Bush: The last president who didn't put his ego first
He served his nation out of noblesse oblige, and humility was his core quality, writes someone who knew him
It is sad that the death of George HW Bush was so little marked outside of the US. He matters for at least two reasons.
The first was the way he helped Germany to reunite after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Reunification was the logical result of the collapse of the Soviet empire, but it was fraught with danger, because the Soviets might have crushed it. The harder-line communists might have regained control and tried to refreeze the shape of Europe. (Indeed, this nearly happened.)
Bush gave wholehearted support to Germany, while building trust with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. The Cold War came peacefully to a close. Forty-five years after the end of fighting, World War 2 was thus finally won by the West. Totalitarianism of the right lost in 1945, totalitarianism of the left not until 1989-90. Others – Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev – were more important in bringing the right situation about, but it fell to Bush to handle the critical moment.
He did so wisely and generously. True, it was not “the end of history”, but it was a great achievement. Bush really believed in the Western alliance. Rarely has it worked better. Compare the efficiency and unity it displayed in ejecting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 with Bush junior’s efforts in Iraq in 2003.
The second reason to honour Bush is his character as a president. He was not a passionate crusader, and certainly not a great orator. But he was the leader of the greatest power on Earth, who believed in that power, but equally believed in its restraint. He may turn out to have been the last of that kind: Barack Obama believes in American power too little, Donald Trump too much.
To understand Bush’s psychology, compare him with Edwardian British statesmen – born to wealth, education and global sway, but also to a sense of public duty that was lifelong. To him, leading the free world was not an ideological mission or an exciting adventure story, but a heavy responsibility. He discharged this honourably in foreign policy, enlisting the competence of men like Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, inspiring abiding loyalty.
Bush had a gift for gentlemanly friendship, not only with individuals but with other nations. The West could have done so much worse. Since him, it has.
Bush’s tendency to put service above ego may help explain his famous awkwardness with words, known as “Bushisms”. Speaking publicly about his experiences as a fighter pilot in the Pacific in 1944, he once said: “I was shot down, and I was floating around in a little yellow raft, setting the record for paddling. I thought of my family, my mom and dad, and the strength I got from them. I thought of my faith, the separation of church and state.”
Obviously no sane young US pilot actually thinks about the separation of church and state as he is on the point of drowning or being killed by the Japanese. And Bush was sane all right. His thought processes behind his strange words are those of someone steeped in American political propriety. He remembers that he prayed to God in his danger, but then pulls himself up short: organised religion must always, in the US, be kept apart from political power. So he qualifies this memory by referring to the strictly secular constitution. He starts off by trying to talk frankly about himself, but then reverts to the role with which he feels easier – the servant of the great republic.
From that time in the little yellow raft until last week, he never ceased to be that servant. He is almost the last of what America calls “the greatest generation”.
In a small way, I can testify to President Bush’s continuing commitment. For several years he kindly co-operated with the final volume of my biography of Thatcher, which will appear in 2019. He did not have to do this: he was already old when first approached, and by the time he submitted to be interviewed, he was suffering from the vascular Parkinsonism which made him unable to walk unaided. It would have been no disgrace if he had refused to help my project. He could even have felt that it would be too tiring to discuss his relationship with Thatcher.
Although ultimately positive, it was seldom easy – especially because she felt that he was too uncritical of European integration. Why rake over old coals? But the message from his office was clear: “Yes, President Bush gets a lot of requests for interviews, but this is one he should do.”
That word “should” is the key to understanding George HW Bush. He cared about Anglo-American relations. He respected Margaret Thatcher. He felt obliged to testify to the fundamental strength of the alliance at one of its most important times. (And, by the way, she did not tell him not to go “wobbly” about fighting Saddam Hussein.)
Bush’s given names were George Herbert Walker. These came from his mother, Dorothy Walker. She and her family always loved the work of George Herbert, arguably the greatest of England’s religious lyric poets. Herbert’s well-known hymn, Teach Me, My God and King, speaks of the servant whose sense of duty to God “makes drudgery divine”. There was humility in the choice of name, as there was in the man himself.
– © Telegraph Media Company Limited