Maureen Dowd / Poppy chic: The elder Mr. Bush is still modest amid renewed popularity
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WASHINGTON -- I flew down to Houston last year to have lunch with George Herbert Walker Bush.
"Did you come because you think I'm going to die?" he asked me with a wry smile.
Not at all, I replied, adding that I wanted to join him on his planned sky-diving excursion when he turned 90. (It sends the world a message, as he puts it, that "old guys can still do exciting things.")
It made me sad to see him in a wheelchair, his lower legs weakened by Parkinsonitis. He had once been so kinetic that the Chinese press described him as "ants on a hot pan," and his golf game was so manic that W. dubbed it "golf-polo."
But 41 can still drive his cherished cigarette boat, Fidelity IV, in Kennebunkport, Mass., and he was very much himself over pizza at his favorite Houston dive: racy jokes, no airs, ever gracious.
He spoke fondly of his new pal, Bill Clinton, and highly of President Barack Obama. (His only tart word was reserved for Donald Trump, the birther agitator.)
Mr. Bush is so reluctant to use "the big I," as his mother called displays of ego, that he never even cashed in with a proper presidential memoir. It would have required a sustained first-person singular.
But as he turns 88 this week with a birthday clambake in Kennebunkport and a screening of an admiring HBO documentary, "41," we are in the midst of what his biographer, Jon Meacham, calls "Poppy chic."
A new CNN/ORC International poll found that Bush the senior is far more respected than Bush the junior, who is the least popular among the living ex-presidents.
The British may have the royal family, but we have the roiling family. It's lucky that these Mayflower patricians hate introspection so much, because if they looked at their dynasty through a Shakespearean lens, they would be stunned.
One of the best things that ever happened to 41 was having his rowdy son get it together after prodigal decades and join the family business of politics.
And it was one of the worst, because Poppy had to watch W. distance himself, run as the heir to Ronald Reagan and then tar the family name by governing destructively, egged on by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (41's old nemesis).
Poppy was relegated to the sidelines, an ex-president whose advice was not solicited even when his son went to war with the same Iraqi dictator whom 41 had trounced and contained. (It was President Obama who gave Poppy the Medal of Freedom, not W.)
The headstrong W. ruined the chances for the scion who had inspired the highest parental hopes, Jeb. (Adding insult to injury, the Florida governor had to help make his less studious brother president by shoplifting the Sunshine State in 2000.)
His parents still harbor hopes, but speaking to Charlie Rose on CBS last week, Jeb sounded wistful about the presidency. "There's a window of opportunity in life for all sorts of reasons," he said. "And this was probably my time."
Interestingly, as W. competed to surpass the father, who had long overshadowed him, he gave his old man an inadvertent gift: It was only because W. used his father as a reverse playbook that it was possible to see 41's "failures" in a rosier light. Cutting taxes, exploding the deficit and invading Baghdad made Poppy's opposite efforts, hotly debated at the time, seem wiser.
"Their historical stock is on a seesaw," Mr. Meacham said. "They both can't be up at the same time."
Because his son tacked so much farther right into crazy neocon bellicosity, Poppy -- whose campaign evoked Willie Horton -- is now nostalgically viewed as an emblem of lost bipartisanship and centrism.
There was a poignancy in watching father and son at W.'s portrait unveiling at the White House. "I am honored to be hanging near a man who gave me the greatest gift possible, unconditional love," the younger Bush said of his dad, getting choked up.
But the chip on 43's shoulder prevented him from seeking the counsel of 41 while in the Oval. And his lack of preparation for the job left the insecure W. vulnerable to manipulation by two of Washington's greatest bureaucratic infighters, Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld. W.'s parents blame Mr. Cheney for bad decisions, but that suggests W. wasn't in charge.
Mr. Meacham, whose biography of Thomas Jefferson is coming this fall, and who won a Pulitzer for "American Lion" about Andrew Jackson, said his self-effacing new subject, 41, demurred, "I'm not a lion."
"But in a way, he is a lion," Mr. Meacham said. "He enlisted at 18 and was shot down over the Pacific at 20. He suppressed his ego for that long march through all those jobs to get the chance to be president. From the oil business to the White House, he embodies the story of postwar American power. There was always a tension in him between the impetus for public service and the impulse to do what it took to win. He's a really important historical guy."
First Published June 11, 2012 12:00 am