Ends, Means, and George H.W. Bush

by Neil H. Buchanan

Four days before Donald Trump became president last year, the satirist Andy Borowitz faux-reported that George W. Bush was "eagerly counting down the days until he is no longer the worst President in U.S. history."  This was hilarious, and it reminded me that the junior Bush was once on the opposite end of the joke, with people saying that George H.W. Bush was the beneficiary of a quick rewrite of history due to his once-wayward son.  As one friend of mine put it in the early 2000's: "W is proving that he's a loyal son by doing everything so badly that his father looks good by comparison."

The elder Bush's death last weekend has brought forth more than the standard praise for recently deceased politicians.  Bush, in large part because of his stylistic contrast with Trump, is receiving positively glowing coverage — even more glowing than the rewrite of his legacy that his son’s disastrous presidency inspired.

Merriam-Webster defines "hagiography" as a "biography of saints or venerated persons" or an "idealizing or idolizing biography."  It is difficult to decide whether Bush's public remembrances are merely hagiographies or, as I described the public response to John McCain's death, a deification.  Both men's images benefited enormously from the political moment, and as a result, both have been praised to excess.  That is not to say that there is nothing to praise, but it is obvious that the memories of both are being used in large part to take swipes at Trump.

Trump deserves the swipes, of course, but the facts about McCain and Bush should not be papered over in doing so.  As David Greenberg put it in Politico: "Respect for the dead must coexist with respect for the historical record."  Consider this column my statement of respect for the historical record regarding George H.W. Bush.

The journalist Jon Meacham wrote a column for The New York Times in which he tried to draw a distinction between Bush as a campaigner and Bush as an elected leader. "For every compromise or concession to party orthodoxy or political expedience on the campaign trail, in office Mr. Bush ultimately did the right thing."  In short, the ends justify the means.

But this does not wash, for two reasons: political expedience has consequences (more significant consequences, I will argue below, than the results of policy choices); and Bush most definitely did not ultimately do the right thing on far too many issues.

Meacham's reference to "compromise or concession" is a highly veiled acknowledgement that Bush won the presidency by running a blatantly racist campaign -- or, as Meacham put it euphemistically, Bush became president "after winning the hard-hitting 1988 race."  Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell put it more bluntly, saying that Bush's admirers "eulogize his decency (racist Willie Horton ad notwithstanding)."

The Post's Paul Waldman deftly refutes the revisionist history, now being peddled by some on the right, that Bush was not responsible for the racism of his campaign -- a case that is built on the absurd distinction that the most infamous Horton ad was not actually produced by Bush's campaign apparatus.  Waldman shows that the Bush operation was built upon exploiting racist fears, all the way down to a fact of which I had been unaware, which is that Horton had never in his life gone by "Willie" until the Bush campaign decided to make him a symbol of black sexual predation.  "William Horton" did not sound scary enough to stoke white panic, but "Willie Horton" sounded, shall we say, blacker.

Add to that huge blot on Bush's record his reliance on other culture war wedge issues, including his attacks on Democrats' patriotism via their supposed rejection of the Pledge of Allegiance.  The Republican convention in 1988 was a parody of hyper-nationalist flag waving, and that was hardly a mistake, nor was it merely generic patriotic stage management.  Bush insisted on bashing his opponent as a "Harvard liberal," pretending to be a Real American from Texas, notwithstanding his extremely privileged upbringing and Yale credentials.

And let us not forget that Bush's first consequential decision as his party's nominee was to put Dan Quayle on the ticket.  Quayle, for those who were not aware (or who have been trying to forget) was the first draft of Sarah Palin (who, as I have noted using a different metaphor, was the beta version of Trump).  The desire for power for Bush was so strong that he was willing to risk putting the most unready man in history in the Oval Office.

Even if Meacham's description of Bush as having ultimately done the right thing were true -- and again, it is not -- what can we say about the impact of his reliance on racism, stoking of the culture wars, character assassination of his opponent, and willingness to put the world at risk by throwing the proverbial red meat to the fundamentalist Christian base of his party?

Would the political culture be the cesspool on the right that it is today if Bush had refused to go along?  I suppose that is possible, but we do know with certainty where it led, and Bush was more than willing to add to the disgusting ooze.  As I noted above, my conclusion is that this more general destruction of American politics is far worse than the sum of Bush's accomplishments; but even those who disagree with that overall assessment should at least be honest about how Bush not only paved the way for the "politics of personal destruction."  In many ways, he invented it for his own benefit.

But what of his achievements?  Less than a month ago, in my seminar "Distributive Justice and the Law," I had the students read about the Americans with Disabilities Act, which Bush signed.  In some ways, the ADA is the last major piece of positive social legislation passed in this country, and it was truly a blessing for many people's lives.  It is to his credit that Bush did not veto it, but we should also remember that both houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats at the time.  (Newt Gingrich, whom Bush enabled in important ways, did not break the Democrats' four-decade hold on the House until 1994.)  Bush did not stand in the way of this progressive law, which is not nothing; but it is hardly proof of his policy greatness.

He did stand in the way of the Family and Medical Leave Act, insisting that Senate Republicans water down the bill again and again -- even to the point where Orrin Hatch actually thought that he had worked out a compromise that all would accept, only to be told to go back and ask for more concessions.  The FMLA did not ultimately become law until Bill Clinton had beaten Bush in 1992 (and, to his own discredit, Clinton refused to allow Democrats to reintroduce the stronger version of the law that Bush had nixed).

What about other matters?  I lost a brother to the AIDS epidemic, and I vividly remember being incensed by Bush's unwillingness to do anything to stop that crisis, even saying to friends that I thought Bush was directly responsible for many of those deaths.  A letter this week in The Times ended with this:
"Mr. Bush’s appalling indifference to the epidemic spurred one activist, Mark L. Fisher, to describe his impending death from AIDS in 1992 at age 39 as a 'political assassination.' So while it is understandable to extol the life of Mr. Bush, we must also remember to honor the memory of those thousands of AIDS victims who died on his watch."
Harsh?  Obviously.  But if we are to put Bush in historical perspective, we must note (contra Meacham) that Bush's lust for power did not end when his campaign ended.  The people before whom he knelt in nominating Quayle believed that AIDS was God's wrath on homosexuals, yet even though he was governing and not campaigning, Bush did not tell them: "Hey, I'm president now, so campaign pandering is over."  And people died.

Bush hired hack speechwriter Peggy Noonan (who, in her later role as a pundit, has made such brilliant arguments as the claim that she knew several Republicans who had been audited while Barack Obama was president, so Obama was obviously targeting Republicans).  It was Noonan who coined the "kinder, gentler" phrase that many now use to defend Bush, but that political spin does not change the fact that he was anything but kind and gentle in his conservatism.

And what are we to make of his elevation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court?  This was a parody of Republicans' twisted description of affirmative action, an obviously racially motivated elevation of an unqualified African-American to the highest court in the land.  Did Bush truly think that this was the best person for the job?  Are you kidding?  Again, Meacham is simply wrong to assert that "in office Mr. Bush ultimately did the right thing."

Many of Bush's admirers are now making a big deal of his handling of foreign affairs, including what we now know was a wise decision not to drive on to Baghdad after driving Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait.  What few acknowledge is that the entire affair was nothing less than botched foreign policy by Bush.  As The Times's Leslie Gelb wrote in 1991:
"The real blunderer in the fateful weeks before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was ... President George Bush -- and/or top aides acting in his name. The senators who are about to investigate the matter should look beyond the weak messenger to the senders and their message."
Again, this is supposed to be Bush's forte, but the historical record shows that he led us into an unnecessary war.  On a related matter, I have no doubt that we were better off having Bush than his son or Trump in office as the Cold War ended, but that is grading on the most incredibly generous of curves.

Finally, it is important to recall that Bush missed a golden opportunity to stop Donald Trump from becoming president.  If Bush and his family had emphatically come out in favor of Hillary Clinton in October or early November of 2016, it is difficult to imagine that they could not have swung enough Republicans to deny Trump his sliver-thin wins in key states.  Bush did confirm to a reporter that he voted for Clinton, which is something; but he could -- and should -- have done more than that, even at his advanced age.

Perhaps the most enduring image of the senior Bush in my mind involved a quick exchange with a reporter during the 2000 Florida recount.  As Bush arrived in a limousine and rolled down the window, a reporter asked him how his son was handling the stress and uncertainty of the legal and political mess.  Bush's response: "Like a man!"  More than anything else, Bush was haunted by "the wimp factor," and his defensiveness carried over into his decisions (and the lessons he taught his son) in ways that ultimately harmed the Republic.

Having written such a harsh assessment of George H.W. Bush, I do want to add that I would take him in a minute over any Republican president or candidate since Bush left office.  He did do some good things, for which I applaud him.  But the judgment of history has not been kind to Bush, and his passing should allow people to mourn the death of a fellow human being without pretending that he was something very different than the man he was.