Within my short collection of “I was there at moments which changed history”, I would count a debate between Ronald Reagan and George Bush in Nashua, New Hampshire, in January 1984, writes Brian Wilson.
Bush was seen as a shoo-in for the Republican nomination. Reagan sponsored the debate and, unknown to Bush, invited other hopefuls to appear. Bush protested, Reagan said piously there was no way he would allow his fellow-Republicans to be excluded.
It was a classic stunt. When the moderator, the editor of the Nashua Telegraph, asked Reagan to conclude his homily and hand back the microphone, Reagan delivered the classic one-liner: “Mr Moderator, I paid for this microphone.” If there is one thing Americans understand, it is entitlement bestowed by money.
How they cheered! That moment changed the campaign and history. Polling swung vehemently towards Reagan and never moved back. I can still picture Bush emerging from the hall, like a boxer hit by a sucker punch, complaining of Reagan’s ungentlemanly conduct.
Ten months later, I happened to be in the right hotel lobby when Bush was summoned from his slumbers to be told that Reagan had, quite unexpectedly, made him his running-mate. Eight years after that, the old CIA man duly ascended to the throne.
My next encounter with George Bush was in 2001 when I represented HM Government at the tenth anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation. My fellow passenger was Lady Thatcher, by then in repetitive mode. “We’ve got to stand by them,” she advised me, of the Kuwaitis. I was happy to concur.
“We should have finished the job,” she declared (for the first of many times). Again, I agreed (and had said so at the time). If Saddam Hussein had been removed in response to blatant aggression, much subsequent trouble might have been avoided.
“But I was gone by then,” Lady Thatcher continued with splendidly undiluted rancour, setting the scene for some entertaining encounters once her successor John Major flew in with Bush – the two architects of not proceeding to Baghdad. Later in the flight, we continued our conversation with the same one-liners in evidence but there was one additional thrust of the dagger. “Dear George Bush,” intoned Lady Thatcher. “But such a weak man.”
It is a sentiment far removed from this week’s obsequies in Washington and when you look at what’s there now, weakness was not the worst insult to throw at a President.