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Politics & Government

In New Book From Elder Bush, Strong Words For His Son's Administration

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Strong words now from former president George H.W. Bush about two key players in his son's administration. The comments are in a new biography of the elder Bush out next week, and they're about former vice president Dick Cheney and former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us now to explain. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: Ron, like you, I've been reading Jon Meacham's biography of George H.W. Bush. I want you to tell us what he's quoted as saying about the men who surrounded his son and counseled him on the Iraq War.

ELVING: The prime focus here is Dick Cheney, the vice president. And he was secretary of defense under the first President Bush and then vice president under the second. In this new biography, the first, the elder President Bush, is quoted as saying that Cheney changed after 9/11 and became much more hard line or iron-[expletive], to use the phrase that George H.W. Bush uses several times in these quotations. He says that Cheney set up his own empire within the White House and that he marched to his own drummer. He also uses that same phrase, iron-[expletive], in speaking of his son's secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, whom he describes as an arrogant fellow who served the president badly.

SIEGEL: And I wonder how you read this. I'll ask Meacham when I interview him here tomorrow. Do you read the elder Bush as blaming Cheney and Rumsfeld for his son's policies?

ELVING: It might seem so at first blush, but ultimately no. He says that his son, George W. Bush, should not have let these men set up their own State Department or develop so much policy on their own. And in the end, he says the key decisions were made by his son, the president. And at this point, the first President Bush, in the biography, is quoting an earlier president, saying, the buck stops there.

SIEGEL: Now, I should say here that these quotations in Jon Meacham's biography of George H.W. Bush come from, he writes, the interviews he did with the elder Bush between 2008 and 2010. So these are retrospective comments. We don't see a lot - in fact, I don't think we see any documented evidence that the senior Bush, during the time that his son was going to war in Iraq, was telling him, I disagree with this.

ELVING: There's a great deal of speculation about this. The biography itself opens the question of whether or not George H.W. Bush felt this way at the time. It is clear, however, he did not share that as counsel with his son. Both his son and Dick Cheney have said, in response to the book - and they were shown galleys of the book by the author - that the first President Bush never shared these thoughts with them.

And there is the incident of an op-ed that was published in The Wall Street Journal in 2002. It was cautioning the administration against invading Iraq. It was written by Brent Scowcroft, who had been national security advisor to the first President Bush. Many people at the time thought, wow, that must be, in some sense or another, a backdoor communication, but there's no indication that the first President Bush agreed with Scowcroft or disagreed with his son.

SIEGEL: Jon Meacham quotes the elder Bush as saying, I think Brent had some very different opinions and saying he was free to speak out. But Meacham really concludes that the elder Bush essentially agreed with his son about going to war in Iraq.

ELVING: What we're hearing here sounds more like personal comments about personnel decisions and the people who were hired in the younger Bush's administration rather than the decisions that were ultimately made.

SIEGEL: What do you think the Jeb Bush campaign makes of these headlines today?

ELVING: We can only imagine that this is the last sort of distraction they would need at this point while they're on what is called a comeback tour for a struggling candidate. The last thing he wants to think about are the controversies of the last Bush presidency.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Ron Elving. And tomorrow, we'll hear from the author of the new biography of George H.W. Bush. He is Jon Meacham, and the book is called "Destiny And Power." That's tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.