He’s proof the good guys CAN change the world
GEORGE Bush was one of nature’s great gentlemen. As Ambassador, I would receive hand written notes from him, thanking us for some show of support, leaving me wondering how on earth he had the time to do it all.
When I accompanied the families of British soldiers killed in the first Gulf War to the White House, Bush insisted on seeing them himself and doing what he could to comfort the stricken relatives personally.
He was a warm and amiable man. During the summer months, we’d have drinks on the White House balcony and he’d never fail to point out, with good humour, the scorch marks left by Admiral Cockburn and his British marines when they burnt down the White House in 1814.
But George Bush was not simply a politician, he was a truly great statesman and a great public servant who was particularly shrewd when it came to foreign affairs.
He goes down in history as having changed the world. His great achievements include his steady hand as the Soviet Union collapsed and in the reunification of Germany, as well as his role in guiding America out of the quagmire of the first Gulf War.
It is true that he was weaker on domestic affairs. Indeed one of his key associates once told me he was worried that ‘the President knew more about Kuwait than California’.
To many, he will be remembered as a somewhat patrician figure who had difficulty connecting with ordinary Americans in the way Reagan, his predecessor, had done.
EVEN so, George Bush made a greater and more positive mark on the world than his successors have done, including his son, George W. Bush. He was for example, determined to liberate Kuwait – and then to withdraw. He did not want to get bogged down in Iraq.
When his son, as President, threatened military action in 2003 George senior was publicly loyal, but I know that in private he had tried and failed to dissuade him from invading. George Bush was equally loyal to his closest political allies and friends.
His chances of re-election in 1992 would have been considerably improved if he’d replaced the hapless Dan Quayle as his running mate, for example. But Quayle begged him not to get rid of him, and George did not have the heart.
It was a mistake. But then, he did not expect to lose that election. He had been unable to believe that the American people would choose to elect Bill Clinton as their President and overlook his own considerable achievements and service to his country. He had, after all, been a fighter pilot in the Second World War.
George Bush was simply too much of a gentleman to put up too much opposition – and so became his own worst enemy. During the 1992 election campaign, we knew from the Clinton camp that they were dreading the moment when, in the Presidential debates, George Bush would almost certainly ask his opponent the hardest question of all: ‘ What makes you think you are qualified to be commander in chief?’
But George, ever the man of honour, could not bring himself to ask it.
He was an admirer of his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, although their styles were very different.
As Vice President, he had turned up to meet her at Chequers one weekend with his golf clubs, only to find himself embroiled in intense discussions of world affairs, with no pause for breath.
Colin Powell told me he was convinced that it was Mrs Thatcher’s meeting with Bush in Aspen – after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait – that had stiffened Bush’s resolve to oust him.
It was immediately following that meeting that Bush had famously declared that ‘ this aggression will not stand ’, causing Powell to accelerate the military preparations.
When Bush telephoned Thatcher to explain a short delay in taking action against Iraqi ships, she famously replied: ‘This is no time to go wobbly, George!’
The Bush team were sufficiently amused to start using this slogan among themselves.
But George Bush found a warmer bond with the gentlemanly John Major as Prime Minister after the 1990 General Election.
The President proved an extraordinarily kind and generous mentor to the new Prime Minister, and was rewarded with Major’s staunch support in the first Gulf War.
After his 1992 Election defeat, Major paid an emotional farewell visit at Camp David and, on the eve of his leaving office, we attended George Bush’s last dinner in the White House.
Bill Clinton did not do badly in the White House, but I could not feel that – in human terms – the better man had won.
America has just lost a great President.
Not Quite A Diplomat, the forthcoming memoir of Lord Renwick is published by Biteback, February 2019.