Jon Meacham chronicles the career of George H.W. Bush, drawing on official archives and Bush’s personal diaries to follow him from his Connecticut upbringing and service in World War II to his successful Texas oil enterprises, and through his long and diverse public career as a congressman, U.S. ambassador, CIA director, and president. Meacham says he wrote Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (Random House, $35) after visiting with the former president and finding him a much more complicated and interesting figure than often depicted. The book provides a largely sympathetic portrait, but thanks to Meacham’s skillful questioning, Bush is drawn to offer some uncharacteristically harsh criticism of his son’s administration, including negative critiques of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
Having written several nicely done biographies of such historical figures as Dwight Eisenhower, Robert Kennedy, and John Paul Jones, veteran journalist Evan Thomas turns his attention to Richard Nixon. In Being Nixon: A Man Divided (Random House, $35), Thomas provides a well-researched, updated view of our controversial 37th president. Thomas has a knack for balanced reporting and for clearly articulating complex topics. He sets out to try to get past what he calls “the cartoon version of Nixon,” taking pains at times to couple indictments and negative appraisals with offsetting sympathetic views and kinder counterexamples. Without glossing over Nixon’s well-known darker tendencies toward hate, paranoia, and vindictiveness, Thomas also highlights his shyness, sentimentality, and devotion to family. By striving to pack the long story of Nixon’s embattled life into a single book, Thomas produces a useful work that is both comprehensive and authoritative. But the range of Nixon’s experiences and the broad impact of his actions complicate a one-book-fits-all approach, and as a deeply flawed, ever-conflicted character, Nixon proves a difficult challenge for a biographer as even-handed as Thomas.
It was just over a decade ago that Harvard professor Niall Ferguson was approached by Henry Kissinger about doing an authorized biography. Ferguson declined at first, then changed his mind. He had few illusions about the challenge of writing on such a controversial figure. As he says at the start of Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist (Penguin Press, $39.95), no statesman in modern times “has been as revered and then as reviled as Henry Kissinger.” The book—the first of a planned two volumes—covers Kissinger up to the start of the Nixon administration, delving deeply into his intellectual development. Drawing on a huge archive of previously unavailable private papers, Ferguson makes the case that for a full assessment of Kissinger, it’s important to understand the thinker as well as the diplomatic actor. The subtitle, “The Idealist,” signals at the outset that readers should prepare for a different view of Kissinger than the conventional notion of him as the embodiment of Cold War realpolitik. Reviewers have commended the book for its comprehensive scholarship and engrossing narrative.