US needs more than the pol­i­tics of com­par­i­son

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Worldwide - Fer­gal Keane Fer­gal Keane is a BBC Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent

THE last Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent of the World War II gen­er­a­tion is dead. And with the pass­ing of Ge­orge Her­bert Walker Bush comes the in­evitable cas­cade of re­duc­tive com­par­i­son: the war hero GHW Bush was ev­ery­thing Don­ald Trump is not. De­cent. Prin­ci­pled. Cour­te­ous. Hon­est. A man who fought for his coun­try in and out of uni­form.

Out­raged by the Ja­pa­nese at­tack on Pearl Har­bour, Bush the el­der joined up on his 18th birth­day. The cur­rent in­cum­bent of Pennsylvania Av­enue avoided ser­vice in Viet­nam and his cruel mock­ery of John McCain, who was tor­tured in North Viet­namese cap­tiv­ity, helped to make wartime ser­vice an is­sue of char­ac­ter.

It shouldn’t be. Eisen­hower, Kennedy, John­son, Nixon, Ger­ald Ford, Jimmy Carter and GHW Bush all served in World War II.

The ex­pe­ri­ence didn’t nec­es­sar­ily make them great pres­i­dents. John­son and Nixon in­flicted im­mense mis­ery on the peo­ples of Viet­nam, Cam­bo­dia and Laos and pro­pelled Amer­ica into a do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural strug­gle which is still be­ing waged.

As a rule, Don­ald Trump tends to de­spise his re­cent pre­de­ces­sors.

He mock­ingly called Ge­orge Bush ju­nior “a real ge­nius” and ac­cused him of ly­ing about weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

But the no­tion that be­fore Trump, the Amer­i­can pres­i­dency was a bas­tion of a set of fun­da­men­tal de­cen­cies is a self-in­dul­gent fan­tasy. There was a long road that led to Trump lined with ex­cep­tion­al­ism, hubris and some very bad be­hav­iour. Bill Clin­ton dragged the pres­i­dency into the gut­ter with the Lewin­sky Af­fair long be­fore Trump’s ap­palling com­ments about women in the run-up to the elec­tion.

He was fol­lowed by Bush ju­nior who plunged Amer­ica into wars in which it is still mired as well as cre­at­ing the moral swamp of ren­di­tions, se­cret pris­ons and wa­ter board­ing. The dam­age done to the idea of an in­ter­na­tional or­der dur­ing the hal­cyon years of Ge­orge Bush’s War on Ter­ror will be with us for gen­er­a­tions.

Obama was dig­ni­fied, eru­dite and worked hard. But his terms ended with a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Amer­i­cans feel­ing for­got­ten and un­spo­ken for.

That was part of what de­feated Hil­lary Clin­ton, along with her own weak­nesses as a can­di­date.

Pres­i­dent Trump suc­ceeds in mak­ing ev­ery­thing about him. He is en­er­gised by loathing. On Twit­ter, at ral­lies, on the friendly so­fas of Fox News, he rev­els in the ha­tred di­rected against him. The ‘lib­eral elite’ he claims to loathe are cur­rently his best friends.

The more they hate, the more his base feels he is do­ing the right thing.

The pass­ing of GHW of­fers a space for re­flec­tion. But if the Democrats and mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans hope to see the end of Trump, this pe­riod can­not be about the pol­i­tics of com­par­i­son. Don­ald Trump can only be elec­torally de­feated by a new vi­sion of what Amer­ica should be, not by the end­less round of ap­palled op-eds and an­guished tweets.

The win­ner in 2020 will be the can­di­date who speaks to the fu­ture.

******* In the wake of the tri­umph over the All Blacks, I am taken to task by two read­ers. At the out­set, let me state they are right and I am wrong.

The first cor­re­spon­dence re­lates to Clon­gowes, County Kil­dare and James Joyce and comes from Bren­dan Cullen in Clane, an es­teemed his­to­rian of the col­lege. Al­though the ques­tion of bias raises its in­glo­ri­ous head in the se­cond com­plaint, there can be no sug­ges­tion of that here.

The County Kil­dare is a place I pass through. I have no roots on the gen­tle plains and am not among the his­toric army of per­se­cu­tors of the Je­suits.

Bren­dan points out that the game to which Stephen Dedalus refers in the early stages of A Por­trait of the Artist As A Young Man is in fact not Rugby Union but Gravel.

I am in­debted. His kindly phrased cor­rec­tion sent me off on one of the more en­ter­tain­ing of many tan­gents in the past fort­night.

I delved deep into the story of Gravel — a game in which the ball can be kicked and punched with a clenched fist — and found this in the writ­ings of Fr T Cor­co­ran SJ from some time in the ear­lier years of the last cen­tury: “The ‘grav­elled ground’ was the theatre wherein was slowly brought to in­tri­cate per­fec­tion the royal game of ‘gravel foot­ball’, a dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of Stony­hurst, Clon­gowes, and Tul­labeg life, un­til in our own day As­so­ci­a­tion and Rugby have al­most com­pletely sup­planted it.

“In Tul­labeg it was vig­or­ous to the last; in Clon­gowes it still sur­vives, and is played vig­or­ously dur­ing the week be­fore Christ­mas va­ca­tion, and also in the stren­u­ous con­tests that pre­cede St Patrick’s Day, when in the ‘Grand Matches’ Green and Red still strug­gle for supremacy.”

Note the ref­er­ence to Stony­hurst and the ‘royal game’. Like rugby and cricket Gravel ap­pears to have been an im­port, or what our Greener chairde would call a ‘gar­ri­son’ game.

In the se­cond cor­rec­tion, a Cork cor­re­spon­dent, Sean Seartan, of lovely Shanakiel over­look­ing the Lee, gen­tly points out that while Jimmy Bowen did make the “gut­bust­ing run” to set up the cru­cial Munster try against the All Blacks in 1978, it was Christy Can­til­lon who re­ceived his pass and touched down.

I sus­pect that Sean has a link with that ‘other place’ i.e. Chris­tian Broth­ers Col­lege, from which Christy Can­til­lon emerged and for which much of my school days at Pre­sen­ta­tion Col­lege rep­re­sented the evil em­pire.

Jimmy Bowen was a Pres man. It might be that some of the lin­ger­ing sec­tar­i­an­ism of those days still pulses in my veins or as Sean sug­gests I was wear­ing rose-tinted glasses as I wrote.

But more likely that I suf­fered from that nat­u­ral af­flic­tion of the age­ing man — the pig-headed will to be­lieve what he wants to be­lieve.

I should have seen that mag­i­cal mo­ment be­tween Bowen and Can­til­lon — Pres man and Chris­tians man — as the fore­run­ner of many great heal­ing mo­ments be­tween the heirs to op­pos­ing tra­di­tions: Man­dela and De Klerk, Martin McGuin­ness and the Queen. Ad in­fini­tum. Et ab­sur­dum.

But it would be wrong of me to close this cor­re­spon­dence with the man from Shanakiel with­out re­fer­ring to an undis­puted fact.

In the most re­cent vic­tory over the All Blacks, the Man of the Match was Pe­ter O’Ma­hony. A Pres Man.

‘More likely I suf­fered from the age­ing man’s nat­u­ral af­flic­tion — the pig-headed will to be­lieve what he wants to be­lieve’

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