George H.W. Bush Was Far from a Saint

George Herbert Walker Bush had his merits, especially relative to Trump. But he wasn’t without his faults, and neither he nor any other president should have his or her record whitewashed in the name of memorializing his or her memory. (Photo Credit: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum)

Though I wouldn’t wish death on anyone, for the sake of George Herbert Walker Bush and his legacy, he “picked” a good time to die.

This time, of course, is an era in which Donald Trump is President of the United States and the effective leader of the Republican Party, and unrepentant obstructionist Mitch McConnell is the Senate Majority Leader (and yet has the gall to call for Democrats to put partisanship aside!). If we’re judging by modern standards—and by “standards,” I mean that which may be eroding before our very eyes—”George Bush Sr.” is preferable to the boorish and petty Trump, a man who would rather denounce LeBron James than neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.

Perhaps simply being better than Trump—not exactly hard, but the idea remains—isn’t the sole factor in Bush’s lionization. That is, the bipartisan praise he has received in passing probably reflects genuine admiration for the man. Looking back at his legacy through rose-colored glasses, however, arguably doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to Bush’s presidential record.

Indeed, as some tell it, Bush Sr.’s political past was a checkered one. In a well-considered post for The Intercept, Mehdi Hasan speaks to “the ignored legacy of George H.W. Bush,” one involving obstruction of justice, racism, and war crimes. Hasan frames his considerations as such:

In the age of Donald Trump, it isn’t difficult for hagiographers of the late Bush Sr. to paint a picture of him as a great patriot and pragmatist; a president who governed with “class” and “integrity.” It is true that the former president refused to vote for Trump in 2016, calling him a “blowhard,” and that he eschewed the white nationalist, “alt-right,” conspiratorial politics that has come to define the modern Republican Party. He helped end the Cold War without, as Obama said, “firing a shot.” He spent his life serving his country — from the military to Congress to the United Nations to the CIA to the White House. And, by all accounts, he was also a beloved grandfather and great-grandfather to his 17 grandkids and eight great-grandkids.

Nevertheless, he was a public, not a private, figure — one of only 44 men to have ever served as president of the United States. We cannot, therefore, allow his actual record in office to be beautified in such a brazen way. “When a political leader dies, it is irresponsible in the extreme to demand that only praise be permitted but not criticisms,” as my colleague Glenn Greenwald has argued, because it leads to “false history and a propagandistic whitewashing of bad acts.” The inconvenient truth is that the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush had far more in common with the recognizably belligerent, corrupt, and right-wing Republican figures who came after him — his son George W. and the current orange-faced incumbent — than much of the political and media classes might have you believe.

In writing these words, Hasan fairly notes that Bush had his good moments, as people do—but that we shouldn’t overlook his bad ones either, especially not given his influence as President of these United States. 

For one, focusing on George H.W. Bush’s tenure as president ignores how he got there: namely, by using the racist trope of a black man attacking a white woman to appeal to voters’ fears and prejudices. A political ad sponsored by a PAC with ties to Bush’s campaign invoked Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who escaped a weekend furlough program in Massachusetts and raped a Maryland woman. By the logic of the commercial, Democrat Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts at the time, was to blame, and a later ad from the Bush campaign depicting criminals going through a “revolving door” struck a similar chord.

Bush dismissed the notion that the “Weekend Passes” ad in particular was racist, but today this would be roundly criticized by objective observers as one big dog-whistle playing on stereotypes of the black male criminal. Lee Atwater, who ran Bush’s campaign, even went as far as to apologize on his deathbed (Atwater died at age 40 from brain cancer) about the tactics used against Dukakis, which he characterized as an exercise in “naked cruelty.” Even if the idea to run this advertising didn’t originate with Bush, he signed off on it just the same.

Once Bush actually became Commander in Chief, there’s also the matter of how we justified our involvement in the first Gulf War. According to multiple investigative journalists familiar with the intelligence behind the military commitment in Iraq and Kuwait, we justified the use of military force there based on a fabricated, propagandized buildup of Iraqi troops threatening U.S. oil supplies on the Kuwait-Saudi Arabia border. And when we got there, oh the war crimes. Civilian casualties. Destruction of infrastructure used by civilians in an effort to gain leverage over Saddam Hussein.

Bush Sr. additionally did his part to continue and ramp up the war on drugs perpetuated by his predecessors. Here, too, was a largely fabricated situation—a young drug dealer was essentially set up by the White House so that Bush could use the arrest as a selling point for more spending on jails, prisons, and the like. All the while, his administration turned a largely deaf ear to the AIDS epidemic, fueled by adherence to ideology and misconceptions about the gay community. We may not have been bombing civilians in other countries, but here in America, the result was pretty much the same: more deaths and destroyed lives.

There are other points where #41 isn’t above reproach either. As vice president, he refused to cooperate with Special Counsel Lawrence Walsh in an investigation into the details of the Iran-Contra affair. There’s also the matter of his alleged groping of eight different women. As Hasan and others would therefore suggest, for all his ballyhooed “civility” and irrespective of how many first pitches and coin tosses in which he participated at sports contests (really, who cares?), George H.W. Bush has more in common with his son George W. Bush (see also going to war over faulty intelligence) and Donald Trump (see also gropingobstruction of justice) than his postmortem tributes will allow. It’s revisionist history, and a bad rewrite at that.


The treatment George Herbert Walker Bush and his legacy are getting is not unlike the hagiographic elevation John McCain received following his passing early this year. His military service, one-time defense of political opponent Barack Obama, and public rebukes of Trump overshadowed a legislative career that saw him vote in line with the current president in most cases and espouse the views of an unrepentant warmonger.

The unsavory elements of his presidential campaigning, notably selecting Sarah Palin as a running mate and unapologetically continuing to use a slur directed at Asians, likewise were glossed over by many journalists in the act of “celebrating his life.” A key aspect of that, no doubt, was the uncharacteristically robust access McCain and his campaign gave them while on the campaign trail. In an era when Trump is openly vilifying the press and aiming to restrict their privileges in covering White House business, McCain looks all the better by contrast. Is that good enough, though?

As for whether Bush was a “good man,” I can’t really say. On one hand, as Mehdi Hasan tells, he served his country dutifully and was a beloved patriarch. On the other hand, he engaged in obstruction of justice, propaganda campaigns to advance his agenda, race-baiting, and war crimes. It has oft been said that history is told by the winners. If Bush Sr.’s story were told by its victims, what would it look and sound like? What would the victims of the Gulf War say? Or the victims of the war on drugs? Or the people who have felt the ravages of HIV/AIDS? Are they remembering him so fondly? Does it matter that their voices are not so loud?

On that last note, it should. It’s great that people love their country and have respect for the office of President of the United States. It’s another to overlook their faults because of their outward civility, respect for the dead, or what-have-you. George H.W. Bush had his merits, but he was no saint. The same can be said for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and for that matter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

At the end of the day, these holders of the top political office in the land are human beings, flaws and all. In the name of demystifying the political process and telling hard truths, it’s time we stopped painting them in such a glorifying light.

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