“The last of the old world” – evaluating the legacy of President George HW Bush

Despite a chequered history, America’s 41st president was a statesman of the old school. We could still learn from him.

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There’s a story that tells you everything you need to know about George HW Bush, 41st president of the United States, who died early Saturday morning aged 94.

It was March 30, 1981. The President then was Ronald Reagan, with Bush his vice-president and trusted second-in-command. On that day, all hell broke loose. Reagan was the target of a shock assassination attempt outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC. His lung punctured, the ‘Gipper’ hovered between life and death, the jet-black presidential limousine furiously racing to get him to the nearest hospital.

Amidst one of the hottest moments in US history, VP Bush momentarily inherited the mantle of power. For all intents and purposes, he was now the commander-in-chief.

At the time, Bush was boarding Air Force Two, the vice-president’s plane, following a visit to a military base near Dallas, Texas. The plane did not have enough fuel to make it to the nation’s capital, so flew to Austin and refuelled before finally heading to Washington. Shaken, Bush scribbled down a few thoughts to himself on the plane. It was a way to keep calm about the situation, tell himself how he should behave.

One of the notes read: “Not panic.” And Bush didn’t. He kept a cool head, his composure impeccable. He took a moment to pray for Reagan’s recovery.

As the plane finally landed in Washington, Bush was whisked into a helicopter. His security officer announced it would take him to the South Lawn of the White House. Bush adamantly refused. “Something about landing on the South Lawn didn’t sit well with me,” he later explained: “It might well have made great TV, but I thought it would have sent the wrong message to the country and to the world … only the president lands on the South Lawn.”

Bush, instead, was taken to the Vice-President’s residence, and made his way to the White House by car. He was not about to turn a national disaster into his moment to shine.

At a critical juncture in his political career, Bush shunned the spotlight. He had grace under pressure, displayed an old-school decency. He showed respect to his boss, Reagan, to the people of America, but above all to himself. He kept his ego in check and his dignity intact – a Herculean feat in the cutthroat business of politics. In our age of media-hungry politicians, callous chancers and savage self-promoters, Bush’s selflessness is not just inspiring, it’s downright revolutionary.

Curt Smith, who wrote more speeches for Bush than anyone else and knew him better than most, once told me that Bush was “the last of the old world.” Bush hailed from another America. An America of the last century. Soda shops and mom and pop stores, front porches and rocking chairs, paperboys and milkmen. Think Norman Rockwell paintings and Frank Capra pictures.

In Bush’s America, the unwritten mot d’ordre was character – a term seldom heard today. In his superb biography, Curt Smith writes: “Bush’s was … a poetry of the heart, with character at the core.” Bush’s life is a masterclass in that preeminently moral quality.

But Bush was no angel, nor should he be idealized as a political messiah for our troubled times. As the Soviet dissident and writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” The same was true of Bush.

He might have been of a generation of dignified, level-headed and decorous statesmen – his was also that of an American ruling class, predominantly white, that too often disregarded the plight of minorities at home, and asserted a jingoistic American imperialism abroad.

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Although born an American patrician, Bush wasn’t a spoiled brat. His mother, Dorothy, put a prime on humility, duty and propriety. At the height of the Second World War, in 1942, Bush enlisted in the Navy. He was barely 18, and had been advised by high school tutors not to go to war. Stubborn and chivalrous, he felt honor demanded of him he fight for his country.

In 1944, Bush, now a naval aviator, took part in a high-risk mission against Japanese forces. His plane was shot down, and he ended up in the sea, concussed. Alone, he lingered in an inflated raft for hours until a friendly submarine finally picked him up.

In America, the military is a national cult. Politicians trade war stories like gossip, eager to cash in on the public’s admiration for courage in battle. And yet, Bush often stayed mum about his own moment of heroism. Running for President in 1988, he did not make it a campaign talking point – although he would share the tale if prompted. Still, his mother told him off for that: “George, I understand you’re bragging about your war record.” He defended himself: “No ma’am, I’m not bragging.” To which his mother retorted: “Well, you be careful about that.”

For a man of Bush’s ilk, bragging about one’s achievements was supremely vulgar. He was of the John Wayne generation, that talked little but did much.

After the War, Bush went to Yale, met his wife, Barbara, and started a family that spawned one future president, George W, and another presidential candidate, Jeb. He made it big in Texas, and was an oil magnate and millionaire by 40.

But Bush’s upbringing had been about being useful to others, not making dough. So he entered politics, a moderate Republican by temperament. His political hero was General and, later, President Dwight Eisenhower, the man who led the US army to victory in World War II and oversaw the economic boom of the 50s, strong and genial in equal parts.

Bush’s ambition was to become a statesman, not a mere politician. He prized sound judgement and pragmatic governance. After a stint in the House of Representatives on behalf of Texas’s 7th District, Bush served as US Ambassador to the United Nations for President Richard Nixon, before heading the Republican Party at the time of Watergate, a political crisis which saw Nixon resigning. Bush remained loyal to the ailing President until evidence appeared that showed Nixon committing wrongdoing. Feeling personally betrayed, he asked Nixon to resign.

For the following years, Bush continued his geopolitical education, serving as Chief Liaison – basically Ambassador – to China for a year and a half, before taking up the post of director of the CIA.

He carefully staged his comeback in electoral politics, running for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. But his rival was one Ronald Reagan. Bush’s appeal was that he was a competent policy maker, Reagan that he was going to make America great again. Bush lost – vision triumphing over technocracy – but he was later selected by Reagan to be his VP. The two took office in 1981.

Reagan’s choice was inspired. As Curt Smith puts it, “You could not order from Amazon a better Vice-President than George HW Bush!” Bush served his President tirelessly, happy to remain in the shadows and let the former movie star get the applause. Behind-the-scenes, however, Bush was an essential part of the White House machine.

From Reagan, Bush learned that politics is not just science but also art. Curt Smith explains that Bush was in awe of Reagan’s leadership abilities, his charisma and rhetorical deft. Smith writes that Reagan “taught Bush how politics, like life, was more intuitive than intellectual.”

After eight years of loyal service, Bush was given his shot at the White House. This is not one of his better moments; in a hard-fought campaign, the gentleman politician debased himself when he backed an overtly racist advertisement. Titled “Weekend Passes.”

Produced by a political group close to his campaign, the ad sought to convince voters Bush was tougher on crime than Democratic opponent and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. It recounted the case of Willie Horton, an African-American man serving a life sentence in a Massachusetts prison for first-degree murder. The sensationalist ad dramatically informed the viewer that Horton had escaped from one of Dukakis’ furlough programs, and raped a white woman.

The connotations were clear: Black men were portrayed as predators. As New Statesman columnist Mehdi Hasan points out in The Intercept, even Republican strategist Roger Stone, now a Trump ally, told the Bush campaign: “It’s a racist ad … You’re going to regret it.” It was a low point in the career of a man who prided himself on his integrity.

Bush won the 1988 election. In office, however, he proved to be a humble, and perhaps underrated, leader. He oversaw the end of the Cold War, the fall of Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union. In 1991, Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s leader, invaded the state of Kuwait – a serious breach of international law. Bush led a coalition of 35 countries with the goal of liberating Kuwait.

Hussein was swiftly defeated, but Bush faced pressure to invade Iraq and topple his regime. Curt Smith, then the President’s speechwriter, recalls: “I can’t tell you how many know-nothings like me said: ‘Go all the way to Bagdad!’ He didn’t do it, and he was right! But he was in a company of about one when he made that decision.”

Bush’s rationale, simple but wise: if you break something, then you own it. Toppling Hussein’s regime, Bush thought, would mean occupying Iraq and destabilizing an already unsafe region. Refusing to get high on his own power, Bush authored perhaps the greatest foreign policy decision in recent years: he disengaged, and asked his troops to come back home.

And yet, today, the surname Bush is not synonymous with astute foreign policy, but folly on a colossal and lethal scale – courtesy of President George W Bush – the weak-willed son who never lived up to his father’s strength of character and decided to invade Iraq, after all, in 2003. The ensuing chaos, the Iraq War, was waged under false pretenses. It tore the Middle East to shreds, killing millions and continuing to wreak havoc to this day.

Although Bush Senior’s foreign was infinitely better than that of his son, it was not immaculate either. Mehdi Hasan points out that, years after the fact, it was revealed that Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait had actually been okayed by the US, Bush’s ambassador to Baghdad telling the Iraqi leader that “[we] have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” The war that resulted, though by far less destructive than W Bush’s Iraq War, killed over a hundred thousand Iraqis, many of them civilians. At the time, the US flaunted its “surgical strikes” from the air. But on the ground, they were anything but.

George HW Bush, like every other US President, was the Commander-in-Chief of the US Empire – no matter the chaos that was unleashed. Still, he deserves to be commended for not occupying Iraq – his son’s sins perhaps partially redeeming the father in hindsight and by comparison.

At home, Bush’s presidency was more miss than hit. He negotiated the NAFTA free trade agreement – a major miscalculation, in the era of globalization, that led to the loss of millions of American jobs, and would come under vicious attack by Donald Trump decades later.

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But by and large, Bush was an establishment president. This meant that he did not fundamentally try to fix the inequities wrought by the American model. He escalated, for instance, Reagan’s War on Drugs – leading to the mass incarceration of African-Americans, a blight that still ails the country to this day.

Putting country above party, Bush also reneged on a campaign promise not to raise taxes. Facing a rising deficit, he felt he had no choice but to break his pledge. The Republican base would never forgive him; running for re-election in 1992, Bush was outflanked on the right by the libertarian Ross Perot, eager to capitalize on Republican discontentment, and on the left by a new political star, Bill Clinton.

Unable to properly communicate his vision, torn apart between his need to appeal to the conservative base and his own moderate sensibilities, Bush was defeated. It was a disgraceful end to a graceful political career – that of a statesman guided by his moral compass, not the desire for fame or adulation.

Since leaving the White House, and up to his death, Bush became increasingly beloved by Americans. As the country descended into political chaos, partisanship ever more sectarian, Bush was a reminder of another way. One in which being American trumps being Democrat or Republican, and finding common ground is a sign of strength, not capitulation.

In 1988, as he was running for President, Bush revealed what he loved about America. He said: “We’re a nation of community; thousands and tens of thousands of ethnic, religious, social, business, labor union, neighborhood, regional and other organizations, all of them varied, voluntary and unique.”

He lauded this “brilliant diversity,” comparing it to “stars, like a thousand points of lights in a broad and peaceful sky.”

Bush may have passed away, but his own, singular point of light keeps shining, despite his imperfect legacy. Although a moderate Republican, he still embodied some of the most reprehensible traits of American political life. He was ready to appeal to racism to win elections and to lie in order to go to war.

And yet, without ignoring his dark side, we can still learn a thing or two from him. More than ever, we can follow the example of a man who esteemed character, thought talk cheap, and moved to action decisively but never hastily.

Theo Zenou is a writer who covers politics and culture, and develops for TV. He tweets @TheoZenou.

Theo Zenou is a writer who covers politics & culture and develops for TV. He tweets @TheoZenou