Saturday, December 1, 2018

de mortuis nil nisi bonum

Never have I seen this rule more stringently applied than in the obituaries that have been appearing this morning for the late U.S. President, George "H.W." Bush. They're all about the wisdom of his foreign policy and the character virtues of his restrained and humble personality.

Yes, there may be some acknowledgment that, say, the 1988 election was not the highlight of his career, but let's leave it at that. In fact, Bush's virtues did not go unnoticed during his active career, but they had a tendency to get drowned out by less admirable things. That 1988 campaign, for one, put the lie to any categorical statements about Bush's uprightness and honesty. If he's willing to go down in the gutter like that, it doesn't really matter that he doesn't spend all of his time there.

This article concentrates on the particularly interesting area of his foreign policy, arguing that during an especially critical period of two years he was something of a genius at it. More so than he himself realized: one of the virtues cited in the article was his bringing the Gulf War to an end after the liberation of Kuwait, not turning it into an imperialist conquest of Iraq. The article doesn't mention that, although for some years he eloquently defended that decision, after his son launched Gulf War II to do exactly what had been refrained from earlier, the elder Bush started saying "I miscalculated." No, he hadn't, and subsequent events have shown that.

I noted much of the foreign policy achievement at the time, particularly admiring the careful and diplomatic handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire. Had I been polled at the time and asked if I thought the President was doing a good job, I would have had to say yes. So did a lot of other people, which is why the pollsters were so bewildered by his loss of the next election. But what the pollsters failed to do was to follow Ted Sturgeon's advice to ask the next question. After saying that I thought Bush was doing a good job, if I'd been asked, "And do you plan to vote for his re-election?" I would have replied, "Hell no." Well, why? Because I didn't support his economic program. (Characteristically, the above-cited article mentions only the half-right part of that policy.)

And so the first vice-president since Martin Van Buren to immediately succeed his presidential predecessor by election, instead of accession, like Van Buren passed out of office after one term.

A word on his name. Everything written about him today invariably calls him "George H.W. Bush". It seems to have been written out of history that, during his active political career, he was always called "George Bush" with no initials whatever. Google ngrams confirms that he was never called "H.W." until his son George W. began running for President around 1998 and it became necessary to clearly distinguish the two. That's fine, although I find the previously-unused initials intrusive and prefer to call him "'Poppy' Bush"; it's the retroactive erasure of the old form, as if it never existed, that feels weird.

ETA: Politico has more, a lot more, on the real legacy of George Bush.

No comments:

Post a Comment