What a difference living long enough can make to a man’s reputation!
When George Herbert Walker Bush stepped down as the 41st President of the United States, he was despised – and grossly under-rated – by American liberals and conservatives alike. When he died on November 30, full of years and honors, the outpouring of affection, respect and admiration for him exceeded even that for the now deified Ronald Reagan 14 years ago. Compared with all his successors so far, he appears the last truly adult leader to sit in the White House. He was certainly the last one to treat the Russian people and their leaders with genuine respect.
Bush was vastly underestimated during his presidency across the US political spectrum. Yet he has loomed ever larger in stature ever since. He did not make the catastrophic mistakes of his son George W. Bush, President 43 in letting occupying US armed forces get trapped forever in South Asian and Middle East nations propping up ridiculous and unsustainable puppet regimes.
And it was he, not his revered predecessor Reagan, who set the pattern for an apparently endless series of US military interventions around the world raining disproportionate casualties and mayhem on a wide variety of nations across the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia.
Yet Bush only served a single term of four years. He was defeated in his reelection bid in large part because of his own success in hiding his true nature: He was a man fated to be ludicrously underestimated by all.
His funeral orations mindlessly rhapsodized about his “decency,” his “patriotism” and his family life. It was a dangerous and often fatal mistake during his years of power to believe such naïve nonsense. He did not just run the CIA as a political appointee and figurehead from 1976 to 1977. There is every reason to see him as the all-powerful and whenever he thought necessary utterly relentless and ruthless head of the Deep State from the mid-1970s, through his 12 years as vice president and president to when he finally stepped down in 1993.
The multi-millionaire, feared dictator of Panama, General Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein, ruler of Iraq for 35 years (including the first decade when he was content to hold real power from 1968 to 1979 under figurehead President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr) both took Bush’s smiling, even apparently effete smiling mask of a gentleman for the real man. So did then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the usually invincible American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC survived that disastrous mistake. One way and another, the other three did not.
Shamir was lucky. Bush was content to break his political career and drive him from power to be replaced by Yitzhak Rabin. Noriega died in jail, a toppled and long-broken man. Saddam eventually ended up on a gallows though Bush at the time was content with smashing his power, his army and his people.
The Reagan Right too only saw the public mask: They despised him for being the son of privilege and of an elite education at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and Yale University. They never stopped to think that both institutions have specialized in shaping proconsuls, oligarchs and other masters of the world for centuries and that they remain very good indeed at the job.
On television, Bush appeared vague, perhaps a bit confused, not at all forceful and faintly dissembling. In person, he was very different – outgoing, warm, genuinely friendly gregarious, and dynamic and a most impressive man.
He was capable of the greatest genuine warmth and generosity. He could be both totally ruthless – he had been a war combat pilot of distinction in the Pacific in World War II – and an exceptionally kind man. His personal intervention was vital in rescuing hundreds of thousands of Black Ethiopian Jews from almost certain death in 1989-91. In the last year of his presidency, he personally coordinated an enormous relief effort that saved up to 19 million people from starving to death across Southern Africa south of the Zambesi River.
In early 1989, I was invited to a party thrown in honor of the newly-elected president by the conservative National Review magazine. Bush himself turned up and stayed talking with people for about an hour. He took a beer or two and clearly enjoyed them – in moderation. But as he drank a fascinating change occurred in his body language. He entered the room crisp and formal, as he always was in public: The very epitome of the somewhat stiff, upright Yankee gentleman from New England. But as he mellowed, he stuck out first one elbow, then the other and then tilted to the side, a long Texas smile spread over his face. The Yankee stiff, upper class gentleman had transformed into a Southwestern good ‘ol boy.
It was then I began to realize there was far, far more to this formidable man of extraordinary power and accomplishment than he ever let meet the public eye.
The full real story of his years of power – before, as well as during his presidency has yet to be told: Only the surface has been scratched. Perhaps we will never learn more.