As U.S. President George HW Bush in 1992 tried “a smoking gun” to kneecap his White House rival Bill Clinton politically, the British government delved into its archives for sensitive information. So, has the Bush camp demanded foreign intervention to help him win an election-the accusation that President Trump was impeached?
“Such a guy doesn’t deserve to be president,” President Bush said about Clinton to his sister.
He saw the young governor of Arkansas, who was the same age as the eldest son of Bush, as a scoundrel and was sure that he could roll over him.
But the president underestimated Obama, an adversary so politically talented that his rise to the White House was foreseen when his school teacher was only seven years old.
To the mystification of Bush, the success of his saxophone-toothing rival in opinion polls also questioned the severity of revelations about his draft-dodging past.
The Republican, a decorated fighter pilot from the Second World War, wrote to his diary: “I’m tired of lying and ducking on the draft and not coming clean.”
Bush had another problem-his campaign was as stagnant as the U.S. economy in recession.
He turned to his colleague, U.K. Prime Minister John Major, for support across the Atlantic.
The British Prime Minister’s come-from-behind general election win in April 1992 was proclaimed as a blueprint for the U.S. president by American conservatives.
Bush had an extraordinary relationship with Major, his brother-in-arms from the Gulf War between 1990 and 1991, as was previously revealed in the BBC’s transcripts of his private conversations. He once spoke of giving him “a love letter” and told the British PM to defeat Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock “obviously, we’re cheering for you.”
Prominent, accused opponents, gave back the favor.
Two UK Tory panjandrums, architects of the surprise victory of the PM, traveled eight weeks before the U.S. election to Washington and persuaded the Bush team to focus attacks on the character of Clinton.
The campaign of the president employed an opposition research expert in Britain to hunt for evidence.
What happened next was either a bureaucratic disaster or a terrible act the U.K.’s political interference with a friendly nation’s internal politics.
At some point in early October 1992, to escape the Vietnam draft, the Home Office checked its immigration nationality division to see if Clinton had applied for British citizenship while at Oxford University from 1968-70.
Briefing reporters on the record, the department said its “comprehensive” search was performed out of “sheer helpfulness” to the public. However, it typically dismissed reporters with the standard reply that it did not discuss individual cases.
Any agreement was found on the Democrat, although it remains an open question as to how Whitehall would have treated any such political scandal if it had been excavated.
A frustrated Bush would dictate to his diary that the same month, “we can’t get this smoking gun on Clinton.”
All the Major was able to offer him good wishes.
During a final burst of campaigning two days before the November election, the British Prime Minister called Bush on Air Force One.
“I wanted to wish you all the best and a big hurrah for the home stretch,” said Major, according to a transcript of their conversation at the Bush Presidential Library in Texas.
But the wrong horse he had backed-Clinton trounced Bush.
According to biographer Jon Meacham, the humiliated one-term president returned to the White House one day after he lost.
Bush dictated to his diary that he thought to himself: “Why did this country elect a dodger draft in the name of God?”
A month later, the winning Clinton did not hide his annoyance when the Home Office publicly acknowledged that he had performed the file check.
“We should have more urgent business,” he said of British officials during a morning jog in Little Rock, Arkansas when asked about the controversy.
On the same day, December 6, 1992, Major wrote to the president-elect of the United States a letter of apology.
According to a copy of the correspondence that was declassified just last year by the United Kingdom National Archives, the British Prime Minister said he was “disturbed by the news that emerged concerning our home office’s inquiries about your time in Oxford.”
“I’m just sad,” said Major, “that it’s been done playfully up to now. I hope the trouble is going to be short.”
There is no hint of the response from Clinton.
Major went on an official working visit to Washington later that month. During the journey, he had hoped to mend fences with the elected president.
But Clinton refused to meet him-it was described as a snub by the Washington Post.
Liberal M.P.s jeered the prime minister at the House of Commons in February 1993 with the so-called exclusive partnership on ice when he denied taking sides in a U.S. election.
Margaret Beckett, the deputy leader of the opposition, was among parliamentarians who skeptically shook her head at Major’s statement.
“And probably a little bit more than a nod and a wink, ‘ If you can find anything, George [ HW Bush ] may be thankful.
“Because it seemed to me [ the search for the Home Office records ] like the kind of thing most civil servants would be wary of doing.”
Whoever felt it was, says Beckett, it was “a big mistake.”
Major, now a knight of the realm, refused approval of the Home Office file request in a statement to the BBC.
His spokesperson, Dame Arabella Warburton, says: “Sir John’s friendship with President George HW Bush was indeed close to working and personal.
“Home Office reviews on George Bush’s presidential opponent Bill Clinton, however, were not approved by Sir John, nor had any knowledge of them.”