Few presidents have vanished so quickly from the collective consciousness of their countrymen as this patrician New England Yankee cum ersatz Texan. Victory in the Gulf, high-velocity "goofy golf" and a weird way with words - those are the prevailing memories of the Bush years. So recent, yet somehow a piece of the remoter past.
For today's red-blooded Republicans, President Bush is the great unmentionable: a wimpish moderate, by his own admission more interested in foreign than domestic policy, and lacking "the vision thing", the one who dropped the torch lit by Ronald Reagan. He has done little to correct that impression. His few speeches and public appearances have dealt mostly with foreign affairs. To hear it from private citizen Bush, his main preoccupation these days is "the grandfather thing".
That is, however, not strictly true. George Bush may dote over possible future members of a political dynasty headed by an ex-president, himself fathered by a US senator, who has sired the present Governor of Texas and the almost-Governor of Florida. But there is plenty more.
Approaching 71, he still travels almost as frenetically as he did when Air Force One was a phone call away. He plans no autobiography ("too much competition from Barbara") but is working on a book about foreign policy with his former National Security Adviser and close friend Brent Scowcroft ("Let me tell you, it certainly does not scream `best-seller'.") Then there is the golf, still being conducted at break-neck speed, with tee shots ever apt to send spectators diving for their lives.
And his way with words is undiminished. The man who once described the threatened Pacific owl as "that little feathery, furry guy," and the 1992 New Hampshire economy as "coming off a pinnacle of low unemployment", can still dish them out. "This music is part of my heartbeat," was his indignant reply to someone who dared suggest his much advertised fondness for Country and Western music was contrived to attract Southern and Western voters.
In the meantime, he presses on with more concrete matters. He lives in a smart Houston neighbourhood, in a brand new house which he and Barbara helped to design. He is planning his own Presidential Library, due to open in 1997, which will concentrate on the climactic events which occurred (as the ex-Navy pilot would put it) "on my watch" - the Gulf war, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
In a way, US public life is the poorer without him. If politics is a foul-mouthed and mean-spirited business now, that may have something to do with the departure of a gentleman. Even for an optimist like George Bush, his defeat in 1992 was hard to put behind him. But he can see advantages for his party. Had he won, he freely concedes, the Republicans would never have captured Congress two years later. Weird business, politics.
Rupert CornwellReuse content