A Memory To Outlive The Man
There’s hope, Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells us, that a great man’s memory may outlive him but six months. Indeed, so constrained a timeline augurs ill for the rest of us, unremarkable rabble we are, who toil daily toward the edge of exhaustion if only for a taste, a drop of renown. Desperate is our struggle to drink deeply the nectar of fame, but in reality, most of us go thirsty to the grave.
For some, this comes as a bitter gulp of truth. For others—at least for those who attain it—it’s a long-awaited and sweet drink. Either way, none can be so sober as to deny its intoxicating appeal. Hopefully, we’ll all have the chance to savor it on this side of life (the painter Andy Warhol aphoristically thought, if only for fifteen brief minutes, that we might), but if not, we’ll accept it, in quiet contentment, and in due and posthumous time.
But what are we to make of a great man and a merely good, if not wholly forgettable president? For how many months, and if not months, days are we to grant his memory residence in our hearts and in our minds? Mind you, ours is a frighteningly abbreviated attention span and a great man, if we’re to defend and rationalize his greatness, requires of us some precious and hard-to-come-by mental space.
To both questions we’ll soon have an answer as we proceed in our collective, national mourning for the former president George H.W. Bush.
The last president to inhabit the Oval Office prior to and at the very dawn of my own birth, I admit a certain personal detachment from this man. I, a simple occupant of the womb for the better part of 1992, hadn’t yet the sparkle of apolitical thought. Perhaps with an intermittent kick when turned toward the evening news on the television screen, I was developing into a partisan. If not, I was simply hungry. Above all, though, I was devoted to my mother, as she was to me.We bided together our nine months, each one, so far as I was concerned, less spacious and accommodating than the last. As I sat in wait in a sack of amniotic goo, Bush the elder was finishing up his first and only term. Only later wouldI learn of his tenure and I would not be impressed.
Being that he was a merely good and not a great president, the study of his time atop the federal government can be, to put it mildly, uninspiring. However trite a four years they might’ve been, a few things do emerge from this time as having been noteworthy. Hence, the following notes.
He dropped the Reagan baton. Chiding as “voodoo economics” the great Reagan’s novel fiscal plan, Bush parted ways with traditionally conservative economic sense.Bush saw in supply-side economics not a situation in which every boat rose, but one in which a tsunami of prosperity rushed only to the top. Trading witchcraft for statecraft, Bush later went on to recant his “voodoo” characterization of Reaganomics and took a much friendlier approach toward his now former Republican rival. From 1980 toward the decade’s end, he was the prior California governor’s Vice President and confidante. It would be nice if, economically, the two got along.
And they certainly (or at least ostensibly) did, well enough and for a fair bit of time until the requiem for Reagan’s presidency finally tolled. Bush campaigned to succeed him and was largely successful in his presidential bid due to his promise not to raise taxes. Being that, by natural inclination, every politician is a publicly-appointed spendthrift, this was a pledge whose bound she couldn’t help but break. To abstain from taxation would be to make unrecognizable the executive’s role. The president, as head of state, couldn’t have that.
So, tax us he and the Democrat-controlled Congress did. Probably, this reneging on a much-celebrated campaign promise (you’ll recall his startling “read my lips…”claim) led to his 1992 defeat at the hands of a frighteningly mendacious, though refreshingly moderate William Jefferson Clinton. But this is to get ahead of ourselves.
One mustn’t judge a president on the failures of his domestic agenda; so much of what happens at home is subject to the whims of an often unamiable “other” side.Within the confines of one sea to its partner shining in the west, the president is bound to an inevitable struggle. Seldom, if ever, are his domestic goals completely met. Beyond these fifty contentious states, however, his impression is more concrete, successful, and acutely felt.
Three places in particular continue to feel the imprint of his tenure. They include, and are largely limited to, China, Russia, and Persia.
China, that last bastion of Communism (if only in name and not deed), was undergoing are vitalizing movement after a generation lost to Mao. His successor and the great progressive Deng Xiaoping was in the final year of his decade-long presidency. By and large, his was a rather benevolent authoritarian state—as far as they come—if only when contrasted to that of the sanguinary Mao. Deng was famously apathetic when it came to cats—fretting little over whether their fur was white or black, so long as they caught mice. Ostensibly an ally to liberty and the modern sweep of time, it was under his nose that the Tiananmen Square episode played itself out. Confronting a gathering of students and young dissidents, of whom all were peacefully milling about in that now infamous square, Deng’s military fired into the unarmed crowds. Brandishing the power of the government by way of tanks and armored guns, his army proceeded to kill anywhere from 300to 10,000 civilians over the course of a month.
Bush, consummate conservative and dogged pragmatist he is, decided against reprisals that might further antagonize the Chinese state. Sino-American relationships were improving, and though China was a middling, if not wholly tertiary international thought, it was an important bond to secure. Bush opted to impose only limited and cautious sanctions on this burgeoning Chinese state. His restraint wasn’t universally well-received. Many, including a budding generation of oppressed Chinese demonstrators, hoped he might do more.
In commenting on Russia at this time, one need necessarily speak of Berlin. For it was there, indeed in the same year as the Tiananmen Square massacre, that the city’s eponymous, impregnable wall tumbled down. Sure, Bush’s predecessorRonald Reagan set the stage for its destruction and his memory still welcomes the approbation to that end, but it happened on Bush’s watch. Bush also conducted himself in so decorous and humble a manner after its fall, that theSoviets—soon to be an archaic term—couldn’t help but be our friends. Bush and his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, later met and signed the sanguinely-named “START” agreement—a still relevant document whose initials stand for the “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty”.
But lest you think Bush a Texan dove, a man cautious toward China and obsequious toward Russia, he showed flashes of being a lone-star hawk. When the masochistic and theocratic Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq’s tiny, southern neighbor Kuwait, Bush responded with a diplomat’s tact and a general’s strength. After lobbying to exhaustion the Iraqi regime for its peaceful withdrawal from Kuwait, Bush gathered a coalition to liberate the country. The UN voted in favor of intervening on the Kuwaitis behalf, but Bush sought more support than that given by a council of unelected and foreign statesmen.
In what I consider a sign of deference to our tripartite state, Bush’s ExecutiveBranch sought the opinion of the Congress. Narrowly, it voted in a manner consistent with the now bellicose president’s aim. The rest was history.American troops (playing the role as vanguard, as always, in what was a strong coalition front) barged into occupied Kuwait and liberated the country within days. For Hussein, it was a momentarily crippling, deeply embarrassing, but unfortunately not paralyzing defeat. One can make the argument that Bush—too often inclined toward restraint—should’ve pursued and silenced Hussein once and for all. For the time being, though, Kuwaiti freedom was enough and for that, we have Bush and America’s finest soldiers to thank.
These feats were not small, but this president was not great. Perhaps it’s a consequence of inhabiting so estimable a field. Where few, radiant suns blaze, candles draw no eyes. No average, much less accomplished man can think himself worthy of standing where the likes of Lincoln, Jackson, Jefferson, Washington, Roosevelt, or Reagan have stood. In what’s been literally hundreds of years, men enough to occupy and count on one hand grip our attention most. The rest fall through and forever evade our mind. Alas, the memory of Bush, not the man but the president, will outlive him but a short while. Six months might be asking for too much.