It seems difficult to believe, watching the casket of the 41st President of the United States being carried by an honour guard into the Capital to lie in state, columns of military personnel standing at somber attention, how little the man was admired when he held office. Nobody seemed to hate him, exactly, but nobody much loved him either. He was portrayed as an out of touch child of privilege, a little stiff, a little obtuse, rather awkward in his speech and mannerisms, as hilariously and not entirely unkindly lampooned by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live. People thought him aloof, and disconnected from the ordinary realities of ordinary lives. Once, when he was out and about doing some sort of PR/photo op at a grocery store, during his re-election campaign, he managed to provoke widespread scorn by being fascinated with a laser bar code scanner. So insulated from the daily lives of the common citizen! went the rap. Oh, of course Mr Yale Skull and Bones Ivory Tower Patrician never saw how groceries get bought! He probably hasn’t stood there with a shopping cart, out among the real folk, in years and years!
Well, no. Of course he hadn’t. He’d been eight years as Veep, and now he was four years into filling the top slot, and people like that don’t get to do simple things like go to the store, or take a Sunday drive, or order a pizza. A small army of exquisitely trained professionals did nothing all day but make sure that his every movement was controlled and protected, so that none of America’s myriad whack jobs was able to murder him. He wasn’t allowed to nip into Walgreen’s to get some Tylenol. If he wanted to go somewhere, he could go with a small mechanized division, guarded by crack Secret Service agents. A cruise in his armoured limo down the streets of someplace like Canton, Ohio, or Scranton, Pennsylvania, took weeks to plan. Rooftops were cleared, mailboxes carted away, manhole covers taped shut, businesses, dwellings, and the people in them vetted all along the planned route, all so nobody would try to shoot him with something big enough to get through the armour glass, or blow him to Kingdom Come with an anti-tank mine. So no, he hadn’t seen this type of laser scanner at the grocery store checkout, which was a new NCR model that read mangled bar codes, and then the story was blown all out of proportion and partially misreported. Bush didn’t stand and gawk in slack-jawed wonder. He was interested, was all, maybe even quite properly fascinated by the thing. This betrayed nothing more dislikable about his character than that he had the wit to be curious.
Throughout his political career they also called him a wimp, a girly-man, a make-believe Texan who was actually a blue-blooded favoured son of the New England monied elites. It was actually a topic for the pundits: the “wimp factor”. Americans, especially those who vote Republican, want their leaders to be tough, you know, like The Duke was in True Grit and Stagecoach. But George Herbert Walker Bush – see, he had two middle names, like a lot of rich pompous wimps – didn’t come on that way at all. He was restrained, almost like a parson, or a school principal, maybe. He had a vocabulary, too, another telltale trait of the upper class wimp brigade.
Yeah, well, he wasn’t too much of a wimp to serve as a naval aviator during a real shooting war, a job that requires a hell of a lot more steely-eyed resolve than, say, riding a desk at the New York Times. When he earned his commission he was the youngest pilot in the whole US Navy, and they gave him a Grumman Avenger to fly, a hulking torpedo bomber with a three man crew that was built to do very, very dangerous things, like have a go at a Japanese cruiser, flying low, slow, and straight, so as to drop an unguided torpedo that might have a fair chance of hitting the target. The Avenger was rugged, but by no means swift, and nothing close to elusive. It was more par for the course than bitter twist of fate, then, when he and his crew got shot to pieces, performing a bombing run that wasn’t beyond the plane’s capabilities, but wasn’t what it was designed for, either. They were trying to destroy a Japanese radio facility on an island called Chichi Jima, and took heavy fire while pressing home the attack. It was more than any plane, however rugged, could sustain, and while Bush survived to be fished out of the drink by a submarine, his mates did not. One thundered in when his parachute didn’t open, which is not something you want to see happen to a buddy, and not something that a man with no steel in his spine could deal with the way he did, by simply putting it in a mental box and going forward without faltering, though in later years he could never bear to speak of it. The Navy gave him a Distinguished Flying Cross for his trouble, to go along with his three Air Medals, and he made it through 58 combat missions in one piece, also sharing in a Presidential Unit Citation along the way, a good enough pilot by the end that they made him a flight instructor.
Still, yes, military career or no he was still an Ivy League Coastal Elite sort of fellow, captain of this and that Yale varsity squad, Skull and Bones, the lot, and Americans have a weird (and profoundly misguided) antipathy for leaders who weren’t brought up in the school of hard knocks as the children of guys who milled steel, or dug rocks out of some deep Appalachian hole. God forbid your elite government positions should be staffed by actual educated elites, and this George H.W. Bush guy was elite. No two ways about it.
Yet he came from that generation of wealthy upper class scions of privilege who assumed they were being groomed not merely to lead, but to serve. So serve he did, all his life, running for various public offices over the years, sometimes winning, just as often losing, always game for another try. Nixon appointed him Ambassador to Beijing at a delicate moment in US-China relations, and his sense of noblesse oblige led him to take on tough jobs that nobody wanted, including Chair of The Republican National Committee at the peak of Watergate. He also did a stint as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
In the late 1970s he was asked to serve as the new broom at the beleaguered Central Intelligence Agency, where years of Congressional investigations and public exposure of intelligence capers that ranged from illegal to farcical – including everything from assassinations to an attempt to make Fidel Castro’s beard fall out by dusting his shoes with thallium salts – had obliterated morale. It was a shit job, under the circumstances, but he loved it. He simply loved it. Though he had no particular background in intelligence, he was a remarkably quick study, and eager to dig in. In one of those displays of sheer competence for which he’s more admired now than he was at the time, he brought discipline and reform to the Agency, and restored and then invigorated its relationship with Congress, as well as its credibility with the public. He was there only a year when a change of administrations mandated his departure, but it was an important year, and Bush has been held in high regard by the rank and file over at Langley ever since. A couple of years ago he was invited over for a warm tribute commemorating the 40th anniversary of his tenure as Director of Central Intelligence.
He lost out to Ronald Reagan for the Presidential nomination in 1980, and Reagan, in a move that surprised many, made Bush his running mate. He served in the Veep role dutifully for eight years, and then got his chance. In 1988 he beat the rather hapless Micheal Dukakis and assumed the Presidency.
Americans have another unfortunate quirk. Even though all of us out here know that the most important job a President does is run U.S. foreign policy, the American population doesn’t put much stock in that, or in how their leader represents them abroad. Who cares what the lousy French think? How’s the economy doing? And oh yeah, a tax cut would be sweet. Bush, unfortunately and quite famously, had promised never to raise taxes, but when he got into office the finances were out of whack, the Democrats controlled Congress, and like a pragmatic sort of fellow who figures he should actually govern in the public interest, he entered into a bargain with the legislators to raise revenues and cut the deficit. Ever after, his ill-considered election pledge – “Read my lips: no new taxes” – was thrown in his face. He also had the bad luck to serve when recession hit, as recessions always do at some point, and even though Presidents neither cause economic downturns nor make boom times happen, they invariably take credit for the latter, and the deal is that they have to wear the former, if that’s how it works out. The recession wasn’t all that deep, but the recovery was slow, a product of anti-inflation policies at the Federal Reserve that Bush could do nothing about. By the time he was up for re-election, his popularity had slipped and the public was wild about this Democrat out of Arkansas who played the Sax and felt their pain. In 1992 Bush was consigned to the “one-termer” reject bin.
Prior to that, though, he had to wrangle foreign policy whales that dwarfed domestic minnows like minor tax increases and shallow recessions. Over in Europe, the Soviet Empire was falling to pieces, and moments of crisis like that are always times of high peril. Masterfully, he stick-handled the diplomacy through which the Russians quietly accepted the loss of their Warsaw Pact vassal states, the Eastward expansion of NATO, and even the reunification of Germany, something that one might have expected to leave any Russian with some knowledge of recent history frothing at the mouth in a fit of apoplexy. The Bush team also had to overcome strong objections to German reunification from Britain and France.
Really, it was an amazing thing, in retrospect, the way Bush and his advisors brought the end of the Cold War in for such a soft landing.
Then, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, coming off the better part of a decade of fruitless war with Iran, and deeply in debt to his rich neighbours in Kuwait, had one of his bellicose bright ideas. Why pay them back, when he could conquer them, murder them, and take their oil instead? It’s now known that this apparently nutty scheme was at least partly encouraged by mixed messages he was getting from the local American diplomatic corps, but in the main, it appears he thought he could pull off this breathtaking smash-and-grab because he assumed America was timid, afraid of casualties, and spooked into military paralysis by the experience in Vietnam. He was sure of it, and made his move. It went well for a bit. Sitting there in Kuwait, which his armies took easily, there really wasn’t much to stop him from grabbing Saudi Arabia too, putting him in charge not only of the holiest sites in Islam, but an unholy crapload of oil to boot – if he pulled that off he’d be sitting on something like 40% of the world’s proven oil reserves, between his own fields in Iraq and the ones he stole from Kuwait and the House of Saud. Surely he toyed with the idea.
This would have been a geopolitical nightmare of epic scale. Many Americans at the time protested that oil wasn’t worth American blood; this was, sad to say, deeply, fundamentally wrong. Noble, but wrong. The economic mastery of the industrialized world was at stake. The prospect loomed that a butchering and terrifyingly Stalinist dictator would soon have his boot on the Western World’s throat. Over that, you fight.
Bush rose to the occasion like it was second nature, and in a fashion decisive enough to impress the likes of Churchill, or, in Bush’s case, Margaret Thatcher. It bears remembering, too, that the sheer scope and overwhelming force of the American response seems a lot more inevitable in retrospect than it actually was. It took delicate diplomacy to convince the Saudis, even with Saddam’s dagger to their necks, to accept an infidel military presence in their holy land. Bush also understood that throwing Iraq out of Kuwait couldn’t look like America swaggering in to the Arab World to throw its weight around and bully a lesser nation in a modern resumption of the Christian Crusades – that’s certainly what it would be, more or less, but it couldn’t look like it.
Thus he orchestrated another diplomatic tour de force, and had the U.N. Security Council condemn the Iraqi invasion and authorize the use of force to drive the thugs back up the Basra Highway where they came from. Working now under the righteous auspices of the UN, he assembled a vast coalition of nations, including unlikely allies like Syria, to join the United States in its now thoroughly legal and officially justified response to tyrannical aggression. Thus it wasn’t so vulgar as to be only about oil, and it wasn’t a new incursion of the hated Christian Crusaders – it was the whole of an indignant world locking arms, Muslim and Christian alike, to thwart the vile ambitions of the New Hitler. Genius.
Bush then did another very clever thing. He listened to his Generals. Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was almost as spooked by Vietnam as Saddam thought he’d be, and he wanted nothing of slow escalation, “graduated response”, or the futile use of bombs as a means of diplomatic persuasion. He wanted a massive, irresistible application of devastating force. He wanted to win quickly, and he wanted a definition of what winning was. Having met that definition, he wanted then to get out. They called it the “Powell Doctrine”.
His President bought in.
The ensuing lopsided victory might seem to have been a foregone conclusion, from the comfort of our armchairs here in 2018, but Bush was told to prepare for heavy losses, and the possible use by Saddam of chemical weapons, which he’d already employed against not only the Iranians but his own people in the Kurdish regions. Dealing with this required a certain toughness of mind, and Bush didn’t flinch. It’s rumoured that messages were sent through back channels that the first US servicemen to die in a chemical attack would be avenged by the immediate thermo-nuclear incineration of everything that walked or crawled in every population centre in Iraq. I’ve not done the research on this, but it sounds plausible, as a threat if not an actual policy option; in any case, the thought must have occurred within the Iraqi high command. I’ve also heard talk that an intermediate, but still devastating, option was to destroy dams on the Tigris and Euphrates and submerge Baghdad under several feet of water. Again, I’m not sure, but whatever the specifics, it was made clear that things would get powerfully ugly, fast, if Saddam pulled the trigger on his gaseous weapons of mass destruction. This was still no proof against events escalating out of control. There remained a minimum, irreducible risk of catastrophe, but if Saddam’s aggression was not to stand, it had to be taken. As always, just as he had when he completed his bomb run over Chichi Jima and hit the target despite taking crippling fire, George took a clear-eyed look at the situation, and decided to take the plunge that simply had to be taken.
Thankfully, whether cowed by threats or thwarted by air strikes, Saddam didn’t employ all that Sarin and Mustard gas he was known to have stockpiled, and in that, perhaps, Bush for once got lucky. The rest of the war tended rather to prove the old saying that luck is the residue of design. An incredibly powerful air campaign, which was so precise, destructive, and technologically dazzling that it was almost beautiful, tore Iraq’s armies and supporting infrastructure to shreds, and the subsequent ground war took only 100 hours to push the invaders out of Kuwait. It turned out, to everyone’s great relief, that challenging the United States to a mechanized war in open country for fixed objectives was just as poor an idea as some of the happier simulations gamed out on the Pentagon’s computers had indicated. Saddam’s machine was formidable, but only to a point, and in the teeth of the American onslaught one of the world’s largest armies was decisively routed, impotent against a new generation of weaponry and command and control technology, as employed by brilliant leadership.
Then Bush did still another very, very sage thing. He stopped. The road to Baghdad lay open, large concentrations of the Republican Guard were getting away, but he stopped. The tanks were told to break off the chase. A gruesome ongoing massacre by 30 mm Gatling gun, napalm, and cluster bomb on the Basra highway was halted. The air assault on the retreating army of Iraqi brigands, their vehicles stuffed with heisted Kuwaiti loot, was well within the laws of war, and no more than the murdering thieves deserved, but it was a terrible thing to behold. It was the kind of carnage, delivered with contemptuous impunity by seemingly endless ranks of the world’s finest tactical aircraft, that fostered long term fear, hatred, and rage, and maybe not just among the vanquished. The ugliness had to end. If Saddam was still in power, and his Republican Guards not quite ground to powder, well, maybe the humiliated dictator would be ousted by his own generals. The point was, the UN mandate had been fulfilled, there was no legal basis to keep going, and besides, local commander Schwarzkopf had told him in no uncertain terms that an invasion of Iraq proper would seize defeat from the jaws of victory. “We get to Baghdad, and we’ll be a despised occupying army, stuck like an elephant in tar pit”. That sounded right to George.
Too bad his son didn’t see it that way.
The signal victory in the Gulf pushed Bush’s approval ratings up for a while, but just as James Carville advised Bill Clinton, it was the economy, stupid. So he was out, though not before he had Dana Carvey over to the White House to march into a room of delighted staffers doing his best Bush schtick, while the real President stood at the back of the room and beamed.
He’d managed two extraordinary foreign policy crises with wisdom, resolve, and a sure-footedness the like of which we’d find desperately lacking in the current occupant of the Oval. Overall, he’d done a competent job on the home front, too, despite what the Fed was doing to throttle his re-election chances, and today the pundits and historians are inclined to label his tenure as the most successful single-term presidency in history. Bush is also remembered fondly, today, for being the sort of old school Republican who actually was a conservative, not a Tea Party radical, or an obstructionist legislative jihadist of the sort that saw its first incarnation in the hideous Newt Gingrich. He was ready to compromise. He was civil. He quit the NRA when their public pronouncements made the U.S. government and law enforcement out to be enemies of the people. He saw to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act and an expansion of the Clean Air Act. Throughout, he demonstrated genuine love for the institutions of the democracy he served all his life, and put country above party. He really was kind, at heart, and at the end of his political life, he displayed both innate grace and humble dignity in the letter he left on the Resolute Desk for his successor, an old Presidential tradition, with sentiments that are almost dumbfounding in their decency and generosity, compared to what we’re used to today. Reading it, Bill Clinton developed a respect and affection for its author that blossomed in later years, after he, too, was gone, and Bush the Younger was in the White House, making his Daddy proud, but showing so little of his father’s tempered judgment.
Today, we look upon the wreckage of the institutions of American democracy, and the sad and shabby mockery that’s now been made of the Presidency itself, and wonder why it is we liked George H.W. Bush so little. True, his career and personal life were not without compromise or blemish – when Reagan offered him the Veep slot he bought into the “voodoo economics” he’d derided, and when he beat Dukakis he let Lee Atwater pull some very dirty tricks, including the infamous Willie Horton ad. Like all Republicans, he pledged allegiance to social conservatives in the culture wars, and many feel he did too little to combat AIDS. It’s also alleged by several women that he was fond of planting his hands where no one wanted them to be, which seems out of character, so much so that one hopes it isn’t true – yet one can’t help but suspect it is, given what we learn every day about the behaviour of powerful men. If so, that’s a crying shame, because otherwise, George Herbert Walker Bush seems like the last of a species of politician, and brand of Republican, that the country needs desperately at this juncture.
In a way he was the last real Republican, the last “small c” conservative. His son abandoned the old ways and surrounded himself with radicals, hubristic warmongers eager to reshape the world by force, and carry out the Project for a New American Century. Right wing, yes. Conservative, no, not by any sensible definition of the word. Today, there are no Republicans at all, really. There’s Trump, a few true-believing Trumpanistas, and a large crowd of bootlicking enablers. In a lot of ways, the modern so-called Republican is determined to pull off almost the same sort of smash-and-grab that Saddam intended for Kuwait, except the goal is to strip mine America itself, and nobody is supposed to be killed – not right away. Is that just the way it is now? Is there still hope? Perhaps, amid all the pomp and ceremony of Bush’s funeral arrangements and multiple eulogies, somebody in the GOP will be inspired to follow the fallen President’s example? Will anyone honour his legacy by standing up for the rule of law over tax breaks for the rich, stacking the courts, and repealing regulations that offend the Koch brothers? Mitch? Orrin? Anybody…?
Oh well. At least Congress and the Navy paid Bush the entirely appropriate compliment of naming an aircraft carrier after him. When it’s out there on patrol, it’s 100,000 tons of habitat for over 5,000 men and women dedicated to service, just as he was, including a bunch of naval aviators performing more or less the same role that Bush did, all those years ago. It’s good and fitting that the powerful jets of the US Navy should be launching from the deck of a ship that bears the name of a decorated naval aviator, a kid who started out as the youngest flyboy in the whole Fleet, and had already earned his DFC by the time he was 20. The imposing presence of this nuclear powered behemoth at the centre of its battle group, massive, brawny, deadly, sends the whole world one clear message, by God: Wimp, my ass.