There is a press conference given by George HW Bush (Bush 1) which has entered the annals of US Presidential history. The Berlin Wall had just come down, the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe was rapidly disintegrating, and the old Cold War enemy was in unprecedented disarray at home. The Cold War had come to a sudden, unpredicted end after 44 years, and the United States was the undisputed winner.
Strange, then, that despite numerous promptings from the White House press corps, Bush 1 went to bizarre lengths to avoid sounding even slightly triumphalist. ‘Come on,’ one of them implored him at one point, ‘you’ve fought in the Cold War all your adult life, you’ve worked for this all your life. Aren’t you the slightest bit emotional?’
‘Well, eh, no,” the elder Bush replied, “I’m just not an emotional guy I guess.”
The reason Bush refused to sound triumphalist was that he was still being the President, and from where he sat, the stakes were now huge. Mikhail Gorbachev was still nominally in charge of the flailing, wounded Soviet beast, and the 41st President desperately wanted to avoid saying anything that might make life even more difficult for his onetime rival, now beleaguered partner.
So he refused to toot his own horn, so as not to endanger an already fragile peace in an uncertain world. It is possible to argue that Bush’s refusal to issue an immediate ‘How I won the Cold War’ press release contributed greatly to his defeat in the subsequent election against Bill Clinton in 1992, but at the time – to him at least – doing the job was far more important.
Is it possible to even imagine any of the leading contenders for the most powerful job in the world engaging in anything like the same behaviour today? And the answer to this rhetorical question offers a substantial clue to why – more than 25 years after the Cold War – the world is actually a far more dangerous place.
To put it perhaps too simply: class has gone out of the game. I use the word ‘class’ here in its American sense, which on the other side of the Atlantic would translate into something like ‘decency,’ or ‘fair play.’ Nobody thinks beyond the next press release. Politicians have become like sugar dependent teenagers: it’s all about the next hit, the next high. Bush 1 is probably the very last example in our time of an American President attempting to play a longer game, conscious that he is simply one point in a continuum, and that something has to be left in place for the next guy.
Now, no sane person would expect their political leaders to behave like Abraham Lincoln in that ridiculous biopic by Spielberg: a man who clearly never farted or spent any time in the toilet, who never had a single conversation that wasn’t about legislation or emancipating the slaves, whose main party piece during a good old knees up was about the need to reunify the country. Worthy though the idea may have been, movies like ‘Lincoln’ actually contribute to the problem by giving their viewers a cartoonish version of history. Nobody is that good, just as very few people are that bad.
But it isn’t unreasonable to believe that you are entitled to hold someone who wants you to give them outrageous power up to some sort of standard. This may be the age when pretty much anything goes in the sexual, financial or moral sphere, but the last two and a half decades have shown us that, when it comes to politics at least, standards do matter.
In the years after Bush 1, we’ve seen his successor, Bill Clinton, leaving biological souvenirs of himself on the dress of a White House intern (she was apparently going to keep it as some sort of heirloom), initially lie about it, then sort of admit it. And while Bill’s misdeeds may seem trivial and silly by the standards of today, they mark a point on a graph which has proceeded steadily downward, all the way to now.
And in case you think it’s all about Trump; it’s not. All that bullying and demagoguery and ass grabbling didn’t just boil up into the Universe out of some random, Russian generated black hole. The conditions which would allow for the rise of Trump have been fermenting for years.
After Bill, we had the unspeakable stupidity of Bush 1’s idiot son. This execrable clown would face arguably the biggest challenge to the world’s security since the Cold War, and proceed to make things a thousand times worse. Most of the fault lines in global security today – ISIS, the Syrian Civil War, the migrant crisis in Europe, even Brexit and the possible break up of the European Union – are directly traceable to this rabid cretin’s decision to destabilise the frontier states of the Middle East, beginning with Iraq, without any idea of what might fill the vacuum he generated.
Domestically, Bush 2’s lack of anything approaching a Presidential persona made life impossible for satirists everywhere, and many have simply starved, or started writing books for children. How could you come up with some hilarious piece of Presidential nonsense when Bush 2 would always trump (there’s that word again) you from his own mouth? My personal favourite: “our enemies never stop thinking about new ways to hurt this country [pause while he did his stupid little simper thing to camera] and neither do we.”
If satirists thought things would get better after Bush 2, they were sadly mistaken. It became a Federal offence to satirise anything the new Lord President of NICE, Barack Obama, was likely to say or do for eight years. In the new political cartoon, making fun of the President of NICE in any way marked you out as a racist, sociopathic scumbag who probably owned a basement full of guns and kept a trunk full of dead bunnies. Just as class was oozing out of politics like air from a dying balloon, so the media had decided to simply stop doing its job. Nobody wants to be the bad guy in a cartoon.
And while forests have been slaughtered in the rush to praise Obama’s style, grace and bearing while in office, consider: would Bush 1, or Lincoln for that matter, have gone on television to boast about the assassination of an enemy? In the old dispensation, the United States might very well have sanctioned cold blooded execution of someone it perceived as an enemy, but its leaders would never have publicly crowed about it. Politics is as much about perception as reality (indeed, it is almost impossible to know where one ends and the other begins), the reason you don’t crow about tawdry deeds is that, sooner or later, someone else will start crowing about something even worse.
Which brings us to today, and the wackiest, most jaw dropping election in American (or anyone else’s) history. The people who profess to be shocked by the depths to which it has sunk really should have paid more attention to what’s been going on over the last twenty years. There is a line in Robert Graves’ ‘I Claudius’ about each new Roman Emperor being a little bit worse than the one who went before. It seems that very little has changed.
And in case you’re still naïve enough to think this is all about Trump, consider Hillary Clinton’s reaction on being told of the horrible death of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafi – literally torn apart by a mob – with the consequent degeneration of that country into a lawless, feral kill zone.
“We came, we saw, he died,” she proclaimed. The world is not getting any better anytime soon.