I chuckled when I heard that Boris Johnson used his farewell to Parliament as PM to insist he was leaving “with my head held high”. Instantly, I remembered seeing George Dubya Bush lead the first-ever meeting of the G20 countries in Washington, D.C., in November of a crash-haunted 2008, shortly before he handed power to Barack Obama. Bush stopped to say farewell to my boss, the UN Secretary-General.
“How do you feel about retirement, Mr President?” I asked, behaving like the journalist that I am, rather than the UN diplomat I became.
Perhaps Bush was even a role model of sorts
“I’m leaving with my head held high,” Bush told me. Pause. “Yes, siree, with my head held high.” I remember thinking that if you have to tell yourself something twice it’s because you don’t quite believe it.
Boris Johnson has been compared, rightly on occasion, to Donald Trump. But the past three years, watching from afar as my country weathered the Boris phenomenon, I’ve come to believe his precursor was George Dubya Bush. Perhaps Bush was even a role model of sorts.
Consider the Boris schtick — feigning foolishness as the bumbling semi-clown and kissing off any embarrassment with laughter laced by disdain. Think candidate George W. Bush during the Millennium election of 2000 — jumbling words, laughing at his gaffes and choosing to make his battle with the cheerless and pedantic Al Gore about “who would you rather have a beer with, or go out on a date with?” Yes, believe it or not, that was his strategy, alongside being a CEO President, focussed on the big picture with tiresome details left to others. This was surely a playbook for Boris.
And then Bush, memorably for those of us watching, made everyone laugh at a major Republican party gathering by remarking that his fellow dinner guest, esteemed Conservative commentator William Buckley, wrote a book while at Yale University. “And I read a book at Yale,” said Dubya, stressing the singular.
Consider the lying. Boris has an infamous penchant for porkies, from Partygate, to the Downing Street wallpaper, to whether he knew a senior lieutenant was a serial groper of fellow men. Dubya Bush carried a litany of such, from his days a “fighter pilot” who somehow avoided Vietnam, to the creation of his personal fortune via a baseball team in Texas, to his relationship with a huge energy conglomerate in Texas — Enron — that went bust after being his lead donor on the road to the White House.
In the words of the late sharp-tongued Texan commentator Molly Ivins, speaking to me as Dubya became President just eight years after his father left the White House: “The Bush family thinks their poop don’t smell.” Students of the Boris period might well consider that gem as they examine the Johnson tribe.
Now Boris is dressing up as a pilot from Top Gun
Dubya Bush, as I recall, did not think twice about bending the truth, or breaking the law, to have his way. Think about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, based on the false claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction capable of hitting major capitals in less than an hour. Not true. And then consider the irrefutable evidence that the United States broke the law with the use of illegal detention and torture. This time it was the White House saying “not true”. Until, well, it was proven true. Whereupon they had lawyers re-write the rules.
The Johnson Government has done likewise. We Brits might like to say, well, we’re not guilty of torture. But when it comes to law-breaking, we have only to examine the proroguing of Parliament at home — illegal according to our own Supreme Court — or the way Johnson has sought to break the very Brexit deal his government made over Northern Ireland. I hesitate to mention Rwanda and the Johnson plan to send migrants there. Let’s just say that I recall a boss, the UN Secretary-General, insisting that we speak to the Rwandan government about human rights violations. No more needs to be said.
I can well imagine defenders of Bush and Boris championing their defence of Freedom and Democracy (capital letters). Think Dubya in Afghanistan and Iraq. Boris in Ukraine. Point taken. But the Bush response to the devastating attacks of 9/11 became a crucible of terrible pain, for Afghans and Iraqis as well as Americans. I’d rather not think how Boris the Buccaneer would have reacted to a 9/11.
He certainly delighted in making Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky his new best pal, but the visits to Kiev looked as deeply shallow as the day Dubya Bush flew his own fighter-plane to the Pacific in 2003 to celebrate “Mission Accomplished”. A sad, clownish act, if ever there was one, given the murder and mayhem that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now Boris is dressing up as a pilot from Top Gun.
The true sadness, surely, lies in considering this. George W. Bush and Boris Johnson were leaders who changed our worlds. For the worse. They were demolition experts, of a kind. Dubya Bush with his wars, poorly planned and woefully executed — shredding American credibility on everything from military prowess to human rights. Johnson, with his Brexit at all costs, with his cavalier Bush-like “shaping of the truth”. In the process he trashed, as his role model had before him, his country’s reputation in the world at large.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe