WASHINGTON — Former President George Bush’s unusually sharp indictment of his son’s presidential advisers touched off a round of recriminations on Thursday that exposed rifts within America’s leading political dynasty and complicated its efforts to recapture the White House.
Mr. Bush’s assertion in a new biography that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld undercut George W. Bush’s presidency rattled the extended Bush political world, and forced the second Bush son now seeking the presidency, Jeb, to straddle an awkward line between family and politics.
At 91 and in the twilight of a long and storied public life, the first President Bush evidently felt free to express views he had long suppressed in the interest of family harmony. Mr. Cheney, he said, was “very hard-line” and too eager to “use force to get our way”; Mr. Rumsfeld was an “arrogant fellow” full of “swagger.” He used the same phrase, “iron-ass,” to describe both men.
The comments, included in Jon Meacham’s “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” to be published by Random House next week, drew a biting retort from Mr. Rumsfeld on Thursday. “Bush 41 is getting up in years and misjudges Bush 43, who I found made his own decisions,” Mr. Rumsfeld said in a statement.
The father’s comments also prompted the son to come to his advisers’ defense. “I am proud to have served with Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld,” said George W. Bush. “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.”
But no one was put in a more uncomfortable position than Jeb Bush, who has labored to define his own identity separate from his famous father and brother while mounting his own campaign for the White House this year. Once again he was compelled on Thursday to talk about his family rather than his own plans for the country. On the campaign trail, he suggested his father was trying to find a way to take the heat off George W. Bush by faulting advisers for troubles in his administration.
“My brother is a big boy,” Jeb Bush told NBC News. “His administration was shaped by his thinking, his reaction to the attack on 9/11. I think my dad, like a lot of people that love George, want to try to create a different narrative, perhaps, just because that’s natural to do.”
Jeb Bush said that Mr. Cheney “served my brother well as vice president and he served my dad extraordinarily well as secretary of defense.” He added, “We have to get beyond, I think, this feeling that somehow 1991 is the same as 2001.”
The seemingly divergent messages from different corners of the Bush family represented the latest chapter in a long-running and at times operatic drama. For years, the relationship between the two Bush presidents has captivated the nation, generating endless speculation, articles, books, television reports and even a big-screen movie — “W.” — that starred Josh Brolin and was directed by Oliver Stone.
Caught in the middle now is the next son, who is trying to accomplish what no family has done in American history with a third Bush administration.
Those who have worked for either of the two presidents strongly testify to their deep love and scoff at what they call overwrought Oedipal theories of rivalry and resentment. Just last year, George W. Bush published his own biography of his father, venerating him in loving terms. The elder George Bush has often bristled at criticism of his son. Both men hate being “put on the couch,” to use a phrase each one employs.
Yet few who know them well would assert that they see the world exactly the same way. The younger, brasher and more conservative George W. Bush has made clear that he shaped some of his policies in the White House based on the lessons of what he saw as his father’s mistakes. Friends of the older, more genteel and moderate President Bush have often said he was deeply uncomfortable with the more hawkish elements of his son’s administration.
In the new book, the first President Bush expresses his love and support for his son and sticks by his decisions to go to war in Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power. But he gently chides his son for “hot rhetoric” like his “axis of evil” speech, and says that the real responsibility for the way Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld operated belonged to the president. “The buck stops there,” he said.
What was so surprising about the comments was not their sentiment, but rather that the older Mr. Bush would express them in public. When Mr. Meacham went back to show him a transcript of his remarks and ask if he wanted to clarify, the ex-president took none of it back. “That’s what I said,” he told Mr. Meacham.
The remarks reflect a long history with both Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld. The elder Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld were rivals going back to the 1970s, and although Mr. Cheney served as his defense secretary, Mr. Bush told Mr. Meacham that Mr. Cheney had changed as vice president.
Speaking with Fox News on Thursday, Mr. Cheney took the comments in stride, saying he viewed “iron-ass” as a compliment.
“I took it as a mark of pride,” he said. Given the devastating losses on Sept. 11, 2001, he said many would agree that “I was aggressive in defending, in carrying out what I thought were the right policies.”
Having never written a true memoir of his own, Mr. Bush effectively decided to use Mr. Meacham’s book as a last chance to make his case for history.
The elder Mr. Bush opened up to Mr. Meacham in a series of interviews from 2006 to 2015 in which he spoke more candidly than many politicians would. He described his youth, when he “lusted” after pretty girls, including a couple who “had nice racks.” He also mused about his friend Bill Clinton’s marriage. “I don’t feel close to Hillary at all,” Mr. Bush said, “but I do to Bill and I can’t read their relationship even today.”
Like so many former presidents, he measured himself against the 42 other men who have held his office. “I feel like an asterisk,” he told Mr. Meacham wistfully one day at the family’s cliffside house in Kennebunkport, Me.
“I am lost between the glory of Reagan — monuments everywhere, trumpets, the great hero — and the trials and tribulations of my sons,” Mr. Bush reflected on another day in Houston, where he also has a home.
On still another occasion, he fretted about the judgment of historians. “What if they just find an empty deck of cards?” he asked.
Diaries that Mr. Bush gave to Mr. Meacham opened a contemporaneous window into his time in office. Even in private, Mr. Bush seemed determined through the first war with Iraq in 1991, but afterward fell into an emotional despondency, a “letdown,” once he was no longer at the center of a profound mission. He considered not running for a second term.
“I’m not in a good frame of mind now,” he dictated into his diary shortly after American troops vanquished Iraqi forces and expelled them from Kuwait. “My whole point is, I really don’t care and that’s bad — that’s bad. But I’ll get in there and try.”
For a president who lost re-election in 1992 after being perceived as out of touch, Mr. Bush sensed his political doom even when he was at the peak of his postwar popularity.
“The common wisdom today is that I’ll win in a runaway, but I don’t believe that,” he dictated in March 1991 as he returned on Air Force One from a rally with troops. “I think it’s going to be the economy” that “will make that determination. I think I can talk proudly about what happened in Desert Storm, but I think it will be overshadowed in the fall of ’92 by other issues.”
On that, at least, he proved prescient.
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