The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Tribute to George H.W. Bush – 5 December 2018

The text of Sir John Major’s tribute to George H.W. Bush, published in The Times on 5 December 2018.

Very few leaders have been as qualified for high political office as George HW Bush [obituary, December 3].

His early career as a navy pilot left him, at the end of the Second World War, a 21-year-old veteran who had seen death, faced death, and thus achieved the rare balance in perception that such experiences bring.

I came to know and admire him during his presidency. We were allies, we became friends, and that friendship lasted to the very end of his life. As a human being he was one of the most gentle, wise and deep-down decent men I have ever known.

A politician, yes — but not at all costs. The dark side of politics was not for him. George Bush had an open heart and an open mind. He was always more comfortable acknowledging the virtues of opponents rather than abusing them.

And if you were lucky enough to become his friend — and yes, I mean lucky — you were a friend for life. George’s gift of friendship was as remarkable as it was deep. He was a true citizen of the world, and his friends came from every corner of the world.

At Walker’s Point, Kennebunkport — the Bush family’s coastal home in Maine — guests would feel the full force of George and Barbara’s warm embrace. Family members, young and old, would come and go throughout the summer months. Children would run riot on bikes and go-karts, and dogs would scamper over the rocks in pursuit of seabirds that would never be caught. But there were some things that were taken very seriously indeed: sport and games. George was very, very competitive. Taking part was important, but winning was all, be it golf, tennis, horseshoes or fishing. Fishing was normally the one sore point. George was always on the lookout for bluefish, but alas, they also seemed to be on the lookout for George — more often than not they proved elusive, even for the presidential fishing rod.

This gave George another idea for water sports, Kennebunkport-style: he would take the wheel of his motorboat and head off at speed into the open ocean in an attempt to outrun his Secret Service escort boat. Discretion prevents my revealing which boat won.

Life was certainly never dull at Walker’s Point. But it was real. And always, for George, his balm and refuge. On his 80th birthday George gathered some guests: Brian Mulroney, Mikhail Gorbachev, myself and many others. The weekend-long celebrations included a country and western concert and a parachute jump — by George, of course. He suggested that I might like to join him in the jump, an invitation that I had little difficulty in declining.

Over the past two decades I have travelled extensively to every corner of the earth. Wherever I have gone — and especially in the Near and Far East — I have found an affection for George HW Bush that exceeds that of any other political leader I have known. That is due partly to his policies — he reached out to every country and every continent — but also, on a more personal level, to the friendships he made, and kept. The telephone was almost umbilically attached to George. He would call family and friends at the drop of a hat, often for no other reason than to simply say hello. When I became prime minister his was the first call I received. After my election defeat in 1997 he was, once again, the first to call, with comforting words and an invitation to Kennebunkport: “Get yourselves over here, John,” he said, “the bluefish are biting.”

Yet despite his own generosity of spirit, he could still be hurt. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait he said immediately, “This shall not stand”, and subsequent events proved that he meant it. Margaret Thatcher’s remark, “This is no time to go wobbly, George”, was unfair and wounded him without cause. Even so, in later years he spoke of Margaret only in terms of affection and respect.

Notwithstanding the public offices he held, even that of the most powerful man on the planet, there was nothing in George Bush’s life that was more important to him than family. He and Barbara were married for 73 years. If George was the high chief of the clan, then Barbara was the maypole around which they all danced. It is impossible to overstate Barbara’s role in George’s life and career, or her ferocity in defending his interests against all-comers. Theirs was the most extraordinary partnership.

George and Barbara Bush would forever mourn the loss of their daughter Robin, who died of cancer at a tragically young age, but they looked on with pride and joy as their other five children carved their own way in the world.

George W and Jeb took to politics, becoming governors of Texas and Florida respectively. George W, of course, became the second Bush to call the White House his home, and his parents lived through every moment — every high and low — of his presidency. Neil, Marvin and Doro led less public lives, but no less impactful.

Each one of their children has been true to the Bush family maxim of giving far more than you receive, and their personal dedication and commitment to so many noble causes is already being mirrored by their own children. Of all the legacies of which George and Barbara would be proudest, this would be the one.

In a world that so often admires the cheap and tawdry, it is not easy to find the words to sum up the life of such a good and gentle man who at his core was devoted to public service. But one mighty pen has done it. As Shakespeare put in the mouth of Hamlet: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”

Indeed, we shall not.