A Global Icon | Daily News

A Global Icon

Way back in September 1944, a US Submarine crew spotted a young man in a tiny life raft, frantically paddling with his bare hands to get away from a Japanese island. They popped up right beside him and the torpedo man who hauled him on board said “welcome aboard, sir”. Even in their wildest dreams, the submarine crew never imagined that the 18-year-old they rescued would one day become the Commander in Chief of the United States Defence Forces.

It was literally a baptism of fire for George Herbert Walker Bush, whose plane had been set ablaze by enemy fire and ditched in the ocean. His survival was perhaps a miracle and a sign that bigger things in life, such as the Presidency of the United States, were waiting for him. When George H W Bush passed away on Saturday at 94, only a few other men could boast of having such a varied career. From naval aviator to the (41st) President of the United States, his was a life that had seen it all and done it all. He even gave the world the 43rd President of the USA – his eldest son George Walker Bush.

Just a year after leaving the Navy in 1945, he took the initial step to politics by serving as the chairman of a local branch of the Republican Party. Then he won the Republican nomination for the US Senate seat for Texas.

He did not win the first time, but successfully stood for the House of Representatives in 1966, where he served two terms. He did not win in 1970 and President Richard Nixon appointed him US ambassador to the United Nations in 1971 and then Republican Party chairman. After the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, Bush headed to Beijing as the US Envoy.

After serving as the CIA Director for a few years from 1976, politics beckoned him again, this time as the running mate of Republican Presidential nominee Ronald Reagan. Under President Reagan, he served two full terms as the Vice President of the United States from 1981-89. And in 1989, he got the promotion he wanted – the Presidency. In fact, it was after 150 years that a sitting Vice President has been elected President (Martin van Buren in 1836), as opposed to automatic promotion – e.g. Gerald Ford, following Nixon’s resignation.

Although he served only one term as President, he saw enough action that most other Presidents would not see for the full eight years. His first test was the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Bush moved to build an international coalition to end the occupation but delayed military action in order to give time to secure UN approval. The US and its allies swept across the desert in a ground war lasting just 100 hours and secured freedom for Kuwait.

His other major challenge was the fall of the USSR, which left the US as the sole super power. Even though it was Reagan who called on the Soviet leaders to “tear down the Berlin Wall”, the wall actually came down during Bush Senior’s tenure. He was President during the reunification of East and West Germany, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact alliance and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in February 1989. On July 31, 1991, Bush and Presidency Mikhail Gorbachev signed the START I treaty in Moscow. The agreement introduced major reductions in US and Soviet strategic nuclear arsenals. The two men became good friends and Gorbachev was one of the first to express condolences on Bush Senior’s passing.

But domestically, he did not fare so well. After his infamous “read my lips – no new taxes” pledge had to be abandoned to raise taxes, he became unpopular. There was also a perception that he did not have the common touch, due to his Ivy League background.

At the 1992 Presidential election, he simply could not match the energy and charisma of the young Democratic Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton whose message resonated with the electorate. It was a bitter election campaign that tested the limits of their endurance, but Clinton won in the end.

George H W Bush will live on in the hearts of Sri Lankans, being one of the two US Presidents, serving or retired, to have visited Sri Lanka, the other being Clinton himself. In fact, they came here together in the aftermath of the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 to inspect the damage and drum up global support for the affected countries. It is said that the two men, who were bitter election rivals, developed a very close personal bond as they toured the world together for good causes. Clinton even said that Bush Senior’s friendship was the “greatest gift of his life”.

That was George Herbert Walker Bush. “Because you run against each other that does not mean you’re enemies,” he once said. “Politics doesn’t have to be uncivil and nasty.” The political legacy of Bush Senior will continue to be studied for decades to come, as a leader who helped create a new world order. 


 

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