The lucky George Bush - 15 November 1991

At this time of the year I always make a resolution, it always fails, to give to a library a few hundred books and dump in the dustbin outside my kitchen door, such useless relics that clutter up my rooms and my life as old music, what we used to call gramophone records, and files and cassettes of these talks, recorded while they were being put over to London. I came on one yesterday that for reference purposes had scribbled on it a title. It said, Invincible Bush. Dear, dear me, I thought, happy days for el presidente, when he had an outrageous score in the approval rating polls of 84%. That must have been a year perhaps, or say February. I looked at the date on the cassette. It was broadcast on 6 September 1991, just over two months ago. I couldn't believe it. The general theme was the unfailing luck of George Bush. Let's just go over what I had in mind.

Every time the news burst out with some domestic shame or scandal – crime, drugs, crooked banks, dim reports on the state of education, the economy, whatever – a foreign crisis would sound like a thunderclap and before you could say battle stations, George Bush was on the bridge and taking charge. For instance, last January, when the new Congress assembled and the Democrats were just about to wage, they said, an impressive fighting campaign for the 1992 presidential election, up pops the monster Saddam Hussein and President Bush turned into Field Marshal Bush, as thousands, including the uncomfortable Democrats, cheered.

Then in the spring, the BCCI, Bank of Credit and Commerce International went bust, and on the principle that the man in the White House is responsible for anything that happens on his watch, the Democrats sharpened their little hatchets and looked around for a nice juicy fat-cat Republican culprit. Well maybe off in the shadows somewhere there could have lurked a Republican sinner, but suddenly out there in the glaring daylight, the one man who was conspicuously suspected of a close BCCI connection and was called to testify before a congressional committee, was a Democrat and not just a Democrat but practically the elder statesman of the party. So the Democrats buried or hid their hatchets.

Midsummer, and by now there were three or four Democrats who'd declared themselves in the running for 1992. So the city, a whole city of Bridgeport, Connecticut went bankrupt and the mayor of Chicago mused that perhaps bankruptcy or the protective way-station of Chapter Eleven, would be a wise way for all the cities to go. Unemployment was edging up, it was soaring in some places. For a while the rest of the country might be cheering the happy thaw of the Cold War, there were 30, more, 40-odd towns suddenly in depression. These were towns that for 40 years or more, in some places for a hundred years, had lived by the thriving army camp nearby, the navy yard, the marine base. They were all being closed down by act of Congress.

Meanwhile, the recession, which was said to be drooping under the summer sun, was getting, if anything, a little more vigorous, more widespread. Surely now was the time for one of the Democrats' presidential hopefuls to stride and thunder across the land with a new theme that was being suggested to them. George Bush spends all his time and energies watching out for East Germans and Czechs and the European prime ministers while America cries, help. The cities grow more dangerous by night, one in five American children lives, by the government's own standard, below the poverty line. The time, in mid-August, did seem ripe for the skinning and roasting of George Bush.

So then what happened? Monday the 19th, the coup, and for a month or more nothing else seemed to matter, and in all the eruptions and revolutions that have flowed from its failure, Bush has been there and even his meanest critics cannot bring themselves to mumble a protest. He has been very good.

There's probably not been a time since the Second War, so extended a stretch of time, when it was essential or when it was a blessing to have an American president whose best strength was in foreign policy. We can only wince at who it might have been – Governor Dukakis, the nice Gerald Ford, Nixon would have been decisive and bold but would he, after the liberation of Kuwait, for example, have had the wise restraint of George Bush and called the war off because it was a United Nations war and the allied forces had done all that the United Nations Security Council sanctioned them to do.

By now I should say there's rumbling, chronic criticism, especially from some Democrats, but mostly from the Republican right wing and conservatives, that George blew it, that we should have gone on to Baghdad, arrested or executed Saddam Hussein. There's much heavy irony in written commentaries and cartoons. But President Bush knew exactly what he was doing. Too bad, Saddam is still there. But the whole war was the first war sanctioned and ordered by all the members of the Security Council, Including the then Soviet Union. It was a vital precedent and the American respect for it, for staying with the UN's brief, was a big point with Mr Bush and Mr Baker, when some of his Pentagon advisers wanted to go buccaneering through Iraq, to the subsequent outrage no doubt of all the Arab nations.

Well so now, a month or less after the great failed coup, it was at the beginning of September that again they took a poll on the popular feeling about George Bush. Lo, 78% say he's doing fine, 10 weeks ago, and now, the latest I've seen, he's down to 47%. What has happened from 78% approval to 47% in 10 weeks? Answer – there's been no big foreign crisis to obliterate the rest of the news and our anxieties.

As a matter of fact there have been and remain several, there are so many foreign upheavals, any one of which, two or three yeas ago, would have absorbed much of Washington's concern. The end, we hope, of the Cambodian slaughter, a great moment. The civil war in Yugoslavia, again it's been put up to the United Nations to mount a peacekeeping force and if it worked, it would be a splendid turn, as the victory in the desert. Mutiny of a province inside Mr Yeltsin's Russia. Most of all, the prospect of a hard winter at best, famine at worst, for several of the breakaway Soviet republics, not to mention the huge starving populations of Africa.

I can't remember a time this century when the world's leading power, today the only superpower, was more in need of the knowledge and guidance of a president with a foreign policy gift that alternates between decisiveness and restraint. So all right, we give him full marks and the medal of honour for foreign policy. Why has he dropped 31 points in 10 weeks?

Because finally, the Democrats' early grumbles that he's good abroad and doesn't care about the homeland, has now been elaborated into an effective demagogic campaign theme. Cartoons of the president's bags slapped with labels of foreign destinations, not a briefcase marked with Washington DC or Los Angeles, California, much thumping sarcasm in Congress. The Democrats' candidates are already working themselves up into apoplectic storms on behalf now of the middle class. Their pet used to be the working class, they've now discovered the middle class and they're making Bush out to be not simply indifferent to crime, drugs, homelessness, unemployment, but too bored to care about the strains on the middle class.

There is already, I'm afraid, a campaign in the making which is going to be very sleazy, cheap and obvious, vicious, but effective. Of course the president cares, but he dare not say the secret truth, that like Churchill, like Nixon, he really does revel in foreign affairs because he has a gift for them and he doesn't know any better than the Democrats, how to solve or cure or repair the great social damage of poverty, crime, ill-education, disabling health costs, all the rest.

It comes, I think, to a contradiction between what we say government is for and what we expect from it, a contradiction brilliantly illuminated in a new book by a Harvard professor of government, Harvey Mansfield. The contradiction is between our enthusiasm for choosing a president, a Republican, who says government should be limited to some public duties, and our habit of voting for a Congress – and always in the past 50 years, the Democrats have controlled Congress – that promises government will be a slot machine, churning out endless private goodies, entitlements, welfare, benefits, subsidies, bonuses, food stamps, allowances, medicines, paid leaves and all the other admirable and now, necessary things which cost billions and billions of dollars we haven't got. Who dare cut down on the services or throttle the economy by raising big new taxes to pay for them? Neither American party, certainly.

In the meantime, the argument over the failings of George Bush is being simplified effectively into a loud protest about his reluctance to recognise the depth of the recession. It's true that the stamina of the recession fooled him, So the Democrats' liberal cry, now being taken up by the middle class, is that the economy goes on slumping and it's all Bush's fault. Or, as the most popular of the late-night hosts put it, the other evening, how could George see a coup in the Soviet Union in August and not see a recession at home?

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