If he could have communicated like Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush said when looking back on his career, he would have won a second presidential term.
Eloquence and syntax were not Papa Bush’s strong points. As he candidly noted during his first year in office, "Fluency in English is something that I’m often not accused of.”
Though he served in momentous times, though he handled the close of the Cold War admirably, H. W. couldn’t find words to capture them.
We recall Ronald Reagan standing at the Brandenburg Gate and declaring, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Mr. Bush was a tad banal by comparison. Asked after the Malta summit with Mr. Gorbachev what it would mean for the world, Mr. Bush – who sometimes suffered from verb shortages – offered, “Grandkids. All of that. Very important.”
Reporters’ notebooks were filled with Bushian eye-poppers, such as the time in 1992 when he produced a summary take on Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s environmentally conscious running mate. ”Ozone Man, Ozone,” Mr. Bush blurted. “He’s crazy, way out. Far out, man."
H.W. didn’t like microphones, which he amusingly called “furry guys.” For garble it was hard to surpass his mouthful on Abe Lincoln."You cannot be President of the United States if you don’t have faith. Remember Lincoln, to his knees in times of trial and the Civil War and all that stuff. You can’t be. And we are blessed. So don’t feel sorry for – Don’t cry for me, Argentina. Message: I care.”
In U.S. history, the most popular presidents are usually said to be Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Reagan. There was one trait they had in common. They were all superior communicators. Their mouth, by contrast to H.W.’s, was not their Achilles heel.
Others such as Teddy Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama could put together a verbal tune as well. They didn’t fare too badly.
Across the pond there was of course the oratorical master, Winston Churchill. In finding the pungent phrase Maggie Thatcher was no slouch. In Canada, Pierre Trudeau ranks as the most popular prime minister in many opinion polls. By no coincidence, he, along with highly ranked Sir Wilfrid Laurier, was an exceptional communicator.
Leaders need not be eloquent. As a syntax murderer, Mr. Bush was not alone. Jean Chrétien was immortalized as being able to speak neither of Canada’s two official languages. But in a charming folksy way, he could connect with the masses. John Diefenbaker’s transcripts read like gobbledygook. But initially he mesmerized audiences, winning 208 seats in 1958 with messianic bombast.
Unfortunately for Mr. Bush, he amplified his tone-deaf problem with his choice for vice-president. That would be spelling-bee flunkee Dan Quayle.
The irony was that as a private communicator, Mr. Bush excelled. Unlike today, when the rancorous tweet is the presidential currency of communication, Mr. Bush wrote thousands of gracious personal notes to both friends and adversaries. His close friend Brian Mulroney – who is delivering one of the eulogies at his funeral on Wednesday – did the same.
Mr. Bush’s kinder, gentler approach to politics, which he did not always adhere to, was evident early in his career. “When the word moderation becomes a dirty word,” he wrote a friend after losing an election in 1964, "we have some soul-searching to do.”
On another occasion he wrote, “I don’t equate toughness with just attacking some individual. I equate toughness with moral fibre, with character, with principle, with demonstrated leadership in tough jobs where you emerge not bullying somebody but with the respect of the people you led.”
It is appropriate that he is being eulogized for his gentlemanliness, moderation and old-school – one of his favourite games was horseshoes – ways and values. He was an able caretaker president.
Sadly he didn’t pass on some of his nobler qualities to son George who, partnered with Dick Cheney, was a rash president by comparison. Bush Sr. led his country into the Gulf War on the basis of real information – Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Son George led his country into war on the basis of misinformation.
Unlike his son who avoided service in Vietnam, the father at age 18, when he could have enjoyed the comforts of Yale, went off to the Second World War where he flew 58 combat missions.
He never boasted about it. He could never find the words.