President George W. Bush has just made history — again. He’s the only son of a president of the United States who served in the Oval Office himself and went on to write a biography about his father. It was worth the wait.
The Bushes are not the first family to have father-and-son presidents. That distinction goes to the Adams family, John and John Quincy. Unfortunately, John Quincy Adams did not write a book about his father after he left office, so we don’t have his valuable perspective.
Throughout the book, there is a theme of prioritization — faith, family, country and hard work — and in that order, always.
Partly due to that blind spot in the historical record, George W. Bush was persuaded to write “A Portrait of My Father,” a profile of George H.W. Bush, affectionately nicknamed “41.” It is a book of love, respect and gratitude — not the cold writing of an objective historian, but that of a loving son quite in awe of his father.
Even for someone familiar with the Bush family legacy, the book was full of discoveries; I learned so many things I had never known. I also came to see how many historic decisions and experiences produced such remarkable lives and people.
My copy of “A Portrait of My Father” is already dog-eared, underlined and circled throughout, but to narrow it down, here are five things I loved about this book:
1. Seeds of grace
President Bush starts the book with a deeper look at the early family history — in particular that of his grandmother, Dorothy Walker, who it seems implanted the graciousness and dignity that characterizes the Bushes. By all accounts the sweetest and yet the most competitive woman anyone around her had ever known, she insisted on humility at all times — especially from her children. She even called to upbraid George H.W., then the vice president, when she saw him on television looking down as President Reagan was giving a State of the Union address. He promised his mother that he was only reading along with the script, but she wasn’t having any excuses, and I’m sure he resisted the urge to look down during any and all future speeches.
Dorothy Walker taught her children how to win and lose graciously, and to give this one life they’d been given their all (and to keep their sense of humor, something all of the Bushes really seem to have).
A common theme of the book is the willingness to take risks, not in a cavalier way but in a manner that seems rooted in confidence and love. Decisions to volunteer for war, to move west to try the oil business, to try new forms of diplomacy in China, to run for the House, the Senate, the presidency — all of these were bold, courageous decisions, grounded in a clear belief in the self. But that strong belief also necessitates the trust that your family loves you unconditionally, that family really does come first and that they’ll love you even if you fail. With all that in place, why not try?
Throughout the book, the Bushes demonstrate this quality repeatedly. It reminds me of my favorite advice from 43 when I was figuring out what to do when his administration ended. He suggested I strike out on my own with a new business, asking me “What’s the worst that could happen?”
He was right. And though my risk was small, through their own calculated risks, leaders like 41 and 43 have helped maintain America’s position as the leader of the free world. This is a lesson all of us should bear in mind when debating a risk, and when encouraging our loved ones to take chances.
There are many management books that can teach new tactics for holding meetings or interviewing candidates for job openings. But there are real-life lessons learned from hard experience in this book that you are unlikely to find elsewhere. One of my favorites is about encouraging talented employees to grow.
When 41 decided to leave a great job and to start up a new company, he was reluctant to tell his boss, Neil Mallon, for fear of disappointing him. Mallon was sorry to see him go, but instead of laying on a guilt trip, he provided advice on how 41 and his partners might set up the new firm. Mallon didn’t try to hold on to a valuable employee because it was better for his own business; rather, he invested in 41’s entrepreneurial spirit and encouraged him to try something new. More managers should adopt this approach (and they just may have a child named after them … see Neil Mallon Bush).
4. Perspective and service
Throughout the book, there is a theme of prioritization — faith, family, country and hard work — and in that order, always. These are the lenses through which 41 lived his life, and what he taught his children. What are we here for if not to respond to God’s calling and accept His grace; to build, support and enjoy our families; to serve our country or give back to it in some way; and to do our part to leave a mark on the world — to say, I was here, and I contributed? Throughout the book, I was constantly reminded that if you have your priorities straight, things fall into place.
5. Loss and Disappointment
For all of the many successes of the Bush family, there has also been a great deal of personal strife. President Bush writes tenderly about his parents’ feelings and actions after they found out their daughter, Robin, had leukemia. The pain was etched on their hearts. And once they’d been through that grief and their relationship was stronger because of it, they could empathize with others who had struggled and lost loved ones.
The important lesson here is that we have a great deal of control over how we react to anger, betrayal, disappointment and tragedy. The Bushes have shown us that it is a gift to be able to feel, to have emotions — and the key is to not let sadness and grief overwhelm the joy and elation that also come our way.
“A Portrait of My Father” is not just for history buffs and political news hounds. It’s a book that speaks to many different people with lessons about being a good husband, father, leader, follower, manager and friend. It’s also a reminder of just how exceptional America is.
Many other political families have been written about and fawned over, but the Bushes have kept to themselves and been more reticent than most.
The only thing they are not humble about is the patriarch of their family — George H.W. Bush. And, because he’s a former president of the country, he’s someone we can all brag about.
You’ll feel like doing it too, after reading this special book.