We do the exact same dance every time that someone politically powerful dies. The elite establishment speak only about the positives of someone’s life, and chastise those who bring up the negatives. John McCain’s death was the perfect example of how far our political and media establishment will go to whitewash someone’s errors, as McCain himself said that he regretted his choice of Sarah Palin as VP, yet when Vox Politics Editor Laura McGann brought Palin up on Twitter, she got torn apart by the Very Serious People who dominate our major media.
We’re seeing the same process play out now with George H.W. Bush’s death. He did do some good things, and any eulogy omitting them is committing the same sin that those who refuse to acknowledge his faults are doing, but yet again, his literal crimes against humanity are being dropped in favor of rose-tinted coverage.
Many of the positives spoken about the 41st president in the wake of his death centered around how personable he was, as his former Chief of Staff told CNN.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also spoke of Bush's “kindness and simplicity” after his death. This letter that Bush wrote to incoming President Bill Clinton in 1993 resurfaced, demonstrating again how warm and welcoming the elder Bush could be.
That said, many of these fawning profiles of his personality went to far, and created a man who simply never existed.
The maxim of “do not speak ill of the dead” is a largely good norm that American culture has adopted. Not only is it in poor taste to denigrate the recently deceased, but they have family members and friends who could be hurt by words that do not need to be spoken at that moment. However, we need to stop applying this truism to people with immense power. They have a responsibility to the rest of us and when they fail at their duties, it is our responsibility to point them out, so as to let other powerful figures know where the lines are drawn. If we excuse actual war crimes in the wake of someone's death, we are just creating room for the next generation of politics to repeat the atrocities of the past.
By all accounts, George H.W. Bush seemed like a hospitable person to those in and around the White House. However, there are incredibly negative parts to his legacy that harmed millions of people, and ignoring them to only document his kindness towards political and media elites in the wake of Bush's death is journalistic malpractice.
I mean, this is just embarrassing (to be fair, embarrassing is Cillizza's brand).
George H.W. Bush won the presidency in 1988 off the back of the famed racist Willie Horton ad that was far from an aberration—it was emblematic of the kind of campaign that he ran. Lee Atwater is one of the most influential Republican consultants ever (he was a partner in the same lobbying firm run by Paul Manafort and Roger Stone), and Atwater ran Bush's 1988 campaign. In 1981, Atwater said this about the Republican strategy to win elections:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
There is a direct line between the Republican Party of Donald Trump and George H.W. Bush. Saying otherwise is ahistorical. The modern Republican Party could not be who it is without Bush and his son's effort to push them in this Trumpian direction. According to Bush's own campaign manager, the best strategy for Republicans is to run on racism, and he did. This is what all the gushing “civility” profiles (intentionally?) miss. He was nice to those who lived comfortable lives, but to those not a part of Bush's protected class, he was anything but.
(the source for this claim is in the book about the Bushes, The Family, by journalist Catherine Kelly)
The following story is an infuriating look into how far Republican politicians—Bush included—will go to keep up an inherently racist War on Drugs.
In 1988, the United States shot down a commercial Iranian airplane over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 civilians on board—including 66 children—and George H.W. Bush said this in response:
“I will never apologize for the United States of America ever. I don’t care what the facts are!”
Speaking of Donald Trump, here’s an excerpt from the New York Times in 1992 detailing how Bush pardoned a litany of people who were under investigation by the special counsel appointed to probe the arms for hostages scandal known as Iran-contra:
But in a single stroke, Mr. Bush swept away one conviction, three guilty pleas and two pending cases, virtually decapitating what was left of [special counsel prosecutor] Mr. Walsh’s effort, which began in 1986. Mr. Bush’s decision was announced by the White House in a printed statement after the President left for Camp David, where he will spend the Christmas holiday.
Mr. Walsh bitterly condemned the President’s action, charging that “the Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.”
Mr. Walsh hinted that Mr. Bush’s pardon of Mr. Weinberger and the President’s own role in the affair could be related. For the first time, he charged that Mr. Weinberger’s notes about the secret decision to sell arms to Iran, a central piece of evidence in the case against the former Pentagon chief, included “evidence of a conspiracy among the highest ranking Reagan Administration officials to lie to Congress and the American public.”
George H.W. Bush was a Republican through and through, and the main reason we find ourselves in our present malaise is thanks to the last generation of Republican politicians. Believing that the GOP is the problem, yet H.W. represents a return to some kind of normalcy is betrayed by the facts of history. This is the exact kind of mentality that has led us to a world where black kids go to schools named after white supremacists and confederate generals. The American myth is that we are not defined by our actions, but by our stated beliefs. Our actions are aberrations that supposedly should be forgotten the moment we pass away. That we find ourselves stuck in the same fights over and over and over again is no coincidence.
Bush did do some good things. He reauthorized the Clean Air Act, and that was the last time Republicans seemed to truly care about the environment. He helped give the Cold War a soft landing, as his attention to detail and experience in the CIA were instrumental in ensuring that the seemingly infinite number of now loose Soviet nuclear weapons didn’t fall into the wrong hands. He signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is universally regarded as one of the most pro-civil rights bills ever put into law in this country. He also signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which led to a 40% increase in legal immigration. He really did do some good things.
But he also did lots of bad things. Bush likely violated the Geneva Convention when he bombed retreating Iraqi troops on the so-called Highway of Death. He also slow-walked help for the AIDS epidemic even after it killed 100,000+ people, many of them gay men. Omitting these actions from a president’s legacy is whitewashing crimes against humanity. This is what many in the media simply don’t get: writing a eulogy about a person with immense power and democratic responsibilities while completely removing either the good or bad doesn’t make you a journalist, it makes you a propagandist.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.