George HW Bush gave no quarter to anybody, but was able to maintain a veneer of civility
George Herbert Walker Bush -- the recently deceased 41st president of the United States of America -- was not a saint. His compromises on taxation, dirty advertising during campaigns, and some judicial appointments of a questionable quality left less than a wholesome taste in many a mouth, so to speak.
Alas, saints are not to be found in the hard edged arena of retail electoral politics in competitive representative democracies. Gentlemen, on the other hand, are rare but still occasionally extant.
The George Bush who was known affectionately as “41” (in the recognition that his namesake progeny became the 43rd president) was one of that rare breed which becomes rarer as the Western democracies increasingly worship at the altar of voluble, uncouth, populist demagogues from Vienna to Washington.
It is no surprise then that the senior Bush’s longtime partner and friend, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, referred to the former as “one of nature’s truest gentlemen.”
I had the distinct honour of meeting the late president, shaking his hands, and exchanging a few words with him in November of 2000 when a group of four of us had travelled to Iowa as part of the campaign to elect his son, George W Bush aka “43” to the presidency.
That Sunday before the general election, coincidence found both the father of the Republican nominee and some of his campaign staff in worship at the Episcopal Cathedral Church in Des Moines, the capital of Iowa. As the services concluded, the former president, buffeted by Secret Service agents and yet very much his own person, noticed the four of us with his son’s campaign buttons stuck to our jackets, and beckoned us over as we were exiting the church into the overcast, frigid streets of downtown.
What followed was one of the most memorable few minutes of our lives, as the former leader of the free world, over the obvious discomfort of his security detail, shook the hands of each of us, thanked us personally for “helping out my boy,” and enthusiastically posed for pictures with us; when his Secret Service detail chief mumbled some displeasure, “41” simply looked at him and said “take the picture” in a tone that was genial, but left little doubt about the authority behind it.
Then we went our ways. One of those abiding regrets for me has been that all these years I kept on telling myself that that picture -- which is called “The Icon” by those of us who were in it -- taken by the Secret Service agent was never sent to the former president’s office to be autographed, though I kept reminding myself to do so every few years. And now it will never be autographed, at least this side of Eternity.
On the mortal plane, far more than the autograph of “41” will be missed by Americans and others.
His death may just mark the moment history looks back at Anglophone Western democracy and delineates it as the inflection point where noblesse oblige mattered no more in public affairs.
The idea that to whom much is given, much is asked, has been etched into English-speaking democracies since the Victorian era, with generations of otherwise privileged men and women taking a break from the family fortunes to serve in the military, civil service, or politics.
These were patricians who gave no quarter to anybody in the intensity of political combat and yet were able to maintain a veneer of civility to their adversaries, while their own standing outside of politics provided a sort of insurance policy for the time that unpopular political stands would make the masses turn against them at the ballot box. Bush’s own brave stand in the 1960s against segregated housing in Texas almost cost him his seat in Congress.
It is not that these men and women were any less intense in political pugilism than those who followed them; it is just that they knew that politics had certain norms and boundaries amongst decent men of good breeding.
Those norms are being waylaid by the bushel as nouveau riche populists of questionable provenance roughhouse their way into legislatures and executive offices across Europe and North America, often putting on display a permanently fired up appeal to resentment, xenophobia, and prejudice.
Whether pluralist democracies -- as a block -- can survive the upsurge of such populism which progressively denigrates republics and constitutional monarchies into mob fiefdoms masquerading as democracies is a question whose answer we dare not broach yet, lest the better angels of our nature chastise us for losing faith.
For the Bushes’ own ancestral Republican Party, the question was asked with a slight twist as the title of a book on the Bush Sr-Bush Jr relationship by Mark Updegrove, “The Last Republicans.”
If the US reelects Donald Trump in two years from now, the answer would be clearer. Were that to be the case, I am glad that George Herbert Walker Bush will not be around to see the complete transmogrification of the party for which he was a symbol extraordinaire for decades.
Goodbye and Godspeed Mr President.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]