Bush 41 hits 43's aides in new biography

Bush 41 blasts Cheney, Rumsfeld in new biography
Bush 41 blasts Cheney, Rumsfeld in new biography

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Bush 41 blasts Cheney, Rumsfeld in new biography 05:52

Story highlights

  • George H.W. Bush's new biography is titled "Destiny and Power"
  • Bush says Dick Cheney had carved out "his own empire" in the White House
  • Bush also says Donald Rumsfeld served his son "badly"

Washington (CNN)An upcoming biography of former President George H.W. Bush contains harsh critical assessments by the 41st president of some of the top officials from his son's presidency.

The former president knocked former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to his biographer, Jon Meacham in interviews for "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush," calling Cheney an "iron-ass" and labeling Rumsfeld "an arrogant fellow."

On Dick Cheney

    Bush told Meacham he thought that the famously influential vice president carved out "his own empire" in the White House.
    "He had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer," Meacham quotes Bush. "It just showed me that you cannot do it that way. The President should not have that worry."
    Bush felt that Cheney, who served as defense secretary during his own administration, had changed as vice president. Cheney grew "very hard line" and in response to the terrorist attacks of 9-11.
    "I don't know, he just became very hard-line and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with," Bush told Meacham.
    "The reaction to (the 9/11 terrorist attacks), what to do about the Middle East," Bush told his biographer. "Just iron-ass. His seeming under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East."
    Bush attributed some of that hard-right turn to Cheney's wife, Lynne Cheney, a historian and conservative thinker, according to Meacham.
    "You know, I've concluded that Lynne Cheney is a lot of the eminence grise here -- iron-ass, tough as nails, driving," he told Meacham.
    But Bush also told his biographer that Cheney was "a good man" and that President George W. Bush had made a mistake by allowing him to "bring in kind of his own State Department."

    On Donald Rumsfeld

    The 41st president was decidedly more critical of Rumsfeld in his conversations with Meacham. Bush charged that the former defense secretary "served the president badly" and was an "arrogant fellow." He also said of Rumsfeld in interviews for the biography:
    "I don't like what he did, an I think it hurt the President, having his iron-ass view of everything, Bush told Meacham. "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."
    The elder Bush also describes his effort to get his son to replace Rumsfeld with Bob Gates, at that point the president of Texas A&M University, in the wake of the Republicans' drubbing in the 2006 elections.
    "At A&M he had a marvelous way to get the support of his people, he had a wonderful manner. Bob Gates is motivated by service. He's not trying to get a better license plate. He's down to earth, bright, really good guy," Bush told Meacham.
    But Bush 41 didn't absolve Bush 43 of all fault, directing some criticism toward his son as well. He told Meacham that he still supports his son's decision to invade Iraq, calling the ouster and capture of Saddam Hussein "proud moments."
    But he said in interviews that he does "worry about some of the rhetoric that was out there" and suggested that "hot rhetoric is pretty easy to get headlines, but it doesn't necessarily solve the diplomatic problem."
    Bush referenced in particular the introduction of the phrase "axis of evil" in the 2002 State of the Union address, saying "I think that might be historically proved to be not benefiting anything."

    43 supports his team, Rumsfeld fires back

    Despite his father's dim assessment of how Cheney and Rumsfeld served him, former President George W. Bush was supportive of his team in a statement issued in response to the book.
    "I am proud to have served with Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld," he said in a statement. "Dick Cheney did a superb job as vice president, and I was fortunate to have him by my side throughout my presidency. Don Rumsfeld ably led the Pentagon and was an effective secretary of defense. I am grateful to both men for their good advice, selfless service to our country, and friendship."
    Rumsfeld fired back at George H.W. Bush in a statement Thursday.
    "Bush 41 is getting up in years and misjudges Bush 43, who I found made his own decisions. There are hundreds of memos on www.rumsfeld.com that represent advice the Department of Defense gave the President," Rumsfeld said.
    Rumsfeld and the elder Bush have their own history. In his documentary about Rumsfeld, filmmaker Errol Morris discussed with Rumsfeld about how Ronald Reagan selected Bush for vice president instead of him.
    In the trailer for the film, "The Unknown Known," Morris states that if Reagan had picked Rumsfeld over Bush, he might have become president after Reagan.
    "It's possible," Rumsfeld said.

    Heirs to the throne

    Meacham also sets up the Bush family royal intrigue with a fairly candid assessment by former top aide and longtime Bush family friend Jim Baker.
    "George W. was always the cutup in the Bush family ... Jeb was always more serious. Many of us thought that maybe, just maybe, Jeb would be the one to carry on the family tradition in politics," Baker told Meacham.
    Then Jeb Bush, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush set about trying to knock that down.
    "If I were 'The One,' no one ever told me about it," Jeb Bush told Meacham. "I didn't get the memo. And the relationship between George and dad is incredibly close and loving. I've always been bemused by people who state as a fact that which is highly speculative, or untrue, which happens a lot. I don't think my mom and dad think that way -- 'He's the one, more than that one.' Literally I never had a conversation about that. Ever. I'd say in terms of topics of conversation in the Bush family: family; sports; and then ... well, that's about it."
    George W. Bush explained the perception of him as being viewed as "less serious person. I was seen as more like my mother than father in many ways. I was more of a cutup, I was more irreverent."
    And the eldest Bush called the whole thing "bullshit."
    "The whole idea that Jeb was the favorite one because he was more knowledgeable -- that's all bullshit," George H.W. Bush told Meacham. "Nothing to it. I thought Jeb had a better chance to win than George when George went up against Ann Richards. Nobody thought he could."

    Is it 1992 or 2016?

    The book comes at an auspicious time in American politics with nation again focused on a Bush and a Clinton, as it was in 1992. Bush recalled his own travails during the campaign, and the surprising rise of a brash billionaire who would eventually help knock him out of office: Ross Perot.
    "He now wants to parlay his outsidership into winning the election," Bush said in a diary entry, according to Meacham. "Or if not that, into bringing me down."
    Bush, according to the book, said he thought some of Perot's animosity toward him was personal, stemming from previous decisions, including Bush's declining to come work for Perot in 1977.
    As Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist, prepared to break rank to go work for Perot, his wife, Sherrie, who worked for Bush in the White House went to Bush directly to break the news he was leaving.
    And Bush recalled trying to talk her into talking Ed Rollins out of it.
    "I know Ross Perot, and he's crazy," Sherrie Rollins recalled Bush saying, in an interview with Meacham. "Mark my words, this won't last. And the American people are not going to elect a person of Bill Clinton's character. This is all going to work out and we're going to win."
    A few months later Clinton won the White House with a big assist from Perot, who drew away disaffected voters.

    The Clinton relationship

    In the heat of the 1992 race, Bush could not stand Clinton -- his draft-dodging, Bush said in a diary entry, was unbearable.
    "I'm tired of the guy lying and ducking on the draft and not coming clean," Bush said in a diary entry, according to Meacham. "So we've got to press him without trying to demagogue the issue, but I remain convinced that it is a very important question because it's a question of truth as well, for a lot of older people, a question of whether he ducked service. The new generation doesn't think that one is as bad, but I think it's very bad not wanting (to participate) when your country is at war. I simply find that offensive, but maybe this shows the age and the generation gap."
    A dozen years later President George W. Bush asked the two presidents -- his father and Bill Clinton -- to come together to raise money for victims of a tsunami in Southeast Asia. And, by then, something strange had happened: the elder Bush had developed an admiration for Clinton's masterful political skills.
    "He talks all the time," Meacham quoted Bush, noting an emphasis on the last three words. "He knows every subject. You mention Nigeria, and he'll say, 'Now let me tell you about what's happening in the northern part of the country.' I don't know how much f it's bullshit and how much of it's real, factual. We went to call on different embassies -- Indonesia and Thailand. We were greeted warmly by the ambassadors. There was this painting. Clinton asks who painted it, and the ambassador told him. It was one of their famous painters, Umbuga or something like that. And when we were walking out, Clinton turned to the ambassador and said, 'That is one of the most beautiful Umbugas I have ever seen.' He's just shameless. But outgoing and gregarious. I like the man."
    At a dinner in Sri Lanka, the two presidents agreed to get out of a dinner with the country's president by 10 p.m. But as Bush and his entourage signaled Clinton toward the door, Clinton stopped to talk with official after official on his way out the door.
    And then Clinton took credit for getting them out of there on time.
    "'George, you owe me big time for getting us out of there a lot earlier than expected,'" Clinton told Bush, according to Meacham. "And I said nothing more. You cannot get mad at the guy."

    The reactions

    Meacham showed transcripts of his conversations with the senior Bush to both Cheney and the younger Bush to elicit their reaction.
    Cheney, Meacham says, smiled after reading them, telling the biographer that Bush's analysis was "fascinating." The former vice president said that he "never heard any of this from 41" but admitted, "No question, I was much harder-line after 9-11 than I was before."
    George W. Bush told Meacham of his father's evaluation: "He certainly never expressed that opinion to me, either during the presidency or after." Regarding the criticism of his rhetoric, Bush said "It is true that my rhetoric could get pretty strong and that may have bothered some people -- obviously it did, including Dad, though he never mentioned it."
    And he pushed back on the notion that Cheney possessed outsize influence in his administration, arguing that "I made the decisions. This was my philosophy."
    Fox News has also reported on excerpts from the new biography and sought reaction from Cheney, who told the network he takes Bush's "iron-ass" comment "as a mark of pride."
    He said to Fox, "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."
    Fox reported that Rumsfeld declined to comment.