It is a decent convention to refrain from saying anything too nasty about the recently departed, but I don’t think it breaks the rule to say that few will remember George W. H. Bush as one of the finest or compelling presidents of our time. Single-term presidents rarely are – which is why of course they are single-term.
Still, given some of the White House performances that have followed Bush’s (including that of his own son) he looms as a giant in Lilliputia.
Any comparisons with the present incumbent of the office would be odious. Let it merely be said of Bush that, if nothing else, he was genuinely polite, unfailingly courteous to opponents and colleagues alike, and modest about his achievements. These included heroic wartime service as a navy flyer in the Second World War, when he was shot down in combat and spent days drifting about in a dinghy before being rescued.
Winston Churchill might have quipped, as he once did of Clement Atlee, his wartime deputy and later political opponent, that Bush Sr. had much to be modest about (I hate to think what he would have said of Bush Jr.) but then a few modest men to enhance the political dialogue would be most welcome right now.
Bush was neither wit nor orator. He will command little space in the books of quotations by famous men. I suppose “Read my lips: no more taxes” will be one entry. And then there was some nonsense about a “thousand points of light”.
But the remark for which he may be remembered above all was the one about aspiring to create “a gentler, kinder nation”. At the time it sounded like the kind of hollow phrase penned by a speech-writer to produce a cheap headline – as it probably was – but now, in a harsher, crueller nation it sounds positively profound.
What would we not give now to hear such sentiments emanating from the present incumbent in the Oval Office?
One final, passing thought: President Trump gallantly sent Air Force One to collect Bush’s body and bring it back to Washington for the funeral. If this was in part a gesture to acknowledge Bush’s wartime heroism it stands in marked contrast to the treatment meted out to the late Senator John McCain, whom Mr Trump dismissed as ‘no hero’ because he had been captured by the enemy after being shot down.
Is it too much to hope that Trump has learnt a lesson?