual. I got there all by myself."
Bush 41's critical comments about Bush 43 should not be interpreted as a lack of support, the former president told his biographer.
"He's my son, he did his best and I'm for him," Bush said. "It's that simple an equation."
Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of many presidential biographies and sometime Washington Post contributor, said Bush 41 was trying to clarify his views for history.
"He likes Cheney, respects him, but he clearly believed and wanted the historical record to reflect that he had objections to how Cheney had conducted his vice presidency," he told Fox. ". . . President Bush 41 believed that Cheney embodied an image of the 43 administration that was in some ways counterproductive around the world."
Partly based on Bush 41's diaries, Destiny and Power also includes Bush's revelation that he contemplated not running for president again in 1992 and juicy nuggets about White House rivalries ("Nancy does not like Barbara").
"The diary's fascinating, because you can see how he felt at various key moments of his life," Cheney said. "So I'm enjoying the book. I recommend it to my friends. And proud to be a part of it."