George HW Bush (1924 – 2018)

The 41st US President: A steady hand on foreign policy contrasted with a thousand points of light

Former United States President George Herbert Walker Bush. (Photo: EPA / Ron Sachs / Pool)

George Bush, 41st president of the United States, passed away on Friday evening at the age of 94. It is important to remember the man for his policies – but also for the way he comported himself in public office, and how he helped leave the world in a safer state than the way he had found it.

Towards the end of 1991, my family and I took a two-week swing through what was then called the eastern Transvaal, including several nights in Kruger Park. We were using a rental car, to avoid beating up our own much-loved Honda Prelude and because our car barely had sufficient space for two growing children and all the stuff one usually carries on such a trip. It also turned out the rental car had a nearly worthless radio that, it quickly became clear, could not even receive a signal from the SABC national English language channel beyond White River.

Never mind, this was meant to be a family vacation. It was coming at the end of the school term, so no worries about homework or exams, and we carried a plentiful supply of Disney film soundtrack audio cassettes, and an unlimited supply of colouring books. Even if South Africa was in a state of growing upheaval as the ancien regime was moving to its demise and there was much to stay aware of for work purposes, we all needed a break from the news, and so the absence of a reliable radio was not an issue. And, of course, this was taking place before the advent of a universal cellphone culture, let alone the internet and Wi-Fi.

So, we piled into the car and drove through to Kruger Park. We did our obligatory lookouts for the big five, saw the multitudinous bird life, watched a pack of cheetahs carry off a kill with military precision right in front of our car, and played the game of who would be the first to spot a giraffe or an elephant or a rhino through the trees or the tall grasses.

Readers should be able to imagine our astonishment when, leaving the park and on the way to our next stop, we finally heard a news bulletin – and the lead international news item was an announcement that the Soviet Union had vanished from the map. True, the Berlin Wall had fallen previously; and, yes, that wide arc of Soviet satellite regimes was tottering, even if they hadn’t already completely fallen; but, yes too, there were still large armies of Soviet troops and tanks stationed all across Eastern Europe – including in eastern Germany.

Nevertheless, until that moment, from this distance, the USSR still seemed to be on solid, albeit shifting ground; that is until it was revealed that the USSR had transformed into a nation with feet of malleable clay, and then, suddenly, was not a nation at all. However, even if one disagreed with some of his political notions, associations, or electoral campaign choices, it is now clear George HW Bush was in position in the White House, precisely for that moment in history.

It was for times just like that that George Herbert Walker Bush seems to have been bred and trained for throughout his life. Rarely has a president come into office with more political and international relations experience under his belt to draw upon in a crisis than was the case with George HW Bush – and the country was ultimately much the better for it.

George Bush senior, who passed away at the age of 94 during the night of 30 November, had been born into a life of privilege, but it was also one in which his mentors and teachers had spoken early and often of duty and service. His father had been a partner in an old-school, blue-blood investment banking house, and he had also gone on to serve as a Republican US senator from Connecticut.

As a child, Bush had gone to all the right boys’ schools, but then, the moment he was old enough, in the midst of World War II, he enlisted in the navy and was trained as a bomber pilot. Flying in the Pacific theatre of the war, he carried out 58 combat missions before his plane had been hit off the coast of Chi Chi Jima (located about 250 kilometres north of Okinawa in the Bonin Archipelago) in 1944.

After successfully bombing the Japanese military communications station on that island, on his return to the aircraft carrier San Jacinto, after his plane had been hit, it was being consumed by fire. Bailing out, he was adrift alone in the ocean on a life-raft for many hours until he was rescued by a passing US submarine. His two-man crew did not survive the destruction of the plane, a circumstance that led the young pilot to ponder for many years – and speak about sometimes – the complex meanings of heroism, survival, and sacrifice in the midst of war.

After the war, Bush entered Yale University, but then, after graduation, rather than go to law school or enter another usual pathway such as the predictable world of banking and the usual old money escalator, Bush married his sweetheart and the two of them headed off to Texas. The state was in the midst of an oil boom (depicted so beautifully in the film, Giant) and Bush was eager to make his own way and his own fortune (with the help of some old family connections in the financial world, whenever it was needed, of course).

Watch the trailer of Giant:

As columnist/commentator George Will wrote of him:

Rejecting family entreaties that he go to Yale before going to war, he enlisted on his 18th birthday and promptly became the Navys second-youngest commissioned aviator, compiling 126 carrier landings and 58 missions. After Yale, he spurned a Wall Street career, and with his wife the former Barbara Pierce, a descendant of the 14th president, Franklin Pierce headed in his Studebaker for the West Texas oil patch. But he took Wall Street with him in the form of connections and capital that helped launch the Bush-Overbey Oil Development Co. Business success brought him to Houston; boredom with business brought him to politics….”

Soon enough, Bush became bored with making gobs of money and he began to look to the world of politics, eventually winning two terms as a congressman from Texas (after losses as a candidate for the senate), just as being an elected Republican in an ostensibly still-solidly Democratic state was becoming a real possibility after 100 years as an old-style Democratic bastion like the rest of the South.

In Washington he was, soon enough, on to larger things. Following four years in congress, he was appointed US ambassador to the UN, then head of the Republican National Committee, just as President Richard Nixon was increasingly enmeshed in the coils of his Watergate scandal. It has been reported Bush rose to the needs of the times and his party’s survival, and he eventually wrote to Nixon to say the time had come for him to resign – but, also, showing a caution that marked many of Bush’s political choices, only sent his letter the week Nixon finally resigned from the presidency, and only after the full extent of the rot had been revealed by tape recordings of White House conversations about the Watergate break-in.

Then, in the Ford administration, Bush served as US envoy to China, just as the US-China relationship began to grow in its intensity and depth, and then it was on to head the CIA, the job Bush always told interviewers he felt had been the second-best job he had ever held. But there would be more to his public life, of course.

Carlos Lozado, Washington Post book editor, in a review of Bush’s published writing, wrote:

“… when Jimmy Carter defeated Ford in 1976, even the president-elect foresaw Bush’s continued ascent. Among his final acts as CIA chief, Bush briefed Carter. In Looking Forward, Bush recalls that when a colleague began outlining national security challenges that could arise by the mid-1980s, Carter held up his hand. ‘I don’t need to worry about that,’ he said with a smile. ‘By then George will be president and he can take care of it.’”

Considered for, but passed over, by Gerald Ford as the appointed president’s running mate in the 1976 election in favour of Kansas Senator Robert Dole, Bush began his pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination for the 1980 election. That contest pitted him against a seemingly genial ex-California governor who eventually elbowed Bush out of the way, but who then, surprisingly, picked Bush as his running mate – apparently to both unify the party and to draw upon Bush’s reputation as a steady hand and international affairs veteran.

After two Reagan terms, Bush was now firmly set as Reagan’s anointed successor, and he was elected overwhelmingly against a cerebral but hopeless candidate, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis. For his own running mate, Bush selected the non-descript Indiana senator, Dan Quayle; perhaps because it made Bush look so much better by comparison.

George HW Bush announces Dan Quayle as his running mate:

The harder-edged political operative side of Bush’s character was in evidence in this election, with the retention of Lee Atwater as campaign media strategist. The Bush campaign successfully painted Dukakis as an elitist, out-of-touch New England liberal, despite Bush’s own deep New England roots and his own firm place among the old money elite.

Atwater’s talents were most thoroughly in evidence in that infamous Willie Horton campaign commercial that insinuated someone like candidate Dukakis would allow multiple murderers like Willie Horton – who had been released from prison after one killing before committing another – to run free rather than face the wrath of the law, or even the death penalty, for their sins. Cynical observers, noting the potency of that commercial and the way it conflated Horton and Dukakis, argued that some voters might well be forgiven for subliminally thinking Dukakis’ running mate was Willie Horton after watching the ad a few times.

The infamous Willie Horton ad:

Once in office, it soon enough became clear that global events were not about to allow the Bush administration to be a simple continuation of Ronald Reagan’s cold warrior-style relations. Yes, Ronald Reagan had gone to Berlin and spoken at the Wall, beseeching Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down; but it was the Germans who effected the actual demolition themselves in late 1989, when Bush had already been elected.

The Berlin Wall falls:

Many of Bush’s advisers had urged him to go to Berlin to take the obvious victory lap, but Bush himself elected to allow the German people and their leaders to claim the moment for themselves, and thereby turn the event into a genuine demonstration of the power of people to set out their own destiny. Moreover, despite the caution from some about the wisdom of reunification of the two German states into one large nation, Bush threw his weight, and thus that of his government, behind the idea that reunification was a legitimate expression of German desires, after nearly half a century of the division into East and West – that reunification could help bring the Cold War to a successful conclusion.

As the USSR splintered into Russia and 14 other nations, and as the Warsaw Pact nations went their own ways, the Bush presidency kept its enthusiasms in check for any “We won! We won!” chanting, so as not to rub this disintegration into the psyche of Russians and thus give aid and comfort to any revanchists eager to keep the USSR together by force if needs be. In fact, Bush had seen an ally and something of a kindred spirit in Mikhail Gorbachev. As Bush said of their growing friendship, he could sit down and just talk. I thought I had a feel for his heartbeat. Openness and candour replaced the automatic suspicions of the past.

Bush Meets Gorbachev:

Instead, the US gave support for drawing Russia into the global economic and financial institutions as well as providing more tangible, material support via funds that assisted newly emerging democratic traditions in the successor states. At least for a generation, this approach seemed to be the upward arc of US-Russian relations and for Russia’s place in the world, going forward. (That is, at least until Vladimir Putin declared the break-up of the old Soviet Union to be the worst catastrophe of the 20th century.)

A very different challenge faced the Bush administration and 41’s response highlighted the natural caution – or prudence – of his foreign policy. In early 1990, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s army invaded neighbouring Kuwait and Iraq subsequently annexed the small country. There was much consternation over this wound to international order, and the Bush administration denounced the events and then built a broad international coalition that eventually included nearly 40 nations. Many of those were prepared to commit troops, material and funds for the military reaction, first named Desert Shield, as it took up positions in northern Saudi Arabia, and then as Desert Storm when US generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell prepared for the liberation of Kuwait.

The actual combat ran from mid January to the end of February 1991, as the coalition force liberated Kuwait and largely destroyed the Iraqi military as an effective fighting force. But, crucially, the Bush administration, in a political decision criticised by some hardliners or cold warriors, elected not to move on to Baghdad and complete the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the decapitation of its leadership. (That decision gave Saddam Hussein a second lease on life that allowed for the great mistakes of the second Gulf War.)

Bush himself had noted that the goal of Desert Storm had only been to liberate Kuwait, thereby returning to the status quo ante, rather than a conquest of Iraq. As Bush himself had written about it:

My own thoughts were focused on putting the United States back out in front, leading the West as we tackled the challenges in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.”

Bush had trouble, perhaps, making the public case for action in the Persian Gulf, also writing, “I am not good at that,” although he explained privately in a diary entry:

Saddam Hussein will get out of Kuwait, and the United States will have been the catalyst and the key in getting this done, and that is important. Our role as a world leader will once again be reaffirmed.”

Decisions like this represented a clear demonstration of the caution in the foreign policy thinking of the Bush administration. Even the removal of Manuel Noriega, president of Panama, because of his corruption and engagement in narcotics trafficking into the US, did not mean a re-imposition of American rule in the Panama Canal Zone, let alone over the entire nation.

By 1992, George Bush was up for re-election and – perhaps surprisingly – Bush’s initial popularity from the success of Desert Storm did not last. In a three-way race between Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton, and independent multimillionaire businessman-turned-politician Ross Perot, Clinton gained a plurality of popular vote and a substantial majority of the actual electoral vote, largely by managing to paint Bush as a naïf in dealing with the economic weaknesses of the economy and out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans facing economic dislocations and pressures. By contrast, he, Clinton, was the new breath of optimism and filled with new ideas for a post-Cold War era in American life. Bush was not helped by some ill-planned campaign stops such as one that managed to show Bush’s unfamiliarity with by-now-ubiquitous technology such as laser scanning at store checkouts.

Bush passed on into senior statesman status and eventually forged a close partnership and friendship with the same man who had defeated him for re-election, in their efforts to raise funds for international emergencies. He lived long enough to see one son become governor of Texas and then president of the country (only the second time that had happened), and a second son as governor of Florida (and unsuccessful bidder for the Republican nomination for president in 2016). Along the way, the elder Bush stayed active, enjoying the piloting of his “cigarette boat” in the waters near his family summer compound at Kennebunkport, Maine at high speed, fishing, and then, into his 70s and beyond, picking up again with parachute jumping, something that had saved his life back in World War II.

Watch his World War II rescue:

By the time he passed away, it had become increasingly clear that Bush’s steady, cautious hand on the foreign policy tiller had managed to help end the Cold War without the firing of a single shot. George Will summed up the late president, writing:

George H.W. Bush was caught between worlds. As president, he could be himself at last. He was, by then, an Eisenhower Republican, whose prudence was displayed first when the Berlin Wall came down, next when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Bush, when expelling him, stopped short of invading Iraq. Presiding over the orderly end of the Cold War and the vast coalition for Desert Storm, Bush earned the lasting admiration of a discerning posterity, a judgement more important than the one rendered by the undiscerning electorate that in 1992 limited him to one term.”

While his domestic policy agenda has been less well remembered, it is important to recall that it was under his urging that the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and came into effect, dramatically changing the access of and participation by disabled Americans in society. His civility came through in his hopes for a kinder, gentler America and for a thousand points of light to restore the virtues and vigour of volunteerism.

George Bush will have a state funeral in Washington, and then his remains will be buried on the grounds of his presidential library in Texas. When George Bush’s wife Barbara passed away earlier in 2018, the family had asked Donald Trump not to attend, perhaps in response to some of the harsh criticism the Bush family had endured at the hands of Donald Trump over the years. This time around, Trump has said he will attend the ceremonies for the late president. Hopefully, Trump will allow the solemnity of the occasion to be the true focus of this event, even if there are those who may draw comparisons to how the former and current president handled their public duties. DM


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