As the world says goodbye to George HW Bush, I am tempted to add my own personal memories to the mix, and illuminate perhaps his legacy by recounting the two intense nights that my wife and I spent in close proximity to the former president at the end of October 2001.
It was at the Park Hyatt hotel in Sydney, where I had been invited to deliver the Centennial Lecture celebrating the Federation of Australia. The day after our arrival, the hotel manager - a corpulent, affable man of Spanish extraction - asked us if we wouldn’t mind exchanging our suite, only for the next two days, he said, for another one, just as nice, he promised, elsewhere on the premises.
Having already unpacked, and enjoying the most spectacular view of the bay and the Opera House, it wasn’t hard to respond that we had no intention of moving. Was there any reason for such an unexpected request?
The manager could not elaborate further, “due to reasons of security”. Though he would honor our wishes, he regretted that our dinner reservation for that evening had been cancelled, as the dining room would be closed for a restricted event.
On our way back to the hotel, Angélica and I could not contain our insane glee at depriving Bush of our room. For once, we chortled, we had bested one of the big fish who are used to seeing their every wish granted. Our antipathy towards this particular big fish ran deep: those deplorable years as Reagan’s vice-president, his racist campaign against Michael Dukakis, his invasion of Panama, his appointment of Clarence Thomas to the supreme court, his sabotage of global initiatives to reverse catastrophic climate change, the disastrous Nafta treaty, the vetoing of civil rights legislation, the presidential pardon of the neo-con Elliott Abrams, and, of course, Bush’s mawkish “thousand points of light”.
But our aversion had more personal roots: Bush had operated as head of the CIA from 30 January 1976 until 20 January 1977. As such, he was undoubtedly privy to exhaustive information about the devastation being inflicted by the US-supported Pinochet regime in Chile, at a time when opponents were being disappeared, concentration camps were still open and torture was rampant. During his tenure, the American government facilitated the infamous Operation Condor, run by the intelligence services of six Latin American dictatorships to coordinate their repression of dissidents. Perhaps most inexcusable was that Bush remained unrepentant of his country’s involvement in so much suffering. Had he not stated - when an American missile had blown up an Iranian aircraft with 290 innocent civilians aboard in 1988 - that he would “never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”
We entered our quarters - after passing two brawny security guards in the corridor outside the room next to ours - and gleefully imagined him stewing on his mattress, foiled, frustrated, sleeplessly stymied by a couple of Chilean revolutionaries whose existence he could not even divine. Our mirth soon subsided, replaced by an ominous thought from my wife: “What if something happens to him tonight or tomorrow?”
The 9/11 attacks had occurred barely six weeks earlier, and what juicier target for terrorists than the father of the current US president, that other George Bush? We looked at each other in consternation: if, by some demented coincidence, there was an assault right now on Bush senior, who would be the first suspects, which guests had both motive and opportunity?
The two Chileans next door, that’s who.
Had the security team used our absence that evening to check our room and bug it? If so, they had heard us laughing and referring to Bush in decidedly uncomplimentary terms. It didn’t take long for us to dispel our absurd paranoia, and yet, as I fell asleep, I couldn’t help but note that the post-9/11 world was strangely reminiscent, with its pervasive fear and burgeoning surveillance society, to the Chile we had left for exile many decades ago. We could banish Bush from the accommodation of his choice, but the world still belonged to him, to his son, to their acolytes and accomplices.
Early the next morning, I had a chance to recognize, first hand, how irrefutable this dominion was.
I was on our private terrace, overlooking Sydney Bay, doing some warm-up yoga exercises, so close to the water I could almost touch it, when who should pop into view, two or three yards away, just below me on the esplanade separating the hotel from the sea, but Poppy himself, walking briskly towards the city skyline. He was casually dressed, as if about to play golf, and surrounded by a sizeable entourage - some muscled security heavies, some suited confederates, perhaps a secretary or two, all of them quietly obsequious, all of them situated at a prudent distance, respectful of an invisible protective boundary that isolated the politician who had once been the most powerful person on Earth. Closest to Bush, half a step behind him, was a bulky, crew-cut military man, with so many medals on his uniform that it was a miracle he wasn’t sagging from the burden. A general, at least, I thought.
Suddenly, the former president lifted his right arm into the air, his fingers extended backward, snapping them without, however, deigning to look at the man behind him. The officer reacted with celerity, producing, seemingly out of nowhere, a tube that he deposited in his master’s hand. It turned out to be a sun tan lotion, as George Senior, without losing his stride and definitely without thanking the aide, began to lavishly apply it to his exposed forearms and neck.
That night, pondering the experience, I was the one who tossed and turned, slumberless, a few feet from the man who once held the fate of humanity in his hands. I was disturbed by the unintentional message he had sent me. Without the slightest notion that I was witnessing his cavalcade from my smug and far too self-satisfied position on a beautiful balcony, he had given me the finger, offered a lesson about what matters in the grand scheme of history. Our puny possession of his favored room and view, our sweet vicarious victory, was insignificant when weighed against that gesture of his. Nothing we did to him could alter its meaning or implications, change his patrician certainty that he had been born to rule and could do no wrong. A certainty transmitted to his son, who ended up being the living incarnation of his father’s finger-snapping imperium, who believed he owned the world as if it were a tube of sun lotion to be squeezed dry.
Paradoxically, it was that swaggering son who has helped me, over time, to soften my appraisal of Bush father’s place in history. It’s enough to remember the younger Bush’s demolition of Iraq and Afghanistan and, for good measure, his wrecking of the US economy, to look upon the elder’s presidency as almost respectable, to feel an almost doleful nostalgia for the Republican party of those years that was not entirely poisoned with hatred and blind greed - and I haven’t even started on Donald Trump.
Bush Senior might have been complicit for the thousands of corpses rotting on the Highway of Death in Iraq in 1991, but he did not forge ahead to Baghdad; indeed, that mayhem in the desert apparently made this veteran of the second world war, where he had served honorably, decide to stop the advance. And then there’s the American Disabilities Act, his relatively benign policies on immigration, his split with the National Rifle Association, the meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev that ended the cold war. And the considerable humanitarian works he did after leaving office. Not to mention his stark opinions about Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, that dynamic duo of destruction, and his stubborn and principled refusal to endorse Trump, calling him, at one point, “a blowhard”.
And yet, now that death has come for George HW Bush and he holds no sway in this world, now that the snap of his fingers cannot protect him from the fate suffered by every mortal or from the black sun of infinity, it is those fingers in that remote Australian morning that I cannot shake from my mind.
Partly this is because I ruefully understand that, for all the elder Bush’s shortcomings, I would rather have a finger like his on the nuclear trigger than that of an ignorant bully and self-aggrandizing, insecure liar who can extinguish all of humanity with a simple command (and who also ominously brays that “we are not going to apologize for America ... No more apologies”). But time has also given me a different perspective on that incident in Sydney.
Today that arrogant wave of the elder Bush’s hand appears more forlorn, almost delusional in its certainty that his blue-blooded dynasty would endure and prevail. Jeb’s ignominious defeat - the favorite son who was supposed to be the anointed winner of the primaries and the election itself - forewarned of a pseudo-populist rebellion against privilege and prerogative; an anti-elite, anti-corporatist surge from vast swaths of the country that rode the boorish and unenlightened Trump into a White House where his presence would have seemed, to the Bushes as to most of humanity, as inconceivable as it was offensive. The world did not belong to George Herbert Walker Bush and his children after all, at least not in the way he dreamed it.
Even less does it belong to me or my children or the children of most of those living on this planet today, so many of us farther than ever from affecting our own destiny.
Because what cannot be denied is how that imperial gesture of his that morning in Australia continues to exemplify all that is wrong with the patriarchal world the elder Bush reigned over, and that was complicit in creating the America that ultimately led, despite his own wishes, to Trump taking power, the unfortunate America we are doomed to share.
George Herbert Walker Bush does not rest in peace.
Nor do we.
• Ariel Dorfman is the author of Darwin’s Ghosts, and the collection of essays Homeland Security Ate My Speech