“I’m getting old at just the right time.” George HW Bush
The first President Bush is old and he is frustrated. His beloved Jeb is struggling when early money gathering suggested a possible sail to the nomination. But what really gets to him is the state of the party with which his family has been closely associated since father Prescott was elected senator from Connecticut in 1952. At this point Bush is somewhat relieved — getting old at the right time — that he won’t have to witness where it all ends. He’s clearly not optimistic. I’d venture that the former president is not alone in that regard. Many of his age look at what’s become of our politics, the chaos abroad, widespread economic imbalance and endangering climate change with equal unease. Perhaps more than then, they can truly relate to the title of Anthony Newley’s 1960s musical: Stop the World: I Want to Get Off.
Of course, the fact that the Stop the World idea resonated more than five decades ago — albeit on more on a personal level for Newley’s “Littlechap” character — should give us some comfort. Others before us have witnessed frustrating times and somehow humanity muddled through, even thrived. That may be reassuring, but it doesn’t exactly make one feel sanguine about our time. The vast majority of the world’s population has most of their lives ahead of them. Political and perhaps more so ethnic/religious turf strife is bound to be with us for some time to come. 2015 is expected to be the hottest year on record, likely by some margin. Just days ago we had the strongest hurricane ever recorded in our hemisphere. Fortunately, mountains quickly broke it up, but it was a stark reminder that storms are likely to increase in ferocity going forward. If we don’t take immediate and drastic action to slow things down, which seems unlikely, most people alive today will be living with resultant destruction, not to mention, among others, increasingly limited water and food supply.
Part of the ugliness that troubles President Bush was on display last week as Hillary Clinton faced what Maureen Dowd described as, “a bunch of pasty-faced, nasty-tongued white men”. To call this fact-finding would be a disservice to an important part of Congressional duty. Theirs was a classic witch-hunt, one that expressed the state of our disunion. Couple that with the contest of essentially same-page rightist candidates — none would be measurably better than the other — and you can see what puts the former chief executive on edge. Of course we shouldn’t forget that the Bush clan played a significant role in heading the party in its current direction. He appointed Clarence Thomas, perhaps the most reliable rightist member of the current Supreme Court. His son followed on with Roberts and Alito not to mention quagmire wars we can’t shed, affluent-tilted tax cuts and a resultant ballooned deficit.
It’s that deficit that has become the clarion call and primary justification for his party’s relentless attempt to gut and thus weaken, if not destroy, the federal government. If I were prone to conspiracy thinking, which I’m not, it wouldn’t be far fetched to suggest that putting what has become a deficit tool in place was his intended objective. He may not have been quite that calculating. As to Jeb, we all know that he is not his grandfather’s New England moderate Republican — Prescott Bush was, yes, an early and active supporter of Planned Parenthood and the United Negro College Fund. The current pretender to the family throne ran Florida as a consistent doctrinaire conservative. Perhaps the only exception was immigration, but he’s surely backed off from that as well.
In the end, I’m not really sure what’s bothering George HW Bush, the former number two to conservative ultra-hero Ronald Reagan. It may be that the road on which they set the party has taken a much further right turn the two hoped or expected. Perhaps. But it may be something entirely different. Prescott Bush was a patrician of the banker moneyed class. His son and grandsons may have relocated to Texas and Florida, but Kennebunkport remains the locus of their family togetherness. However far they all may have moved to the right, that money class connection remains a constant. Their people have been the “establishment” that somehow steered presidential nominations toward candidates of their liking, ones who could function within their orbit. Perhaps the former president is as much, if not more, dismayed by the potential erosion of that establishment control than of the ideological turn that, after all, can be seen as a natural progression. So, what he would rather not witness is a loss of power that, when held, trumps all else.
Many Democrats may feel similarly if not equally dismayed. Somehow we’ve always looked at this “establishment” as a tempering force, one that keeps the crazies at bay. But truth be told, that sense of restraint may be more in our own minds — talking to ourselves — than is merited. George W, John McCain and Mitt Romney were all establishment choices. More to the point, the establishment blessed the elder Bush who, even before appointing Thomas, embraced Lee Atwater, the model of the take-no-prisoners campaigning that wrought the Tea Party and brought its “Freedom Caucus” to life. Perhaps the current crop of Republican office holders like to pay lip service to the “Gipper”, but their ways can be equally credited to the post 1988 Bush clan. George HW Bush's establishment gang may be losing its grip, but when all is said and done, it makes no substantive difference. He may say he is “getting old at the right time”, but the political trouble he will leave behind is in large measure the harvest of his own planting.