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The Whitewashing of George H. W. Bush

Elite nostalgia and anti-Trump sentiment are leading to one-sided reminiscences.

Mike Sargent/AFP/Getty Images

In the last few days, journalistic eulogies have abounded for George H. W. Bush, who died at the age of 94 on Friday night. It’s established tradition for honoring former presidents. But as Jon Allsop points out in The Columbia Journalism Review, the warm remembrances of Bush also display a distinct trend: evaluating the forty-first president specifically as a foil who highlights the perceived failings of the current commander in chief.

Coverage of Bush’s life, Allsop notes, has beendominated by favorable comparisons to President Trump. Bush’s death, much like McCain’s before him, became a metaphor for the death of civility in politics. A warm letter Bush wrote his successor, Bill Clinton, was held up as an artifact of bipartisan comity, as BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen noted in an insightful post. Many outlets highlighted Bush’s broad public popularity ... And on cable news, in particular, commentators portrayed Bush as an honorable man who did politics the nice way. On CNN, Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under Bush, summed up much coverage when he said, ‘Politics need not be mean and nasty, and he lived by that.’”

There are genuine reasons to praise Bush. Although he could be brutally demagogic when running for office—aside from the racist “Willie Horton” ad released by his allies, Bush’s 1988 campaign relied on the portrayal of Bush as a true American who loved the Pledge of Allegiance, as opposed to the unpatriotic “Greek” Michael Dukakis—Bush was an institutionalist who tried to make government work. That meant reaching across the aisle and working with Democrats in a way that now seems inconceivable, leading to the passage of Americans With Disability Act, the amendment of Clean Air Act, and accepting tax increases to lower the deficit. Bush’s institutionalist instincts also stood him in good stead in foreign policy, where he dealt with world-changing events like the end of the Cold War and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait by deftly deploying alliances and international organizations like NATO and the United Nations.

At the core of Bush nostalgia, Franklin Foer argues in The Atlantic, is a yearning for an older, more responsible “Establishment.” Specifically, an older elite, “hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige,” Foer writes. “For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it weren’t.”

Still, to remember Bush only for his successes ignores the grievous faults of that Establishment—particularly its cruelty towards socially marginal groups. Foer, along with David Greenberg writing in Politico, does well to remind readers how Bush opportunistically opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in his failed bid to win a congressional seat in Texas. As a member of the Reagan administration, he opposed sanctioning Apartheid South Africa. The Willie Horton ad is rightly seen as a precursor to Donald Trump’s race-baiting politics.

A cynical willingness to deploy racism isn’t the only point of overlap between Bush and Trump. Bush stuck with a flawed Supreme Court candidate—Clarence Thomaseven after credible allegations emerged that he was guilty of sexual harassment. And Bush’s cynicism about human rights (notably his mild response to 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre in China) calls to mind Trump’s equal indifference to the issue.

Observers worried about Trump pardoning those, such as Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, who could implicate him should recall that this, too, was a precedent set by George H. W. Bush.

Perhaps the worst act of Bush’s career came at the end of his presidency when he pardoned a bevy of Iran-Contra defendants—including Caspar Weinberger, Robert McFarlane and Elliott Abrams—to protect himself from further investigation,” David Greenberg notes. “As vice president, Bush had been present at key meetings about the arms-for-hostages deal that would become the Reagan administration’s greatest scandal, but he had never been fully candid about his support for the policy, insisting disingenuously that he had been ‘out of the loop.’ Late in Bush’s presidency, special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh had learned of diaries that Bush had kept, which he hoped to introduce as evidence at Weinberger’s upcoming trial. Bush’s pardons thus shielded himself from any additional investigation.”

Finally, any full accounting of Bush’s legacy has to include his wretched record on LGBTQ issues. “Bush was as captive to the evangelical right on social issues—and thus a decidedly Republican president—as was his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, who cultivated religious conservatives as a potent political force and bowed to their anti-LGBTQ agenda as the AIDS epidemic mushroomed in the 1980s,” Michelangelo Signorile writes in the Huffington Post. On a host of issues—ranging from AIDS funding to the ban on gays in the military to collecting data on the prevalence of teen suicide among young gays—Bush sided against the LGBTQ community.

Bush unquestionably had his merits, but setting him up as an anti-Trump requires selective vision. It is true that there’s much about Bush that sets him apart from the current president, notably a commitment to democratic norms and international institutions and alliances. But there are many other ways in which Bush was a forerunner to Trump, conjuring up the forces of atavistic bigotry to win elections, only to die when those forces had taken complete hold of his party.

Bush nostalgia is, in its own way, a variation on Trump’s appeal to Make America Great Again. Where as MAGA-heads want the old America of white dominance, Bush fans fetishize a more selective part of the past: the reign of the Eastern elite.