By Nick Bryant
Americans have not just been mourning the passing of a president, but also the vanishing of a bygone politics.
For George Herbert Walker Bush was the last president of America’s greatest generation: a war hero who bemoaned the end of the patriotic bipartisanship that was such a feature of the early post-war years; a moderate who was genuine when he vowed in 1988 to make his country kinder and gentler; a pragmatist who viewed with suspicion the rise of ideological purists in the Republican Party who fetishised tax cuts and demonised government.
For many his death marks the end of an era, but the truth is that age of American politics drew to a close a quarter of a century ago.
Its death knell began to toll at the beginning of the 1990s with the generational shift away from politicians, such as GHW Bush, who had served in World War Two and been tested in combat, to Baby Boomers, such as Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. Their formative years were spent waging the cultural battles of the 1960s and their politics was more aggressively partisan.
Like Harry S Truman, another great foreign policy president who was underappreciated at the time, Bush offers a prime example of how presidential reputations evolve over the passing years, how legacies are reassessed and how traits characterised contemporaneously as weaknesses can be judged by future generations as virtues.
Posterity is certainly being more generous than the headline writers of the time, who derided him as a wimp and something of a presidential placeholder sandwiched awkwardly between the more significant figures of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Yet Bush, in his less showy way, was also an era-defining politician, short-lived though it turned out to be: those fleeting years of unrivalled American global dominance.
Lest we lapse into hagiography, a modern-day tendency in a world increasingly bereft of political giants, it is worth highlighting at the outset Bush’s many failings.
Fighting for the presidency in 1988, he took the low road to the White House by questioning the patriotism of his Greek-American Democratic opponent Mike Dukakis, and by crudely stoking racial fears. The Bush campaign didn’t make the notorious Willie Horton ad – it was put out by a pro-Bush political action committee – but it ran on cable television for 25 days before the candidate condemned it.
Lee Atwater, Bush’s abrasive campaign chief, licked his South Carolinian lips at the prospect of portraying Dukakis as a liberal elitist soft on crime. “If I can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win the election,” he said, evidently with the blessing of his candidate.
The gracious letter Bush wrote to Bill Clinton on inauguration day in January 1993, in which he noted “Your success now is our country’s success”, also needs to be contextualised.
Bush did not think Clinton possessed the personal rectitude to be president, and in his diary that day recorded his reaction to a soldier who gave him a thumbs-up during the inaugural celebrations.
“I must say I thought to myself, ‘How in God’s name did this country elect a draft dodger? I didn’t feel it with bitterness. I just felt it almost generational. What I am missing?'”
Ahead of the 1992 election, the former navy pilot, who had been shot down by the Japanese over the Pacific, had been dismissive of his younger rival, who had not served in Vietnam and never donned military fatigues. “The American people are never going to elect a person of Bill Clinton’s character,” he sneered.
Fighting for a Senate seat in Texas in 1964, the younger Bush had opposed the landmark Civil Rights Act that demolished segregation in the South and derided Martin Luther King as “a militant”.
Yet even as far back as the mid-Sixties, when the Republican Party’s centre of gravity started to shift from Wall Street to the states of the Old Confederacy and south-western Sun Belt, Bush expressed concerns about the growing radicalisation of the conservative movement.
“When the word moderation becomes a dirty word we have some soul searching to do,” he observed after his defeat in 1964. “I want conservatism to be sensitive and dynamic, not scared and reactionary.”
By 1988, when he won the presidential nomination of his party by seeing off more right-wing rivals, the words “sensitive and dynamic” had morphed into “kinder and gentler.”
Donald Trump recently mocked Bush’s famed thousand points of light speech, asking his rally-goers “what the hell was that?” But for Bush those words defined a brand of compassionate conservatism that was partly a corrective to the “greed is good” excesses of the Reagan years, partly an articulation of the noblesse oblige imbued in him as a child of the American aristocracy, and maybe also an expression of parental bereavement. The Bushes’ beloved daughter Robin died of leukaemia aged three.
Paradoxically, no one better personified the geographic reorientation of the Republican Party than Bush, the scion of a Connecticut banking family and son of a patrician Senator who became a Texan oilman and Lone Star politician.
Yet there was always the sense he was faking it – that he enjoyed darting around in his cigar boat in the waters off his family’s compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, more than hurling horseshoes; that he felt more comfortable in preppy loafers than eel skin boots; that he was the offspring of Senator Prescott Bush rather than a genuine son of the South.
Back in the 1960s, Bush’s campaign manager in Texas called him “the worst candidate I’d ever had”, partly because he made the mistake of wearing striped ties in a state populated by ranch hands and oil workers.
Despite becoming the Republican Party’s presidential nominee and serving for a time during the late Nixon years as the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Bush often felt out of place in the modern-day conservative movement.
However much he professed his love for pork rinds, testified to becoming a Born Again Christian, or paid homage to the new demagogues of the right by inviting Rush Limbaugh to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House, he struggled to present himself as a true believer.
Often he looked and sounded like a Rockefeller Republican trying, unconvincingly, to be Reagan’s political heir. Moderation was his lodestar, a word that spoke of betrayal to firebrand ideologues like Newt Gingrich.
An irony here is that Bush inadvertently helped propel the rise of Gingrich, by appointing the then congressman Dick Cheney as his defence secretary. It created an opening in the House Republican leadership filled by the ambitious young Georgian.
Thereafter, Gingrich became a thorn in the president’s flesh. When in 1990 Bush broke his famed “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge, and cut a budget deal with the Democratic-controlled Congress, Gingrich spearheaded the Republican revolt.
“There is a clump of these extreme extremists that I detest,” Bush wrote in the diaries he shared with his biographer Jon Meacham, “but I can’t let the bastards get us down”.
Personally, the budget deal made for poor politics, which arguably cost Bush his presidency. But it slashed deficits, put the country’s finances on a sounder footing and helped usher in the prosperity of the 1990s. That, along with the passage of the ground-breaking Americans with Disabilities Act, was his central legislative achievement.
First and foremost, this former ambassador and one-time CIA chief was a foreign policy president, and much has been written about how he skilfully brought the Cold War to a peaceful end and helped orchestrate the reunification of Germany.
Bush was criticised by the media for not rejoicing in America’s victory, for missing the historical moment, for not rushing to Berlin. But he knew that crowing would strengthen the hand of hardliners in Russia who were looking for an opportunity to oust Mikhail Gorbachev.
Besides, his mother had always cautioned against boastfulness. A lesser figure could easily have botched the end of the Cold War, but Bush’s strategic smarts were a key reason why America entered the new millennium as the sole superpower in a unipolar world.
Bush’s diplomatic management of the first Gulf War was also masterly. After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, he patiently assembled a broad international coalition of 35 countries, sought and won the authorisation of the UN Security Council, and got Congress to pass a war authorisation vote after the 1990 congressional mid-term elections rather than before to prevent the conflict from being politicised.
Operation Desert Storm brought about such a quick and emphatic victory that it slew many of the phantoms that had haunted American foreign policy since Vietnam. Bush, however, refused to attend a victory party in New York, telling advisers the troops deserved the ticker-tape adulation rather than their commander-in-chief.
He also resisted calls to fully invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein. Unlike his son, he understood the perils of regime change (although mistakes were made when Bush encouraged the Kurds and Shia-dominated south to revolt against Saddam Hussein but failed to offer sufficient American backing thereafter).
After the Gulf War, Bush enjoyed the highest presidential approval ratings ever recorded by Gallup – a stratospheric 89% – but as the US economy tanked and he struggled to articulate a post-Cold War vision for his country, his popularity also plummeted.
It pained him that he did not get more recognition at home for his successes abroad. “My opponents say I spend too much time on foreign policy, as if it didn’t matter that schoolchildren once hid under their desks in drills to prepare for nuclear war,” he wrote in his diary. “I saw the chance to rid our children’s dreams of the nuclear nightmare, and I did.”
In the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton, helped by America’s first billionaire populist Ross Perot, successfully cast him as an out-of-touch patrician, and he won only 37% of the vote. No incumbent in more than 100 years had received a lower share of the popular vote.
Because he was a one-term president, and thus deemed a failure, his political achievements are often overlooked. But he was the last occupant of the White House to win 40 states, and the last presidential candidate to gain a 53% share of the vote.
Clinton, a two-termer who benefited enormously from the peace and prosperity his predecessor helped deliver, never cracked 50%. Writing in The Atlantic, the political commentator Peter Beinart made the astute observation: “Bush was the last person to occupy the Oval Office whose opponents saw him as a fully legitimate president.”
Not only was he the last president of the pre-polarised age, but also the last president of the pre-internet age, which is surely symbiotic. The terminology of red states and blue states was not then in common usage.
Online political echo chambers, which have done so much to exacerbate America’s divisions, had not yet been invented. The media landscape was also very different, not least because Fox News, which dragged the conservative movement further towards the right, had not yet broadcast a single show.
Bush was never a “win the news cycle” sort of politician, nor one for the “boxers or briefs” showbusiness requirements of the modern-day presidency. Given his patrician reserve and habit of mangling sentences, he was not well equipped to deal with the celebritisation of politics ushered in by Reagan, nor tactile enough for the Oprahfication signalled by Bill Clinton.
Politics for him was not some reality show, but reality itself. Small wonder that when Donald Trump suggested to Lee Atwater that he become the vice-presidential running mate, Bush laughingly dismissed the proposal as “strange and unbelievable.”
After steering his country to victory in the Gulf War, Bush suffered from something nearing depression, a black dog mood that made him consider quitting politics altogether. In his moment of maximum triumph and popularity, he temporarily lost his way.
But the apogee of his presidency is worth pondering anew.
As his finest biographer Jon Meacham reflected: “For the moment Bush was the president of a united country and, to a remarkable extent, he was the leading statesman of a united world.”
In a splintered nation and in a fractious world, it is hard to imagine those words ever again being written of a contemporary American president.