“Read my lips. No new taxes.”

That’s what comes to mind for many Americans when we think about George Herbert Walker Bush, and that’s too bad. While it was a definitive moment in Bush 41’s presidency for all the wrong reasons, there is so much more to the man profiled by Jon Meacham in Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.

This is a well-written and thorough biography about an honorable man whose story is defined by a commitment to family and courage at key moments. 

The book begins generations ago, describing the ancestors of both the Bush and Walker families, which would combine in marriage in 1921 when Bush’s father, Prescott, married Dorothy Walker—whose lineage lent its name to amateur golf’s Walker Cup. It was a marriage of two aristocratic, well-established families—but one would be mostly wrong to think young Bush got ahead only on the basis of his name.

Prescott Bush’s children were expected to achieve their own success and exude virtue, not subsist on their pedigree. Perhaps the most notable example of George following this “Bush family code” was his military service and heroic brush with death after being shot down during World War II in 1944.

I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of Bush’s war service, which would make a harrowing action movie. Most especially by being shot down, nearly captured, and ultimately rescued, Bush proved himself a true hero. He returned home and, having married Barbara Pierce in 1943, settled down in west Texas where he got involved in the oil business—a move largely to set himself apart from his prestigious East Coast family name.

In 1947, their first child was born: George Walker Bush. Other children followed, including Pauline Robinson Bush (Robin) who at age 3 died of leukemia. Meacham brilliantly incorporates Bush’s own writings from that period to impress upon readers just how profoundly her early death shaped the future president’s life and to show the depth of his love for his family.

Bush entered politics with a failed run for U.S. Senate followed by a successful run for Congress. He went on to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, U.S. ambassador to China, and—albeit reluctantly—CIA director under President Ford. 

While it would be impossible to argue that he did not benefit from his pedigree, Bush largely made his own way in the military, in business, and later in his political career. And because he was dedicated to living a vigorous and full life, his varied experiences allowed him to make his own name.

Bush had his eye on the presidency for decades, and finally got his chance during the 1980 GOP nomination contest. The 1980 campaign was animated by the pragmatic, moderate wing of the Republican Party—embodied in Bush—facing off with the “movement conservative” wing of the party, embodied in Reagan. Bush ran a vigorous primary campaign but lost to the more conservative Reagan. If you’ve ever seen one of those iconic Reagan/Bush ’84 t-shirts, you know the gist of the ensuing eight years.

Bush’s career culminated when voters chose him to carry forward the successful legacy of the Reagan years, and Meacham is fair in his praise and criticism of the Bush presidency. The main criticism, as you would guess, surrounds the “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge that he later broke by supporting legislation that called for a tax increase. 

By the late ‘80s, the conservative wing Reagan carried to two resounding victories was in the driver’s seat in GOP politics, led by Newt Gingrich. As opposed to the deal-cutting style of Bush, for the ascendant conservatives the notion of raising taxes was a total non-starter. A recession, the declining prominence of foreign policy (which Bush excelled at) after the fall of communism, and Bush’s failure to keep his tax pledge after he had been trusted by a still-skeptical conservative wing, all added up to electoral defeat in 1992.

I agree with criticizing this broken oath. It wasn’t just about the departure from economic policies that were working and that voters sent him to the White House to continue, but it also represented an instance of misplaced priorities. In essence, the ever-pragmatic Bush was too eager to cut a deal, even if it meant breaking his word to the voters.

Perhaps another reason for Bush’s 1992 defeat is that he would at times take advice from the wrong people. For example, Richard Nixon would consistently give him advice and consistently, in my opinion, it was bad advice. As Meacham writes about an ill-advised debate stunt suggested by a Bush adviser during the 1980 campaign that handed Reagan the famous “I’m paying for this microphone” campaign highlight, Bush was always better off listening to his own instincts.

Finally—and this is an example of the saying there’s nothing new under the sun—the media consistently put their thumbs on the scale for Clinton. The facts about the election, Ross Perot, the economy, and Bush himself didn’t fit the media’s storyline that Bush was an elite, out-of-touch failure, so the media made up facts that fit. Dan Rather in particular comes across as more of a political operative with a news studio, an abuse of the trust of his audience that helps explain why the media’s credibility has eroded so much over the years.

Bush’s performance as commander-in-chief and chief diplomat is arguably among the best of any president. His deft execution of the Gulf War is well-known, but after learning other facts Meacham lays out in the book, you might join me in believing that Bush also deserves to share credit with Reagan for bringing the Cold War to an end. Bush is underrated by history.

Toughness, grace, kindness and competence described George Bush. While his brand of conservatism was largely left behind as the 20th century wore on and politics became more polarized, he continued to serve as a role model for decades by staying in the public eye through philanthropy and charity work with President Clinton and others to benefit people less fortunate. He also continued living his life to the fullest, becoming known later in life for his skydiving.

Nice guys finish last. In politics, sharp-elbowed opponents and a cynical media do what they can to make sure that’s the case. But for George Herbert Walker Bush, a combination of all the right virtues carried him to the highest office, and the world is a better place because of it.

RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents Wisconsin’s 5th Senate District in the state legislature. He is also a Certified Public Accountant and an Army Reserve officer.