Goodbye, cool

As a kid, I heard a lot of popular music over a cheap transistor radio shoved under my pillow at night so my parents didn’t know I was staying up late listening. Everything was muffled and I often misheard the lyrics, which was frustrating and often embarrassing when I talked about the latest tunes with my pals at school. But at the distance of decades, I remember it as impossibly cool and almost beyond imagination for today’s wannabe hipster kids with instantaneous access to bottomless music libraries and studio-perfect headphones.

Part of the allure was the music, for sure, but there were also disk jockeys back in those dark ages, who were real people with real personalities and quirks and tastes in music. They had cigarette-and-whiskey deep voices, encyclopedic knowledge of music, a virtually endless string of friends they’d mention, and seemingly knew all the places to hang out and dig the scene. I imagined how amazing the radio booth must be, how sophisticated the off-air conversations. People of a certain age will doubtless remember their names: Al ‘Jazzbo’ Collins, Don Sherwood, ‘Emperor’ Gene Nelson, Jim Lange, Terry McGovern.

Once I started working in college radio and had a few internships in real radio stations, I realized the reality was nowhere near as good as my boyhood imaginings. Also, radio was then in a period of radical change. Disk jockeys weren’t thumbing through libraries of vinyl to select just the right tune for the moment and vibe but playing songs on pre-recorded cartridges, repetitively calendared and timed out to the second. Many DJs were adopting loud and wild on-air personalities designed to attract attention and rabid young followers. These days, with the widespread advent of digital technology, most stations are programmed remotely by the computer banks of national syndicates; there’s not a soul left in the studio, just the whir and hum of machines that have the consumer data necessary to maximize audience and profit in real time.

In its day, KGO was among the coolest places around, hosting shows remotely from San Francisco’s hippest nightspots, interviewing the city’s hipoisie and airing locally produced content. Farewell, KGO and all the radio stations that represent a now-departed era of human cool.

Sanity, Check

There are failures and accidents, of course, but for the most part, modern machines do what they are designed to. For example, cars transport people. That’s what they’re specifically made for. There are breakdowns and collisions and other events that prevent them from doing so at certain moments, but they mostly work and mostly carry on the function of transport. And there are certainly unintended consequences of them fulfilling their mission, like collisions, and pollution and climate change, which weren’t their purposefully designed function, but which happen anyway. There are costs that come with those unintended consequences, like pollution control equipment, or the high costs of electric-only cars, or auto collision insurance.

On balance, most people accept these unintended consequences and costs as a part of their individual decision to use a car. A society has to account for the cumulative negative effects of individual decisions like these and pay to mitigate or eliminate them, like building safety barriers or parking, or requiring auto registration and insurance. Economists call these costs externalities.

Now let’s look at guns, specifically the type of rifles used by most mass shooters these days, something akin to the ubiquitous AR-15. What are they expressly designed to do? They’re designed to kill people. In the case of AR-15s and their kind, they’re designed to kill a lot of people really fast and really accurately. Killing people isn’t incidental to its function, or an accident; it’s the intended purpose.

These so-called assault rifles are in a different league than handguns when it comes to bodily damage. That’s what they’re designed for, to rip bodies apart. I once spoke with a former colleague of mine, a trauma surgeon of long experience who has consulted with the U.S. Department of Defense on assault rifle wounds. She said, once entering the body, the rounds from assault rifles like the AR-15 completely obliterate internal organs and turn flesh into something like an oozing liquid. Field medic log entries of wounds created by these rifles are like descriptions of scenes from a horror film:

“Chest wound from right to left, destroyed the thoracic cavity.”

“Stomach wound, which caused the abdominal cavity to explode.”

These wounds create injuries that are not always possible to recover from or degrade the victim’s quality of life to an unbearable level, even if a major artery or organ are not directly hit.

Because of my work, I have personally seen fresh handgun wounds many times, but I’ve never seen anything close to the kind of carnage visited on human bodies by assault rifles. To even imagine what the scene at Uvalde looked like, or Sandy Hook, or any of the other mass shooting locations, makes me physically ill. If we must allow personal civilian ownership of firearms in this society, can we at least remove these particular machines, which are purposefully designed and used to completely destroy human bodies?

Can we at least agree on that small concession to sanity?

Thanks, Mike

No one quite knew what to expect when an unknown guy from Army with an unpronounceable and unspellable last name arrived at Duke University in 1980 to helm an historically successful college basketball program. Forty-plus years, 1,100 wins (the most in NCAA Division I history), 5 NCAA championships, 12 trips to the Final Four, and 3 Gold Medals as coach of the U.S. Olympic team later, success may seem as if preordained but, of course, it wasn’t.

Mike Krzyzewski, or Coach K as he came to be called, had doubters from the start. For one thing, the Blue Devils program was already nationally known and respected; the Duke community of students, alumni, faculty and fans had come to expect Adonis-like athletes and mighty victories over storied opponents, especially the hated Tarheels of UNC. The athletes in his first class of recruits looked like hardworking everymen, not future NBA stars. When, at the end of Coach K’s first year, the team failed to make the NIT tournament, much less the more desirable NCAA tournament, there were serious calls for his ouster.

It may have been his West Point training or something more inherent in his personality but he started an all-out charm offensive on the Duke campus. I arrived there in 1981 and Coach K was seemingly everywhere. At charity tennis tournaments. At fraternity and sorority dinners. Shaking hands in the student union. Walking the quads. Like, everywhere.

Over time, Coach K revealed his coaching personality and philosophy as well. Brainy. Team ball, not one-0n-one showmanship. Dedication to the long haul. Hard work. Personal and team discipline. Commitment to academic as well as athletic performance. The team was clearly rebuilding and it was clearly going somewhere positive.

With the benefit of hindsight, of course, we know where this story is headed…

…year after year (40+ of them) of enviable success.

…a program generally considered “clean” by the standards of college basketball – which is to say generally free from financial, academic, criminal and sexual scandals.

…former players who find future success in basketball, sure, but also in business, medicine, law, academics, coaching, broadcasting, whatever, and universally express their gratitude for his mentorship.

…a coach who has earned the respect of his peers, who can offer candid and insightful perspectives on the nexus of sport and academics, and who holds an appointment in his university’s business school, not as a vanity-serving courtesy but because of his engaging books and lectures on leadership and organizational behavior.

The legacy of Coach K and the program he’s built are undeniable sources of pride for the Duke community and, perhaps, sources of envy for others. He deserves appreciation and thanks on the occasion of the announcement of his retirement at the end of next basketball season.

In any decent and civilized society, Mike Krzyzewski would continue to be a source of emulation by coaches and educators for many years to come. Here in the U.S., we can only hope.

Fantasy vs. Reality

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Proud Boys, Boogaloo, Oath Keepers, Molon Labe, “militia” groups, 2nd Amendment worshippers, Klan members, other white supremacist groups. I’m sure by now you’ve seen these dime-store militia boys parading around state capitols and Black Lives Matter protests. AR-15s strapped to their newly bought military rigs, in a child’s idea of what a combat-ready tough guy would look like. Attempting to intimidate all who look upon them.

Word is they’re preparing to fan out across our great land on election day to ensure the accuracy of results. For you at home, that actually means these jerk-off desperadoes will be showing up to polling places in swing states to intimidate non-whites and Democrats/liberals in hopes of suppressing the anti-Trump vote.

Proves that everyone can be Rambo in their own dreams, I guess.

How many are actually prepared for the reality of discharging their firearms, of shooting another human being, of ending someone’s life? As Kenosha murderer Kyle Rittenhouse recently discovered firsthand, the burden of that reality is a lot heavier than basement video game fantasies might lead one to believe.

In real life, murder by firearm is horrific and ugly – and not just for the victim.

Last evening, our hospital received a victim of gun violence, who died soon after arriving. I wish I could say this was an unusual occurrence but it wasn’t. We see too many victims of gun violence here, as our hospital is our city’s trauma center. When someone gets shot, chances are good we’ll see them. You can read a couple of my previous posts about gun violence here and here.

This particular patient was a young man with, from the looks of it, a large and close family and a substantial group of friends. Many of these people came to our hospital unaware their son, brother, cousin, nephew, friend died and had the horrible shock of discovery when they arrived. And that reaction, dear reader, is something impossible to take lightly, impossible to forget.

One young man, who looked to me like a pretty tough character, like someone who’d seen and experienced a thing or two in life, sobbed uncontrollably in our courtyard, repeating over and over, “My heart, my heart.”

You don’t really want to know

I am sick to death of these juvenile idiots posing, posturing and parading around our country with their phallic firearms as if they were totemic power-sticks. The people I see doing so reveal their own stupidity, their impotence and their disconnection with reality. If they had even the slightest conception of reality, perhaps they’d stay in mom’s basement playing pretend tough-guy video games, where they belong.

If Only You Could See This

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The other day, I went into the intensive care unit where our most acutely ill COVID-19 patients are being cared for.

The unit is full, busy, well-staffed. Life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE in the trade) is stacked at regular intervals along the hallway so it can be easily and quickly accessed and donned by staff as needed. The rooms have sliding glass doors and the unit is built on a gentle curve, so all the patients are visible from the nurses’ station.

All the patients are being helped to breathe by one device or another. Drugs, liquids and calories are being pumped into them via long tubes from devices outside their rooms – a distance that allows the nurses to attend to the machines without having to enter the patient rooms themselves, which would require the donning of more PPE, in very short supply.

The unit hallway is filled with beeping, blinking machines and the computers that monitor them. Like a sci-fi movie from the 1960s, it’s the very image of cutting-edge modern medical technology.

The nursing staff is busy, one sliding aside her facemask to get a quick gulp of coffee, another for bite of lunch in between direct patient care and impromptu unit meetings. Someone described pandemic response as a marathon but in this unit, it’s being run more like a series of sprints.

I expected all that.

What I didn’t expect was the feeling I had of being in a sacred space, filled with heroes. And I mean heroes in the literal, classical sense: people who know they’re exposing themselves to increased effort and risk but do it anyway, to serve their patients and the broader community outside these walls.

Most people will never see inside a place like this. They would have a heightened appreciation for the human beings who work there if only they could.

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Fleet Week Feelings

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Most people have a pretty shallow view of my hometown’s political stripes and may have no idea how pro-military the history of San Francisco is. In the era of first European contact, the Presidio of San Francisco, the Spanish army’s garrison, was the city’s very first establishment (1776). Once California was admitted to the Union in 1850, San Francisco’s presidio served as the headquarters of America’s western army and was the headquarters of the 6th Army until the base was decommissioned in 1994. The city also served as a primary station of the US Navy’s Pacific fleet and the US Coast Guard. There are 3 Air Force bases in the greater Bay Area as well.

Many of the region’s past and current residents were first introduced to San Francisco as servicepeople, shipping to or from deployments overseas. There is genuine and heartfelt pride in the armed forces here, which have the San Francisco Bay Area as an area of particular recruitment focus.

My dad also served in the Navy as a ship’s engineer, during two wars. So, I have a more personal connection to those seafarers.

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People who don’t know that history of connection might be surprised at the size and enthusiasm of crowds for San Francisco’s annual Fleet Week celebrations. This year’s event, just concluded, was no exception.

Each Fleet Week, in addition to public tours and the parade of ships from the navies of many countries including our own, we San Franciscans have become accustomed to the roar of the Blue Angels swooping and buzzing our city. Thousands turn out to line the waterfront for a glimpse of the F/A-18s in performance.

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We had a couple of special guests in from out of town this past weekend, so we took them down to the Ferry Building for some good eats and a chance to see the Blue Angels up close. The show, of course, didn’t disappoint. It never does. The embarcadero was packed with folks trying to find the blue and gold air machines as they whizzed by, the roaring sound trailing them by several seconds. If you like crazy-fast speed and the sound of loud engines, this particular show cannot be beat.

But life sometimes reaches out in unanticipated ways to remind you of the importance of perspective, of the difference between entertainment and more important things.

I noticed the sound at first, in between the teeth-chattering roar of the jets; it was the whine of an old stringed instrument; a sound both familiar and foreign. I turned to see an old man in a old suit jacket hunched over an oud, playing something that reminded me more than a little of the old Greek and Turkish music that filled my grandmothers’ homes. The coffee can at his feet had a few scattered tips from passers by.

At that moment, the jets overhead became the distractions, this man the center of my attention. I walked nearer, listened more closely. And it was beautiful and moving. When he took a short break, I offered him a little cash and asked him,

“Turkish? From Turkey?”

“Syria,” he replied. He began to say a bit more when the Angels roared by again, causing him to wince a bit. When the noise diminished somewhat, he looked down and started to play another song.

I’d always loved watching the Blue Angels, been excited by their skill, thrilled by the speed and the roar of their engines. At that moment, though, I wondered what Fleet Week looked like through the eyes of this Syrian man playing the oud far from home. What feelings did he have looking at the parade of warships passing by his perch on my hometown’s waterfront? As the Blue Angels zoomed by, would he be thinking of loved ones being bombed back home? Did he know that half a world away, the Kurds in his homeland were at that very moment being betrayed by the American president, even as thousands wearing American flag t-shirts and baseball caps walked by him?

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It Won’t Matter

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There’s an old saying that generals prepare to fight the last war, not the next one. And like most old sayings, there’s a kernel of truth packed in with the cliche. Case in point? The Democratic Party is preparing to fight the 2020 presidential campaign with the tools and assumptions of a now-dead American political past. Trump, together with constant support from the Murdoch media empire, has changed the way politics is done in this country.

Democrats seem incapable of understanding that basic truth. They seem to believe if only they disclose the right information to the public, Trump will resign, like Nixon did, or Republican elected officials will turn against him, like they did against Nixon during Watergate, or that he will be roundly turned out of office come next election.

Breaking news: There will be no silver bullet. Richard Nixon is no longer the president. Trump seems to have no dedication to civic principles, no personal sense of shame and doesn’t behave like Nixon would have done. Our electorate, media and political institutions don’t behave the way they did 50 years ago either.

Evidence? The Mueller Report changed nothing. Evidence of Trump’s long-lasting and deep corruption changed nothing. His dog-whistle calls of ‘nationalism’ and racism changed nothing. His ignorance of world events, macroeconomics and even basic governance have changed nothing. His demonstrated inability to articulate ideas has changed nothing. His overwhelming narcissism, sexism, bigotry changed nothing. His anti-democratic predispositions have changed nothing. His self-evidently staged inch-deep patriotism? Nothing.

Other than ulcers and teeth grinding among those already predisposed to vote against Trump, there’s only been marginal electoral movement. Yet, Democrats behave as though continuing to point out more of these now well-established truths will somehow make Trump’s unsuitability for the presidency obvious to either him, in which case he’ll resign, or to other Republicans, in which case he’ll lose support in the legislature, or to the electorate, in which case he’ll automatically lose in 2020.

Spoiler alert: It won’t.

We’re not in 1972 anymore. We’re not dealing with civic-minded, well educated, rational members of Congress. Today, we’re dealing with a religiously-fueled personality cult. Trump could literally shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose any support. And by literally, I mean literally.

It’s just a little over a year until our next presidential election and if I had to set odds right now on a Trump re-election, I’d put it at 50-50, or better. Time to wise up, Democrats.

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One Human Thought

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Hang with me for a second.
There are people I like, people I respect, people I agree with and people I like hanging out with. And there are people I don’t. But I don’t have to agree with people to like them, at least not always. And some people who share at least some of my beliefs seem like creeps.
So where does that leave us?
I think it’s possible to see and even appreciate the humanity in many people who might pursue wildly different paths than we do, who believe in different visions of goodness, who articulate goals we cannot fathom much less align with.
And that brings me to David Koch, who died yesterday.
Koch and his brother, who took most of their income from hydrocarbons, funded some awful initiatives that contributed mightily to the ruination of the environment and harmed the health of a great many people. They skewed our American democracy in ways that served their interests and (I think) followed a twisted conception of what this country should be. And they funded a great many (again, from my perspective) good, beneficial and worthwhile organizations, most notably in the arts and in the field of cancer research.
The glee at his death and the personal demonization I’ve read about him today strikes me as beyond defense.
Sermon concluded.
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It’s a Conspiracy!

I been seeing some disturbing things lately under the general heading of conspiracy theories. So, I thought looking at classics might provide me some insight.

JFK – The assassination of President John F Kennedy was planned by the CIA and carried out by a large group of assets. Lee Harvey Oswald was set up to be the fall-guy, then murdered by a Mafia/CIA hitman before he could talk.

UFOs – The existence of UFOs has been known to government agencies for decades but the information has been hidden from the public for fear of widespread panic. Remnants of aliens and their craft are hidden in Area 51, in the desert southwest.

Paul is dead – Paul McCartney of The Beatles died in 1966 and the death was covered up by record companies to avoid a huge crash in sales. Faux Pauls were hired to carry on the charade. The Beatles themselves put coded messages into their records about Paul’s death, so fans would know the truth.

Apollo 11 – The 1969 moon landing was faked in a Los Angeles television studio.

Chemtrails – Chemical and/or biological agents are, without general public knowledge, being spread across the country by high-flying planes to achieve various evil purposes, such as weather modification, psychological manipulation, or population control.

Vaccines – Vaccines are not beneficial, or even benign. They are purposefully spreading disease and/or chronic illness. For example, vaccines were used by the CIA in sub-Saharan Africa to spread AIDS, and are spreading conditions, like autism, in the US.

New World Order and the Illuminati – A secret globalist power elite is conspiring to (or already does) rule the entire world through an authoritarian world government. The United Nations and European Union were harbingers of this secret movement and the process continues through groups such as The World Economic Forum (Davos), the annual Bilderburg meeting, the Bohemian Club, the Trilateral Commission and others.

Mass shootings – The mass shooting events seen in world media are fakes. Actors are hired to portray victims and their families.

9/11 – The terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center was actually conducted by either the US government or Israeli intelligence agencies, in order to create a case for increasing US military and financial support for Israel and increased US militarism in the Middle East.

Global warming/climate change – Climate change events, such as floods and hurricanes are reported inaccurately to either cover for super-normal inflation of energy prices, or to facilitate fundraising for anti-oil scientists and organizations.

Besides the fact that they’re all complete nonsense, what do these conspiracy theories have in common?

First, there are other, more fact-based, simpler and, frankly, better explanations available. There have, in fact, been a great many mass shootings in America, most recently, for example, in El Paso, Gilroy and Dayton. And there have been real victims. Because I work in an urban medical and trauma center, I have seen victims of gun violence and their families firsthand. No crisis actors.

Second, they suppose a world in which chaos is brought to order and the unexplained is explained. But this world does not exist in reality. The evidence of global warming/climate change is plain to see and obvious to markets. There is neither a cover-up, nor the artificial manipulation of prices. There’s no need. Energy prices and the ample profits earned by energy multi-national corporations are the result of very complex market forces, most notably consumer demand, not a backroom cabal of “globalists.”

Third, paying better attention to actual world events can help illuminate underlying forces a lot better than ginned up secret conspiracies only the smart or initiated know. Is there an actual global power elite? Sure as hell, there is. Are they hiding in back rooms or forested compounds? Nope. They’re right out in the open and they have and exercise political and economic power because they have money. You probably even know their names. No mystery in that to solve.

Now, let’s think about other, more contemporary conspiracy theories: Gun control, the deep state/QAnon, and elite pedophile rings.

Guns – Private citizens owning guns is part of America’s deep mythos, not so much its actual history. Some conspiracy theorists think of measures to regulate guns, even quite minor ones, as part of a larger hidden effort to completely disarm civilians in preparation for the world government (or federal government, for the smaller-scale thinkers among conspiracy theorists) takeover of the country and its citizens. Legislative efforts such as universal background checks, assault weapons bans and the regulation of ammunition are met as if they were the next coming of the Cossacks.

Here’s what is true and apparent: The US has many many problems with guns not shared by other developed countries. We openly demonstrate ourselves to be an immature and bloodthirsty people. For one thing, we use guns too often to kill each other, or ourselves. Almost ubiquitous access to guns (In some American cities and towns, you need only go to the local hardware or big-box store.) has made them the go-to tool for getting even and settling scores. I’ve written several pieces about them here, here, here and elsewhere. Historian Garry Wills wrote about guns as the American Moloch here.

Having a firearm in your home makes it very much more likely you’ll kill yourself – either by accident or purposefully – or your kids than that you’ll use it to protect yourself or your family from an intruder, much less government agents. Gun control measures are, in my opinion, reasonable solutions to the unsustainable levels of violence we create and experience in this country, not a path to world government hegemony.

Deep State/QAnon – QAnon is a unique animal. It details an alleged secret plot by the “Deep State” against Donald Trump and his supporters. Evidence cited by QAnon and its legions of “in-the-know” supporters include the tragicomic Pizzagate, a tale of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and a senior Democratic political advisor either running or facilitating a child sex-trafficking ring in the non-existent basement of a DC-area pizza parlor.

Is there a “Deep State?” There may be but there needn’t be. There are, in fact, plenty of people trying to undermine Donald Trump and they have very rational reasons for doing so, hardly any of them oblique or hidden. Trump has amply and publicly proven himself virtually illiterate, an oaf, a racist, a bigot, personally and politically corrupt, ignorant of the workings of his own government, uninformed about the basics of world affairs or even the real lives of his own countrymen, blissfully unaware of his actual job responsibilities, and using his position to enrich himself and his clearly ungifted children. I wrote about him presciently here.

Elite Pedophiles – And, finally, some thought about conspiracy theories supposing the existence of elite rings of pedophiles and their enablers.

American children are kidnapped, trafficked and used for the sexual gratification of sick or evil adults. Are they flown to private islands on private jets for those horrible purposes by global business and political elites? Possibly. But it is much more likely they’ll be abused and exploited by people they know best and trust the most: most likely of all, their own family members, or their teachers, coaches, or parish priests. For every Jeffrey Epstein, there are literally thousands of people who present greater and more proximate threats to children, much closer to home.

Almost every real story of the abuse of children involves numerous bystanders and enablers, many of whom know the child or children involved. And whether because of denial, discomfort, or fear, these individuals do not intervene. Our real history is full of examples. I wrote about this topic here. Why aren’t our biggest and baddest conspiracy theorists taking the big and bold action they call for so loudly in their own cities, much less their own churches, schools and homes?

And if we’re really interested in addressing the wholesale (and wholly preventable) abuse of children within our borders, let’s deal with the fact that 16 million US children are malnourished and 2.5 million are homeless.

And finally, let’s remember the cruel and vile treatment our own government is regularly dishing out to children on our border with Mexico – ripping them away from their parents, caging them, giving them insufficient healthcare, food and water, and physically and emotionally torturing them.

Here’s some tough-to-swallow truth: JFK was killed by Oswald. Vaccines save lives. Guns kill. 

Throughout our history, I believe people have created and believed conspiracy theories, even in light of clear evidence to the contrary, for obvious reasons: reality is too bitter, active engagement is too difficult, looking in the mirror just too harsh.

George, the First

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George HW Bush may be the most underappreciated president in my lifetime. For my money, he was among the most intelligent, most thoughtfully connected to world affairs, and most humanly decent – in short, among the greatest.

Some might forget the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell during Bush’s tenure, not his predecessor’s. It was a singular moment in world history. In response, there was no chest-beating, no adolescent crowing from the American president, no showy rah-rah cheers but sincere offers of support and peaceful cooperation. A lesser person in the Oval Office might have used the opportunity for personal aggrandizement, or America #1 hyperbole. Bush was matured beyond that need. He personified the best of American strength: scale, connection, commitment, concern for others, and honor.

Some saw his deliberately measured stewardship of the Gulf War as a sign of weakness. In fact, it was a moment of extraordinary strength. He assembled a wildly diverse coalition to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait and kept it together and functionally effective. When the coalition’s objective was met, it stopped fighting was disbanded. Many in America thought Bush should have pushed on to overturn Saddam Hussein but he resisted, for the benefit of regional and coalition stability.

Some saw Bush’s backtrack on his ‘no new taxes’ campaign pledge as a breach of conservatism. It was, in fact, completely necessary after the blindly spendthrift policies of his predecessor. Bush knew it would finish him politically but took the sacrifice nonetheless, for the benefit of the country.

I had the pleasure of meeting Bush only once (with Barbara) but have met and spoken with a number of people who knew him very well. George HW Bush was, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent human being, a brilliant thinker, a mature self-aware person who personified the best of America – not our bluster but our honor and our human decency.

If, as many commentators have been saying over these last few days, he was a symbol of a political  America that is truly gone forever, we should not expect to see his like in the Oval Office again, much to our loss.

May his memory be eternal.

Former President George Bush

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