If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it countless times. If there’s a best seller and a presidential biography side-by-side, I’ll always go with the presidential biography. That’s why, when NetGalley and Twelve books offered me The Man I Knew: The Amazing Story of George H. W. Bush’s Post-Presidency (Amazon), I gladly jumped into the fray. The book was released to the public on June 1, 2021. All opinions offered are my own.
From Goodreads: “As chief of staff, Jean Becker had a ringside seat to the never-boring story of George Herbert Walker Bush’s life post-presidency, including being at his side when he died and subsequently facing the challenge-and great honor-of being in charge of his state funeral. Full of heart and wisdom, THE MAN I KNEW is a vibrant behind-the-scenes look into the ups and downs of heading up the office of a former president by one of the people who knew him best.”
I’ve already read the official biography of George H.W. Bush, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (Amazon) by Jon Meacham, and came away with a better sense of Bush the diplomat and statesman. I also read 41: A Portrait of My Father by George W. Bush (click the title for my review) so I had a better understanding of Bush as a father and grandfather. But The Man I Knew provides something different: a look a a post-presidency that lasted 26 years and was full of variety.
Politics is largely ignored in Bush’s post-presidency, which seemed surprising at first. But as I got further into the book, I could see why there was an absence of politics: George Bush was largely apolitical after he left office. Sure, he made appearances at the Republican National Conventions and supported his son when he was president, but he largely stayed out of the fray. In keeping with past presidents, he did not stick his nose into current events and offer advice, either publicly or privately.
Becker shares memories from letters from George Bush and herself, sometimes encapsulating events in a letter to her siblings, sometimes in memos to staff. Sometimes she shares stories and recreates conversations to her best ability by asking other witnesses their recollections to gather a consensus. What she reveals is a man who cared greatly for his family above anything else, who always tried to be right and true, had a great sense of humor, and lived life to the fullest right up until the end.
This book made me laugh out loud quite a few times. And even though I don’t normally cry at books, I got wistful more than a few times. I got to know our 41st president a lot better and could not think of a better one-term president or a more decent man. I think, when describing George H.W. Bush, Brian Mulroney summed him up during his eulogy at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.:
“No occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled and more honorable that George Herbert Walker Bush… There is a word for this: it is called ‘leadership’–and let me tell you that when George Bush was President of the United States of America, every single head of government in the world knew they were dealing with a true gentleman, a genuine leader–one who was distinguished, resolute and brave.”
George Bush was able to cross party lines. He not only famously became best friends with Bill Clinton, the man who defeated him for a second term in the White House (so much so that his children refer to Clinton as the ‘brother from another mother’), he and President Obama got along famously as well. “President Obama called President Bush and told him he would like to give him the Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian honor. President Bush was deeply touched. In bestowing the award a few months later, President Obama cited President Bush’s long resume’ of public service and commended him for ending the Cold War, among other accomplishments. But the words that touched President Bush the most were these: ‘His humility and decency reflects the very best of the American spirit.'”
As for the lighter moments, there was the occasion of the CIA headquarters being named for Bush, even though he only held the position as director for less than a year. “As Mrs. Bush used to say in her speeches: ‘It was a tremendous honor… but frankly bewildering. Why would an agency dedicated to intelligence name their headquarters after someone who celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday by jumping out of a perfectly good airplane at 12,500 feet?'”
As Becker admits, working for the Bush’s was a blessing, filled with joy, but also with many challenges. “I feel incredibly blessed to work for them, yet there are challenges. I have been told by Mikhail Gorbachev to shut up, but I’ve been kissed by Tom Selleck; I’ve been yelled at by the President of the United States but blessed by the Pope. I have picked up the phone at 7 a.m. only to hear Barbara Bush say to me, “Have you totally lost your mind,” but next week I move my office for five months to Kennebunkport, Maine… Yes, I think the highs greatly outweigh the occasional lows.”
The author learned many things during her several decades with the Bushes: think big, make a difference, live life with joy, think of the other guy, don’t be afraid to get into the ring. But she also admits that working for the former president was also a big more complicated than that. “Be open to new ideas. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Don’t be afraid to say you were wrong. Don’t judge. Don’t hold grudges.”
I’ve read or listened to more than 100 books this year and have to say that this is my favorite so far. Rarely have we seen a more human side to a former president. I highly recommend it.
For more reviews, visit www.bargain-sleuth.com
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