, Salem, MA


July 20, 2013

Shribman: The new George H.W. Bush


Today the man who relentlessly cultivated that image of Bush, his 1992 rival Bill Clinton, regards him pre-eminently as a man of integrity and achievement. Indeed, Clinton sometimes speaks fondly of Bush as the father he never had, and members of the Bush family joke that Clinton is the 41st president’s favorite son.

Bush left office 20 years ago, and his appearance in the East Room last week in mismatched red-and-white-striped socks — his real son, Neil Bush, said the family patriarch now is referred to as “GQ Man” by his wife and children — was a poignant symbol of the passing of time, and of what time’s passing can do to a presidency.

For Ulysses S. Grant, the passing of time (as well as a splendid biography released last year by H.W. Brands, “The Man Who Saved the Union”) has transformed the 18th president from a bumbling, corrupt drunkard placeholder into a man of intelligence, determination, shrewdness and tolerance, particularly toward Indians, and, in Brand’s estimation, “indisputably above politics.”

For John Adams and for Harry Truman, the passing of time (and landmark biographies by David McCullough) transformed both single-election presidents into men of courage and idealism, almost romance. McCullough’s book on Truman rode (and extended) a crest in the 33rd president’s image, and his Adams volume gave the second president’s historical reputation an extreme makeover. It is not too much to say, figuratively of course, that McCullough retrieved Adams from the dead.

For James A. Garfield, the passing of time (and a riveting book by Candice Millard, “Destiny of the Republic,” released in 2011) transformed the 20th president from an obscure figure remembered mostly for being assassinated into a figure of grandness and destiny, a formidable symbol of American opportunity and mobility. Millard’s book remains a briskly selling paperback even in airports, assuring that Garfield will not soon retreat back into popular eclipse.

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