Nothing so perfectly reflects the hyper-phoniness of America’s mainstream political dialogue as the recent major media narrative of George H.W. Bush as a devoted public servant and model of civility.
Not speaking ill of the dead around the family of the deceased is proper social etiquette, but presidents’ legacies are public property. Presidents are elected by the people (usually), they are entrusted with the public interest, their decisions impact millions and ripple for decades. If we value democracy, we owe it to ourselves—and especially to future generations—to trade in false praise for an honest examination of Bush’s legacy.
The cold, hard fact is that when H.W. Bush’s record was freshest in our minds, during the 1992 presidential election, he received the lowest percentage of votes of any major party candidate since Republican Alf Landon in 1936. Running while millions of Americans were suffering through a recession, he was seen as an out-of-touch patrician who was unfamiliar with grocery scanners and gazed impotently over the wreckage of inner-city Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots. Not long after Bush lost, news titan Walter Cronkite told an interviewer that the country had lightened its step with the election of Bill Clinton because we knew that we would soon have a president who actually cared about everyday people. Those of us who had been paying attention during the long national nightmare that was 12 years of Reagan-Bush couldn’t wait for Bush to leave office.
In the days after Bush’s death, one of the common refrains among corporate toadies posing as journalists was that Bush consistently put the interests of the country over the interests of his party. In reality, most of his policy positions as vice president and president were narrowly partisan, none more so than his choice of Dan Quayle as vice president in the run-up to the 1988 presidential election.
Quayle was billed as a vibrant new voice on the national political scene, a view to the future, but the truth was that Quayle was a reactionary and a supreme lightweight, a child of privilege who had won a Senate seat through dumb luck—family control of the media throughout much of Indiana and the Ronald Reagan landslide of 1980. Like Sarah Palin after him, Quayle was a national embarrassment, an airhead with minimal experience and little policy knowledge who often assaulted the English language when he went off-script. Like Sarah Palin after him, Quayle’s presence on the ticket was a craven appeasement of right-wing knuckle-draggers in the Republican Party base that reflected very poorly on the judgment of the candidate at the top of the ticket.
Another common refrain among corporate toadies posing as journalists is that Bush was civil, humble, a fundamentally decent man, a claim that is contradicted by Bush’s actions overseas and here at home.
As CIA director in 1976, Bush oversaw Operation Condor, in which the U.S. covertly supported anti-communist regimes in South America (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia) that tortured and butchered tens of thousands of dissidents and jailed hundreds of thousands more. When American Ronni Moffett and Chilean diplomat/dissident Orlando Letelier were killed in a Washington D.C. car bomb explosion, Bush’s CIA purposely misdirected the FBI investigation with a public assessment which covered up the role of Chilean intelligence in the political assassination. After four years in which the GOP was out of power, Bush rekindled his working relationships with Latin American dictators backed by right-wing death squads as Ronald Reagan’s vice president.
Domestically, the Bush-was-a-fundamentally-decent-man talking point is exploded by Bush’s campaign for president, in 1988. At the time, many Americans had had enough of the selfish and mean-spirited Republican policies that had predominated for the eight years prior. Bush, a blue blood who lacked the charisma of Reagan, was generally not seen as a sympathetic figure. Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis came out of the Democratic convention in the summer of 1988 with a double-digit lead over Bush.
To overcome his deficit in the polls, Bush ran one of the most empty, loathsome, and dishonest campaigns in U.S. political history. In place of issues that actually mattered in peoples’ lives, Bush political adviser Lee Atwater expertly manipulated the lizard brains of undecided voters with a series of distractions. As election day neared, voters were subjected to ads about Dukakis’s veto of a measure mandating that Massachusetts teachers lead their students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, an absurd non-issue that Bush hammered Dukakis on repeatedly. Bush also made the suspect claim that Dukakis, who had a better environmental record than Bush, was responsible for the pollution in the Boston Harbor, rather than the notoriously regulation-averse Reagan Administration EPA.
Most disgraceful of all was the Bush campaign’s Willie Horton ad. During the ’70s and ’80s, some felons were eligible for weekend furloughs. A part of the prison reform movement, the policy was common in both Republican- and Democrat-run states; Ronald Reagan had supported the policy as governor of California, even after two furloughed inmates were accused of murder.
Willie Horton was a black felon serving a life sentence in Massachusetts for a 1974 murder. Given a weekend release in 1986, Horton stabbed a man and tied up and raped his fiancée. The Bush campaign capitalized on this horrific incident by running a series of ads introducing Willie Horton to the American public. On the surface, the ads presented Dukakis as weak on crime, but the deeper motive was to play to the racism and fear of black men among white voters. The campaign was so ugly that Atwater apologized to Michael Dukakis on his deathbed.
Once elected, Bush washed the dirt from his hands and did some good things. Many historians credit Bush with an adept response to the end of the Cold War. Bush said that his administration would be a “kinder, gentler” version of Ronald Reagan’s domestically, and in some instances this was true. He signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act and broke with anti-tax extremists in his party to negotiate a budget deal with congressional Democrats that kept the skyrocketing Reagan-Bush deficit at bay with budget cuts and a small tax increase on the wealthy. He also worked with Congressional Democrats to update and renew the Clean Air Act and appointed the highly-qualified moderate Republican David Souter to the Supreme Court.
But as could be expected of a politician in a party run by and appealing to people with authoritarian personality types, Bush for the most part hewed to Republican orthodoxy. After 15 years of no large-scale American interventions overseas following the horrors of Vietnam, Bush made militarism cool again by unilaterally invading former ally Manuel Noriega’s Panama under false pretenses, killing 3,000 civilians and destroying thousands of homes in the poverty-stricken El Chorrillo neighborhood of Panama City. One year later, after Bush’s ambassador April Glaspie had given Saddam Hussein a green light to go into Kuwait by saying that the U.S. “[has] no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts,” Bush invaded Kuwait under false pretenses to expel the military of former ally Hussein. Often hailed as a successful intervention, the operation laid waste to both human and military infrastructure, leading to the death of over 150,000 Iraqi civilians. The war also elevated the profile of Dick Cheney, whom Bush had plucked from relative obscurity to become Defense Secretary, putting Cheney on a path to become one of the most destructive leaders in American history.
Though Bush was hot to trot when it came to war, he was lukewarm at best in dealing with the biggest threat civilization faced, forcing negotiators to water down the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change because “the American way of life is not up for negotiations.”
Domestically, Bush vetoed the Family and Medical Leave Act (later signed by Bill Clinton) multiple times. He reversed his earlier support for a woman’s right to choose, appointing mostly anti-choice judges to the lower courts and sustaining the Reagan Administration’s “gag rule,” which stipulated that clinics receiving foreign aid from the United States couldn’t perform abortions with their own money or even provide counseling about abortion. He fell short in responding to the AIDS crisis that was terrorizing America’s gay community and showed scant concern for working-class Americans who were suffering through an economic downturn when he vetoed the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act of 1991, which would have extended unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed. Though he was found wanting on these vital issues, Bush somehow made time in his busy schedule to hawk a purely token Constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning.
Another one of the common refrains among corporate toadies posing as journalists was that Bush, like John McCain, was “a patriot.” The assertion in its most basic formulation is that military combat + occasional departures from party orthodoxy = “patriot,” no matter what else the person in question has done in their public life. The problem with this claim is that an objective analysis of the public record shows that Bush, like McCain, was more often than not an opportunistic conservative Republican, the furthest thing imaginable from a patriot.
Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Bush’s record on race issues. In 1959, when Bush moved from the East Coast to Jim Crow-era Texas, his family house had a covenant which read “No part of the property in the said Addition shall ever be sold, leased, or rented to, or occupied by any person other than of the Caucasian race, except in the servants’ quarters.” As a candidate for Senate in 1964, Bush criticized the Civil Rights Act for undermining state’s rights (i.e. undermining individual states’ “rights” to discriminate on the basis of race) and leveled the spurious claim that the bill was unconstitutional.
After getting into the White House with the virulently racist Willie Horton ad, President Bush doubled down on Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, which was putting record numbers of black men behind bars, and even had the DEA lure (and entrap) a teenage African-American drug dealer to the park across from the White House so Bush could stage a photo op on the evils of crack-cocaine. Bush vetoed the Motor Voter Bill (which made it easier for people of color to register to vote), the Civil Rights Bill re-write, and the Voting Rights re-write. After congressional Democrats weakened protections against discrimination to suit Bush’s demands, he signed versions of the latter two bills, but even as he did so, his hatchet man C. Boyden Gray appealed to the worst instincts of prejudiced white voters by pushing an executive order to end Affirmative Action in federal contracting.
Bush’s contempt for black Americans was most obvious in his decision to appoint Clarence Thomas to fill Thurgood Marshall’s seat on the Supreme Court. On the surface, Bush was appointing one black judge to replace another, giving the appearance of offering African-Americans a place at the table, but the reality was the complete opposite. Where Marshall had spent his adult life working on behalf of civil rights and civil liberties, Thomas had pimped himself out to the Reagan Administration, which was hostile to both. Bush maintained his support for the appointee even after it came out that Thomas had likely sexually harassed Anita Hill, whom he had supervised at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and other women who weren’t called to testify in Senate hearings.
Since Thomas squeaked through Senate confirmation, he has proven to be perhaps Bush’s worst legacy, both in terms of his lack of legal chops (he went ten years at one point without making a single comment in Supreme Court hearings) and in his 19th Century belief system. Thomas has not only voted with the GOP majority on all of the most undemocratic, precedent-shattering decisions—including Bush v. Gore and Citizens United—but has consistently sided against the interests of the black community. Though he clearly benefited from Affirmative Action, Thomas voted to kill it in Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena. In Shelby County v. Holder Thomas joined the white Republican judges who decided to gut the Voting Rights Act, under the false pretense that it was no longer necessary, which paved the way for Republican voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise voters of color.
One year after the Thomas appointment, Bush ran for re-election. Though he had been considered a shoe-in after Gulf War I, his approval ratings had fallen precipitously as the economy started to stagnate. Worse yet, he was facing Bill Clinton, a fresh face with uncanny political skills backed by a party eager to win after 12 years out of the White House. Unable to exploit Clinton’s womanizing due to his own infidelities, seen as out of touch by Americans struggling through the recession, and saddled with positions on most issues that were to the right of the average citizen, Bush fell back on the lowest trick in the book: attacking Clinton’s patriotism. As a young man, Clinton had organized protests of the Vietnam War while living abroad. Though organizing the protests actually showed that Clinton had been on the right side of history, and though the protests had happened two decades earlier and had little to no relevance to 1992, Bush engaged in the typical Republican tactic of throwing shit at the wall, hoping it would stick.
Clinton won in a landslide.
As a parting gift, right before leaving office, Bush pardoned six Republican officials who had committed felonies in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan Administration had broken federal law by secretly funding the Contras, a CIA-backed mercenary force seeking to overturn the communist leadership in Nicaragua. The pardons wiped away six years of work by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, flushed tens of millions of taxpayer dollars down the toilet, and conveniently guaranteed that Bush would never be held accountable for his direct role in the scandal and the lies he had told investigators.
Unfortunately, George H.W. Bush’s legacy didn’t end in 1992. In 2001, Bush’s oldest son took office after stealing a presidential election through a long list of sleazy tactics engineered by Bush’s second son, chief among them the disenfranchisement of thousands of black Floridians with a knowingly-flawed scrub list of the voting rolls. The whiff of scandal surrounding Bush Sr. would be eclipsed by the staggeringly-corrupt W, who manipulated the fear caused by 9/11 and the public trust invested in him to lie us into a war of choice that fractured Iraq along ethnic fault lines, created millions of refugees, left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, and cost taxpayers trillions of dollars—while actually making the region less stable.
W’s rigid adherence to right-wing ideology and string of colossal fuck-ups (the security failure of 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, the economic collapse of 2008) made Bush Sr. look benign and competent by comparison. Unlike W—and Reagan, and Donald Trump—H.W. Bush had both the intelligence and qualifications for the job and an interest in the process of governing. Also by contrast to Reagan, W, and Trump, H.W. Bush served his country in uniform and had some sense of noblesse oblige.
But by choosing the Republican Party as his home, H.W. Bush signed a deal with the devil in which he did the bidding of the most toxic forces in American life more often than not.
Favorably comparing Bush by temperament and experience to the surreally-infantile and inexperienced Trump gives corporate toadies posing as journalists the feeling that they are being “fair-minded” and “non-partisan,” but since when is being less awful than other Republican presidents an endorsement of one’s humanity, decency, or service to the republic?
Until the United States reckons honestly with its past, we will be stuck with fraudulent national narratives believed by a critical mass of credulous, politically-illiterate citizens who are ill-equipped in the voting booth, steadily perpetuating America’s downward spiral to the fate of ancient Rome.