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Book Review: The China Diary of George H.W. Bush

The China Diary of George H.W. Bush: The Making of a Global President
Edited by Jeffrey A. Engel
Princeton University Press, 2008

From October 1974 to December 1975, George H.W. Bush was the head of the United States Liaison Office – the closest thing America had to an ambassador to China, since the two countries didn’t establish formal diplomatic relations until 1979 – in Beijing, and during that time he kept a private diary of this thoughts, activities, and impressions of an enigmatic country slowly emerging onto the world stage. Bush and his wife Barbara (and their dog, Fred) took the post to escape the post-Watergate darkness that had engulfed Washington and Bush’s political mentor, Richard Nixon, and what they found was an entirely different world from the one they’d known.

Bush never intended his diary to be published, and more: he never actually wrote it but rather dictated it. This makes the task editor Jeffrey Engel has accomplished all the more impressive, since, as he puts it, “verbal elegance is not his [Bush’s] strongest suit” (older readers will recall a character in a Doonesbury strip urging the then-President on: “come on, Mr. President! Wrestle that syntax to the ground!”).

From this material Engels has produced a startlingly important reassessment of the first President Bush (Engel’s 70-page concluding essay will stand as one of the strongest pieces of presidential analysis ever put on paper), but the present-day reader should be warned: you will weep openly while reading this book. Those of us who were often frustrated with the first President Bush, who considered him too goofy or amiable for his own good – a bit of a lightweight – have been shown, through eight long years of slope-browed, snickering evil just how much worse things could be. Here is G.H.W. Bush seeing vast Chinese growing-fields:

There are no tractors to be seen, and I have not seen a truck yet; but there is plenty of manual labor and plenty of action on the fields that are so green that your eyes ache almost.

And here is that brisk, optimistic near-incoherence some of us must now remember fondly:

It’s great. All’s well. End first night. No substance. Lots of new sights and sounds and smells. Don’t drink the water. The soap is good. The eggs are little. Shortwave makes a lot of whistling sounds – sounds just like 30 years ago. Lots to do. Lots to learn.

“Lots to learn” – and the hot tears prick again.

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