There were echoes of King Lear last week when George Bush broke down during a speech at an event to honour his son Jeb, who is retiring as the governor of Florida. The Elder Bush was recalling Jeb's first run for the governorship -- which he lost -- when his father broke down, weeping, while his son came to his father's side.
No doubt there will be some who will conclude that the old man is entering his dotage, because his reaction was so out of proportion to the facts. After all, Jeb ran a second time and was then re-elected to a second term. On the surface, the story is about redemption, making a comeback and triumphing over adversity.
But, while the incident was all about loss, George H. W. has not lost it. At this stage in his life, there must be greater losses on his mind than that of Jeb's first electoral defeat. Perhaps he was weeping as he recalled his defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton. It must have been a particularly bitter pill. After all, he had executed the first Gulf War successfully, calling on his United Nations and CIA experience to build an international coalition to achieve a limited objective -- which most of his allies paid for.
Then there was his establishment of the Resolution Trust Corporation, which cleaned up the Savings and Loan debacle, something Ronald Reagan left him as he walked out the Oval Office door. The Savings and Loan mess was a horrendous and complicated swamp which required a large injection of public money to drain and reclaim. But Mr. Bush persuaded his countrymen that, although it was costly, it was a worthy cause.
Then there was the problem of breaking his "no new taxes" pledge. Given the deficit he was facing, raising taxes was in the nation's long term interest. It was a policy that his successor followed -- and which cost him the House and the Senate -- but, as time would prove, led to the first budget surpluses in nearly forty years. And what did this foresight earn Mr. Bush? He was lambasted by the radical right wing of his own party. Mr. Bush had made mistakes -- to begin with, he never should have made the no new taxes pledge -- but if, like Lear, he felt "more sinned against than sinning," that sense of betrayal was understandable.
Or maybe the first President Bush was thinking of the second President Bush -- a man whose chief motive for seeking office seems to have been to right the wrongs done to his father. He appears to have gone into Iraq to finish the job his father started and to get the man who, in George W.'s words," tried to kill my dad." That kind of plot makes for a good novel, or an even better play. Unfortunately, as is now abundantly clear, it makes for disastrous foreign policy.
In the very week George the Elder was honouring Jeb, the Iraq Study Group delivered a report to George the Younger which came to the conclusion that the second President Bush's foreign policy was just that -- a disaster. Beneath the carefully worded consensus, the bottom line of the report was that "the way forward" lay in retreat. The basic premise behind the group's seventy-nine recommendations is that the United States has lost the second Iraq War. It is a conclusion which -- the polls tell us -- the American people have already reached.
It would appear that Mr. Bush and his advisers refuse to accept that conclusion. Retreat is not a word that this Bush administration is going to use. And, even if there is a retreat -- Mr. Bush is quite capable of changing his mind, as witness the departure of Mr. Rumsfeld. The suspicion of many is that the retreat will be long and slow.
Frank Rich, in The New York Times, (see The Sunshine Boys Cannot Save Iraq) recently reminded his readers that, when Lyndon Johnson refused to run, stopped the bombing of North Vietnam and began peace talks with the Viet Cong, some twenty thousand American soldiers had died in Vietnam. Five years later, when his successor -- Richard Nixon -- decided to leave Vietnam, the number of dead American soldiers had grown to over fifty-five thousand. Such was the price of what Nixon called "peace with honour." All of those fifty-five thousand names are etched in that black marble wall in Washington.
Perhaps George Sr. was weeping for George Jr.'s lack of experience. For, while it is true that both father and son flew military aircraft, the Elder Bush was shot down over the Pacific. Bush the Younger has never faced that kind of hostile environment; and his flying was within the boundaries of the United States. The experience of personally being a victim of an enemy attack, I suspect, encourages one to carefully weigh the consequences of military action.
When one looks at Bush's advisers and cheerleaders -- starting with his own vice president and moving on to Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Richard Pearle, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol -- one cannot but be impressed with the fact that none of them knew anything about combat. And, therefore, none of them knew anything about what could go wrong. They simply assumed that, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States possessed the military might to work its will wherever it chose. They forgot -- or failed to heed -- the bitter lesson which forced President Johnson from office -- that, given the right circumstances, what Johnson called a "raggedy-assed country" could defeat a colossus.
The first president Bush has learned a lot in his eighty odd years. And the son, who sits in the chair his father once occupied, has not benefited from -- nor asked for -- any of his father's wisdom. For that, the father has just cause to weep, both in public and in private. In fact, we all do.