It’s a sullen habit to wake up first thing and read the news. Or, at least it is when I mean you can barely open your eyes and do so with that half squint, please God could the screen be any brighter sort of way.
On November 30 President George H.W. Bush died. A stab of adrenaline hits, the heart rate rises — all of a sudden I’m possessed by this urgent need to beat everyone else to it and tell my closest politico pals and the hysterical historians in my life. Today, however, was a little different.
After a good few years worth of famous deaths – the cull of 2016 was perilously close to being a godly visitation – the news made me pause and check that usual impulsive and ask a question instead. ‘I didn’t know President Bush, so why should I care?’
It’s a cold question, but one we in Britain could do with asking a little bit more often when we get caught up in the hysteria of the passing of a foreign leader. This is not to denounce or belittle the loss of a man, any man, and especially not one who rose to be the president of the United States.
But how often do you read from news outlets reports the shape of their career, rather than a dissection of their policies? I know what you’re thinking – leave it to the historians and the inevitable biographies. But look at it from another perspective: how often do we, or those in the UK, get outright analysis looking at how these leaders impacted our country?
It’s a curious blurring of the journalistic redlines. To do that, it would require the kind of opining that will inevitably be contested and might not be ubiquitously agreed upon. But answer me this – if you’ve read, as I have this week, how Bush was director of the CIA and vice and eventually president of the United States, would it not be a pleasant change to discover precisely what that meant for the UK and even Scotland?
The deferential praise lavished in death which, while meant to be in good taste, can easily transform into ‘ach, that’s such a shame. Good guy, good guy.’
Contrary to the mass public outpouring of sorrow when public figures die, I’ve never been able to express the sentiment (beyond basic courtesy) for politicians who haven’t impacted me.
Why, bluntly, do we give a damn when public inquiry seems to split between overly saccharine and outright, cruel pantomime? In Western politics, the death of the former U.S president is a legitimate point of interest for the casual observer as much as the politico. Where the line blurs is when tributes, either from the political class, the media or the public, descend into outright fawning or misleading criticism as if somehow everyone knew the man.
In many respects to say someone is ‘famous’ is inappropriate; it infers a passive value judgement rooted in the subject being recognised at all. That’s cancer at the heart of celebrity culture right there. Few pay attention to the little details, only the broad strokes, and create a life narrative in simple terms. Policy, bluntly, takes too much time to delve into and pervasive laziness has taken over.
President Bush, by most accounts, was an honourable man but who one spent a lifetime defending America’s interests. Fawning over his death is to overlook that his professional life was in the service of a foreign country. Due diligence must and should be made of his career from that standpoint. If not with a friend, which I believe Bush was to Britain and international peace, we expose ourselves to a fad that won’t stop when contested Americans do die.
Like with the deaths of other famous American statesmen such as Ted Kennedy (for who we conveniently forget the Chappaquiddick incident) or John McCain (who waded happily in on the Brexit debate) there should be a greater adherence to the notion that ‘to know him was to love him’. We didn’t know him.
When Henry Kissinger eventually meets his maker, it will be a curious thing to see if the same effect occurs. The fact that ‘Kissinger’ has become a mononym makes the specifics of his role in the Richard Nixon administration almost irrelevant. Will he, like Bush, be praised luxuriously before the fine print of his time in public office is combed over?
There’s a cynicism at the heart of this piece, I freely admit. Many will point out that it’s simply in good taste to praise the deceased and analyse their legacy later. I worry, however, that the quirks of good measure can often camouflage the stark truth in real-time.
Consider the rehabilitation of George W. Bush. Not only is he a published artist, but he’s also best buddies with the Obamas and quirky guest on the talk show circuit. Are we seeing, what was previously saved for death, a quickening glossing over of the truth because human nature wants us to admire, to respect and see the best in authority?
It’s a dangerous precedent and obscures controversies some are tired of looking at. In the case of Bush Snr, he worked he worked openly and proudly in the interests of American foreign policy. For this, he should be respected, for it is becoming a rarer thing in our time.
Politics at its most basic is the division of resources. Adulation and celebrity are the gloss with which we forget this. There is no shame in peeling it back and making your own assessment, doing your own beyond the headlines.