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21 November 2013

The eyes of Texas are watching as George W Bush returns to take on the Tea Party

There is a growing nostalgia for Dubbya's brand of “compassionate conservatism”, which increased the role of federal government in education, expanded Medicare coverage and demonstrated willingness to address immigration reform.

By John Bew

Austin, the state capital of Texas, is something of a delight and a surprise. It is a quirky liberal enclave in a conservative-dominated state that has more in common with San Francisco than with Dallas. At the western end of the city’s 6th Street is the imposing Roman esque Driskill Hotel – once the campaign headquarters of the Democratic president Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was there that he also took his future wife, “Lady Bird”, on their first date. To the east are hipster bars and eateries with live music and Anglophile affectations, such as dartboards and Premier League football paraphernalia.

Austinites are an eclectic group who include government workers, political staffers, college students and academic staff and an abundance of hi-tech workers. The sprawling campus of the University of Texas (UT) is the focal point of much local intellectual and cultural activity. In the middle of it is the 100,000-capacity Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. As the city has no big independent sports franchises of its own, Austinites are heavily invested in the college American football team, the Longhorns, who fill out the stadium every game in their burntorange uniforms. “The eyes of Texas are upon you, you cannot get away,” goes their anthem – not, I am told, a reference to the Texas Cryptology Centre in San Antonio and the huge satellites dishes there that are a crucial part of the National Security Agency network.

Cards on the table

The Edward Snowden saga was one of the main topics discussed at a conference on the Anglo-American relationship held at UT’s new Clements Centre for History, Strategy and Statecraft, which brought together scholars of the calibre of Philip Bobbitt (a Texas native) with senior officials from the Bush and Blair years. A former head of the NSA in the late 1970s, Bobby R Inman, suggested that the organisation would be best served to release the details of everything it believes Snowden has in order to stop the daily occurrence of more bad headlines and start to rebuild its reputation.

Unsurprisingly, the long-term significance of the decision to invade Iraq was much debated. The debris from that conflict will shape the Anglo-American relationship for many years. Paradoxically, though, while it had seriously damaged both nations, there seemed to be a consensus that it had not necessarily driven them apart. That the Snowden crisis has brought such a spotlight on Britain’s GCHQ underscores how the institutional interconnectedness between the two nations runs deep.

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Most interesting for a British audience was Michael Gerson’s take on Tony Blair. Gerson, Bush’s bookish former speechwriter, explained just how much Blair’s pre- 9/11 language of liberal interventionism – as exemplified by his Chicago speech of 1999 – had influenced his attempt to articulate Bush’s strategy from 2001. Indeed, Gerson suggested that Blair was the only British prime minister who ever exercised such influence that he could personally edit one of the president’s speeches and have all his amendments incorporated – without exception in the final version.

Can’t get no satisfaction

A stolen morning in the LBJ archives provided a reminder that hand-wringing about Anglo-American relations is not new. At a national security meeting in June 1968, the then US secretary of defence, Clark Clifford, announced that the British “do not have the resources, the backup, or the hardware to deal with any big world problem” and that they were “no longer a powerful ally of ours because they cannot afford the cost of an adequate defence effort”.

Similar things are said today. Yet there has long been a resilient Anglophile thread in US politics. The American ambassador in London at the time, David Bruce, sounded a more optimistic note about the robustness of British society – not least the future impact of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. “British youth has been shouting its dissatisfaction with the old ways for years,” he observed. “They have created an emancipation ‘pop’ culture which has swept the continent and given Britain the cultural leadership of young Europe.”

Relative values

It was to his ranch in Texas that George W Bush retreated after his presidency, hosting barbecues for local charities and eschewing the world stage in the way that Bill Clinton embraced it. Yet it is reported that attitudes to him – in the US, at least – might be starting to undergo a marginal improvement after he left office with one of the worst popularity ratings of any president in history.

Speaking about his new book on the Bush years, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (Doubleday, $35), the New York Times journalist Peter Baker attributed this revisionism to two things. The first is that the Obama administration has been unable, or unwilling, to soften many of the hard edges of the American counterterrorism strategy that became so notorious under Bush.

The second is that the rise of the Tea Party makes Bush appear more moderate and centrist every day. There is a growing nostalgia for his brand of “compassionate conservatism”, which increased the role of federal government in education, expanded Medicare coverage and demonstrated willingness to address immigration reform.

Bush is said to be alarmed by the radicalism of the Tea Party – not least its entrenching of internal divisions and its apparent preference for American isolationism. He is reported to have personally contributed to the re-election campaign of Senator Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, the latest Republican grandee to face a right-wing insurgency in the primaries. Things are bad for the GOP.