The contortionist who would bend but not break

Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri
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Visitors to the United States these days are struck by the bitterness, not to say hatred, that pervades the nation’s political debate. From the ringside, American politics resembles a giant pool of mud where those mired in it aim to sling as much mud as they can on everyone around.

To be sure, American politics has always had a streak of violence, sometimes beyond mere words. After all, 22 of the nation’s 45 presidents have been victims of assassination plots that succeeded in the case of four, and some say, six of them. (Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F Kennedy, plus Zachary Taylor and Warren Harding.)

Since the surprise election of Donald Trump as President, the situation has worsened as trading of accusations and insults replaces political debate. One friend, a lifelong Republican, has been so angered by Trump’s election that he has moved to the other end of the spectrum, starting a new career as a critic of conservatism. Another, a moderate “one-nation” style conservative has gone in the opposite direction, out-Trumping Trump in his attacks on “the liberal elite.”

As Americans bury their longest living president in history they might do well to revive some of the old concepts, or dare we say values, which guided the contortionist for nine decades?

Amir Taheri

A kinder America

So, you can imagine how surprised I was to scan reactions to the death last week of former President George HW Bush aged 94. It was as if his death had brought back a kinder, gentler, not to say more gentlemanly, America. Even when I dug into the dark corners of Anti-Republican partisanship I failed to find the kind of vitriol used against President Barack Obama and, now, against Trump. One “Socialist” paper noted that Bush had come from “a privileged background” but could not deny that he had been a decent adversary.

Those who tried not to elevate him too much insisted that he had been a “one-term president” as if that diminished his stature.

In fact, of the 12 US presidents since the end of World War II, three others became “one-termers”: John F Kennedy, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Two more inherited half of one term from their predecessor and won one term on their own: Harry S Truman and Lyndon Johnson. One, Gerald Ford, inherited a term from his predecessor and didn’t win a term of his own.

Three won the presidency without securing half of the votes cast: Bill Clinton (in both his terms), George W Bush in his first term and Trump. Only three won with more than half the votes and served two terms in full: Dwight D Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. Richard Nixon, too, won two terms but served only one.

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George HW Bush’s failure to win a second term was mainly due to the presence of the populist candidate Ross Perot who broke with Republicans and split their votes into southern states.
Had Perot not been on the ballot, Bush would have won in any configuration. In his characteristic disdain for shady shenanigans, Bush refused to make a deal with Perot in exchange for withdrawing his candidacy. Rectitude was a key feature in a life dedicated to public service.

George HW Bush’s presidency had another special feature: it was the first time in four decades that one of the two parties kept the White House for 12 consecutive years.

Both presidents Obama and Trump have praised Bush in almost identical tones of respect and admiration. One wonders what would happen if they and their supporters maintained the same tone in debating their clashing visions for America.

I first met George HW Bush, often referred to as “41” because he was the 41st President of the United States, in 1971 when he was named by President Nixon as Ambassador to the United Nations. He had forged a friendship with Fereydoun Hoveyda, then Iran’s ambassador to the UN. Hoveyda called Bush, who was tall and thin, (the Boneless Valentin) after the figure of a contortionist in the paintings of 19th Century French painter Toulouse Lautrec.” Like Valentin,” Hoveyda used to say, “this American can twist and bend but will not break!”

Bush's successful run

In his spell at the UN, Bush established himself as a credible figure in global diplomacy. However, fate had traced other paths for him. Two years later he was named Chairman of the Republican Party at one of its most traumatic moments. A year later, the political parenthesis closed, Bush was sent as head of the liaison office in Beijing to oversee a transition to full diplomatic relations with Washington.

Bush’s next move, to become Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was away from politics and diplomacy and yet related to both.

By the end of the 1970s, Bush had decided to bid for the presidency. His first attempt stopped just short of the final goal and he agreed to become Ronald Reagan’s vice-presidential running-mate. He kept his own circle of personal friends, among then James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Frank Carlucci, Robert Gates and Robert Mosbacher, and from the mid-1980s, the entrepreneur and philanthropist Hushang Ansary.

Bush’s success in steering towards a peaceful transition at the end of the Cold War is too well known to need repeating. When the Berlin Wall fell advisers urged him to fly there and do his own “I am-a-Berliner” number. He refused because he did not want to humiliate the losers of history towards seeking revenge. He led the war to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait with firmness and moderation and under a United Nations’ mandate. Victory in Iraq helped attenuate the dark memory of America’s botched war in Indochina.

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Bush had a natural talent for winning friends. He turned Bill Clinton, the rival who had defeated him, into a friend to the point that First Lady Barbara Bush quipped that “Bill is one of my sons.” In 2009 I saw Bush at the library named after him at Texas University sitting at a table with President Obama munching a hamburger in an informal manner. And yet the deference that Obama showed was glaring.

In the past few days, many adjectives have been showered over Bush’s casket, among them graceful, humble, compassionate, and patriotic. I think the adjective he would have preferred is “good”.

In 2012 at a dinner in Washington DC for his Points of Light charity, I asked Bush whether he would back Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee for the presidency.

“Yes,” he said. “Romney is a good man.”

I think Bush took the adjective “good” in its Greek sense of “Agathon” which means “beneficial”, that is to say, beneficial to society, a concept that includes but goes beyond the moral sense. To have a good society one needs “beneficial” men in charge, an old American concept of politics

As Americans bury their longest living president in history they might do well to revive some of the old concepts, or dare we say values, which guided the contortionist for nine decades?

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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