Bush's surprise attack on Cheney, Rumsfeld

Story highlights

  • David Gergen: Bush 41, a forgiving man, surprisingly criticizes Cheney, Rumsfeld, and even his son in biography
  • Gergen: Bush Sr.'s biography does us a favor by lending insight to future generations

David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)George H.W. Bush is a class act. Inspired by his parents, he has pursued a life-time of service to country, rarely bragging about his victories, accepting his defeats with grace and almost never uttering a harsh word.

David Gergen
Why, then, did he just lower the hammer on Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld? Excerpts from a new biography by Jon Meacham, "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush" (due in bookstores on November 10), show a deep, undisclosed disdain toward his son's vice president and first secretary of Defense.
Cheney, he avers, was a changed man from the fellow who served him at Defense in the late 1980s. "He just became very hard-line ... knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East."
    Papa Bush is even more scornful of Rumsfeld: "I think he served the president badly. ... 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."
    Bush 41 doesn't let 43 completely off the hook. He is critical of 43's overheated rhetoric getting into Iraq and recognizes that his son bears ultimate responsibility for choosing his inner circle and, critically, for making the decision to invade Iraq. After all, Bush 43 declared himself "The Decider." But Papa believes Cheney and Bush pushed him toward the cliff.
    So, what is going on here? Clearly, Dad wants to settle some old scores. Observers close to the Bush family think he has detested Rumsfeld since the mid-1970s when Rumsfeld, then White House chief of staff to President Ford, allegedly engineered Bush's appointment to head up the CIA. That was seen as a cynical Rummy move to take Bush out of contention for the Republican ticket in 1976 and possibly beyond.
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    As it turned out, that appointment was one of the best things that ever happened to George H.W. He loved the CIA job (perhaps even more than the presidency) and his embrace was reciprocated: Headquarters at Langley are now named after him. Even so, a personal enmity took hold with Rumsfeld.
    Cheney has always been more of an enigma to people around George H.W. Over time,Cheney did become more rigid and hawkish. When George H.W. was president and was evicting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the late 1980s, Cheney -- at Defense -- voted with other senior advisers (Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft) not to go further and invade Iraq itself. Junior advisers like Paul Wolfowitz wanted to invade.
    In the years that followed, Bush and his senior advisers continued to think caution had been the right call -- all, that is, but Cheney, who changed his mind. By the time he became vice president, Cheney was beating the drum to get rid of Saddam.
    Bush Sr. obviously agonized over the hardening line taken in his son's administration. It is also obvious that he was deeply troubled by his sense that Cheney and Rumsfeld were pushing aside Colin Powell, then serving as son's secretary of State. Bush Sr. thinks the world of Powell and he could hardly believe that his friend was so mistreated -- thus, his complaint to Jon Meacham that as vice president, Cheney set up his own, miniature State Department.
    My experience has been that George H.W. does not hold grudges in politics. He is one of the best at forgiving and forgetting. (Disclosure: I crossed him badly when I signed up to work for President Clinton in the White House in 1993 -- it appeared disloyal after I had been a Bush supporter for many years. Fortunately, he seemed to forgive over time -- or at least, I sure hope so.) What this suggests to me is that the wounds from the Cheney-Rumsfeld axis and what then befell his son run much, much deeper than we have known.
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    But I suspect there is an even deeper motive at work here: That is H.W.'s desire to answer the demands of history. Modern presidents have a long and admirable desire to leave behind a record of their times so that future generations might learn lessons, both good and bad.
    Franklin Roosevelt, sadly, died from a stroke in office when war was nearly won and never did leave a clear record. But almost every one of his successors has tried to contribute to our historical understanding -- Dwight Eisenhower wrote a two-volume memoir, John Kennedy recruited an in-house historian (Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) and taped many conversations; LBJ had a taping system and persuaded a historian to work with him on an insightful book (Doris Kearns Goodwin); Richard Nixon had a taping system that helped to destroy him; Gerald Ford worked with a journalist (Tom DeFrank) to publish a posthumous biography.
    Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush have all written about their times. Judging from his stellar first book, Barack Obama has the capacity to write one of the best presidential memoirs ever. These have been valuable contributions. While Presidents rarely win Pulitzer prizes for their works and are of course self-serving, future generations can still gain insights from them.
    Until now, we have been able to learn a fair amount about the presidency of George H.W. but almost nothing about the dynamics of what followed: the first father-son presidency since the early 1800s.
    In pulling back the curtain with Meacham, then, President H.W. Bush has done far more than settle scores: He has once again answered a call to public service.