Farewell to the last of a breed of pa­triot pres­i­dents born to serve

The Sunday Telegraph - - World news - By Tim Stan­ley

It’ll be said a lot in the days ahead that Ge­orge HW Bush was the last of the Repub­li­can moder­ates. That’s not to­tally ac­cu­rate. Bush was in­stru­men­tal in cre­at­ing the mod­ern, Right-wing Repub­li­can Party, the al­liance of eco­nomic and so­cial con­ser­va­tives that would even­tu­ally nom­i­nate Don­ald Trump – which is ironic given that Bush’s char­ac­ter was the very op­po­site of Trump’s.

His back­ground cast him as the ul­ti­mate east coast pa­tri­cian: raised in Con­necti­cut, Epis­co­palian, son of a sen­a­tor, Yale grad­u­ate, oil man, en­voy to the UN and China, chair­man of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee and head of the CIA. His elec­toral ca­reer, how­ever, was choppy.

Bush ran twice for the Se­nate from Texas and lost. What he took from those cam­paigns was that you have to hit your op­po­nent hard, and “lib­eral” is a dirty word down South. Bush op­posed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which out­lawed var­i­ous forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion, in­clud­ing racial seg­re­ga­tion. On the other hand, af­ter he won a Congress seat in 1966, he took a brave stand in favour of a bill against dis­crim­i­na­tion in hous­ing. Bush was touted as a con­ser­va­tive Kennedy; he fiercely de­fended Nixon against wrong­do­ing ac­cu­sa­tions un­til the re­lease of the Water­gate tapes.

In 1980, Bush ran for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion as a prag­ma­tist, de­scrib­ing Ron­ald Rea­gan’s tax cut plan as “voodoo eco­nom­ics”. Rea­gan added him to his win­ning ticket for bal­ance – but once Bush was in the White House, he moved fast to the Right.

Amer­ica, sensed Bush, was be­gin­ning to look a lot like Texas. The Re­pub­li­cans were no longer a party of Yale grad­u­ates; it was home to South­ern ex-Democrats, tax cut­ters, anti-com­mu­nists and, cru­cially, re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives. The Bush who ran for the pres­i­dency in 1988 of­fered a softer kind of Rea­gan­ism – he talked of vol­un­teers as “a thou­sand points of light” – but also de­clared “read my lips, no new taxes” and was as­so­ci­ated with evan­gel­i­cal pas­tors who were anti-gay rights and anti-abor­tion. He even al­lowed cam­paign staff to en­gage in a Trumpite per­sonal at­tack against his Demo­crat op­po­nent, paint­ing Michael Dukakis as an un­pa­tri­otic lib­eral who let mur­der­ers out of jail.

These tac­tics were de­ployed yet again in 1992 in his re-elec­tion bid against Bill Clin­ton, al­though by that time the Rea­gan boom was over.

Bush had the po­ten­tial to be a re­ally pop­u­lar pres­i­dent. His 1988 win was Amer­ica’s last elec­toral-vote land­slide, and at the height of the Gulf War his ap­proval rat­ing hit 89per cent. For­eign pol­icy was his great­est strength.

Rea­gan is cred­ited with de­feat­ing com­mu­nism and Clin­ton with har­ness­ing glob­al­i­sa­tion, but it was Bush who tried to cre­ate a new rules-based or­der with his war against Sad­dam Hus­sein and ne­go­ti­ated a peace­ful end to the Cold War.

He be­lieved in the pro­jec­tion of US lead­er­ship and free trade, po­si­tions that stacked him against both the Left and ele­ments of the Right, which never quite swal­lowed that Bush was one of them.

The mask dropped in 1990, when he signed off on a tax-rais­ing bud­get. There was a pri­mary chal­lenge from Pat Buchanan, who ac­cused him of build­ing a new world or­der. In the gen­eral elec­tion, Repub­li­can sup­port bled to Ross Perot, who op­posed un­lim­ited free trade. The Bush years thus in­cu­bated the forces that would later put Trump in of­fice.

If Bush’s pol­i­tics were hard to de­fine, his abil­ity and char­ac­ter were crys­tal clear. He left a tran­si­tion let­ter for Clin­ton that put a bit­ter race be­hind them, writ­ing: “You will be OUR pres­i­dent when you read this note. I wish you well.” In his fi­nal hours in the Oval Of­fice, he med­i­tated upon how frus­trat­ing it was that jour­nal­ists kept de­mand­ing to know how he “felt” about things, be­liev­ing that ac­tion was more im­por­tant. Bush saw value in “ser­vice for the sake of ser­vice … ser­vice with honour, ser­vice with a flair for de­cency and hope­fully kind­ness”. These are the qual­i­ties which now seem like the dream of a dis­tant Amer­ica.

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