Thursday 19 September 2019

Fergal Keane: 'US needs more than the politics of comparison'


Former US president George HW Bush. Photo: Lawrence Jackson/AP Photo
Former US president George HW Bush. Photo: Lawrence Jackson/AP Photo

Fergal Keane

The last American President of the World War II generation is dead. And with the passing of George Herbert Walker Bush comes the inevitable cascade of reductive comparison: the war hero GHW Bush was everything Donald Trump is not. Decent. Principled. Courteous. Honest. A man who fought for his country in and out of uniform.

Outraged by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Bush the elder joined up on his 18th birthday. The current incumbent of Pennsylvania Avenue avoided service in Vietnam and his cruel mockery of John McCain, who was tortured in North Vietnamese captivity, helped to make wartime service an issue of character.

It shouldn't be. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and GHW Bush all served in World War II.

The experience didn't necessarily make them great presidents. Johnson and Nixon inflicted immense misery on the peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and propelled America into a domestic political and cultural struggle which is still being waged.

As a rule, Donald Trump tends to despise his recent predecessors.

He mockingly called George Bush junior "a real genius" and accused him of lying about weapons of mass destruction.

But the notion that before Trump, the American presidency was a bastion of a set of fundamental decencies is a self-indulgent fantasy. There was a long road that led to Trump lined with exceptionalism, hubris and some very bad behaviour. Bill Clinton dragged the presidency into the gutter with the Lewinsky Affair long before Trump's appalling comments about women in the run-up to the election.

He was followed by Bush junior who plunged America into wars in which it is still mired as well as creating the moral swamp of renditions, secret prisons and water boarding. The damage done to the idea of an international order during the halcyon years of George Bush's War on Terror will be with us for generations.

Obama was dignified, erudite and worked hard. But his terms ended with a significant number of Americans feeling forgotten and unspoken for.

That was part of what defeated Hillary Clinton, along with her own weaknesses as a candidate.

President Trump succeeds in making everything about him. He is energised by loathing. On Twitter, at rallies, on the friendly sofas of Fox News, he revels in the hatred directed against him. The 'liberal elite' he claims to loathe are currently his best friends.

The more they hate, the more his base feels he is doing the right thing.

The passing of GHW offers a space for reflection. But if the Democrats and moderate Republicans hope to see the end of Trump, this period cannot be about the politics of comparison. Donald Trump can only be electorally defeated by a new vision of what America should be, not by the endless round of appalled op-eds and anguished tweets.

The winner in 2020 will be the candidate who speaks to the future.


In the wake of the triumph over the All Blacks, I am taken to task by two readers. At the outset, let me state they are right and I am wrong.

The first correspondence relates to Clongowes, County Kildare and James Joyce and comes from Brendan Cullen in Clane, an esteemed historian of the college. Although the question of bias raises its inglorious head in the second complaint, there can be no suggestion of that here.

The County Kildare is a place I pass through. I have no roots on the gentle plains and am not among the historic army of persecutors of the Jesuits.

Brendan points out that the game to which Stephen Dedalus refers in the early stages of A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man is in fact not Rugby Union but Gravel.

I am indebted. His kindly phrased correction sent me off on one of the more entertaining of many tangents in the past fortnight.

I delved deep into the story of Gravel - a game in which the ball can be kicked and punched with a clenched fist - and found this in the writings of Fr T Corcoran SJ from some time in the earlier years of the last century: "The 'gravelled ground' was the theatre wherein was slowly brought to intricate perfection the royal game of 'gravel football', a distinctive feature of Stonyhurst, Clongowes, and Tullabeg life, until in our own day Association and Rugby have almost completely supplanted it.

"In Tullabeg it was vigorous to the last; in Clongowes it still survives, and is played vigorously during the week before Christmas vacation, and also in the strenuous contests that precede St Patrick's Day, when in the 'Grand Matches' Green and Red still struggle for supremacy."

Note the reference to Stonyhurst and the 'royal game'. Like rugby and cricket Gravel appears to have been an import, or what our Greener chairde would call a 'garrison' game.

In the second correction, a Cork correspondent, Sean Seartan, of lovely Shanakiel overlooking the Lee, gently points out that while Jimmy Bowen did make the "gutbusting run" to set up the crucial Munster try against the All Blacks in 1978, it was Christy Cantillon who received his pass and touched down.

I suspect that Sean has a link with that 'other place' i.e. Christian Brothers College, from which Christy Cantillon emerged and for which much of my school days at Presentation College represented the evil empire.

Jimmy Bowen was a Pres man. It might be that some of the lingering sectarianism of those days still pulses in my veins or as Sean suggests I was wearing rose-tinted glasses as I wrote.

But more likely that I suffered from that natural affliction of the ageing man - the pig-headed will to believe what he wants to believe.

I should have seen that magical moment between Bowen and Cantillon - Pres man and Christians man - as the forerunner of many great healing moments between the heirs to opposing traditions: Mandela and De Klerk, Martin McGuinness and the Queen. Ad infinitum. Et absurdum.

But it would be wrong of me to close this correspondence with the man from Shanakiel without referring to an undisputed fact.

In the most recent victory over the All Blacks, the Man of the Match was Peter O'Mahony. A Pres Man.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News