He had run for president before, but had found only a limited constituency. On his second try, he lost in Iowa and looked like he might struggle to live up to the hype, before rebounding in New Hampshire and then winning almost every contest en route to the nomination. Despite this dominance, his electoral prospects looked shaky, with polls showing a regular deficit to his Democratic challenger, a distant but effective political operator whose every misstep incited wall-to-wall media coverage. But after a successful convention, he caught up and won with a surprisingly large margin in the Electoral College. In office, he nominated to the US Supreme Court a credibly accused sexual harasser, who narrowly won confirmation. He cultivated close relations with the totalitarian regime in Saudi Arabia despite its undeniable contributions to the destabilization of the Middle East. Partially exposed to a blockbuster White House scandal involving illegal collusion with a foreign power, he wielded the presidential parody power aggressively to let multiple coconspirators off the hook. I’m talking, of course, about George H.W. Bush.
The narrative attending the death of George H.W. Bush (hereafter “Bush 41”) is predictable – he ruled a Kindler Gentler America, as a Moderate Sensible Republican who adhered to The Norms. It’s all bullshit.
Always, always be skeptical of any framing, especially a political one, of the past as a safer place. For example, I find myself doing this sometimes about the late 2000s and early 2010s only to recall that same-sex marriage was illegal throughout the period. The Trump presidency has made countless pundits think that every moment up until Jan. 20, 2017 was a golden age of civility and political stability, with the Bush dynasty a pivotal part of the old guard.
As my opening paragraph shows, Bush 41 governed in many ways like a more polite Donald Trump, and the similarities between go further, to him being credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women. I mean, his last ever tweet was a note of congratulations to Maine senator Susan Collins on her decisive vote to confirm sexual harasser Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Much will be made of Bush 41 signing into law various bills such as the Americans With Disabilities Act and important updates to environmental and civil rights laws. Left out of those discussions will be any acknowledgment of the majorities Democrats held in both houses of Congress for the entirety of Bush’s term, and how Democratic representatives and senators masterminded these initiatives and would have overridden a veto.
If you want to celebrate the Bush 41 years, presaged by a hateful campaign filled with race-baiting proto-Trump ads like the infamous “Willie Horton” spot (created in part by the man who would go on to found a little PAC called Citizens United), best to stick to foreign policy, where he oversaw a relatively graceful end to the Cold War. That’s it (oh and his nomination of David Souter, who turned out to be a secret liberal).
I’ve already seen political scientists talk about how Bush 41 was the best president of their lifetimes, which seems like respect for the recently deceased more than anything. To me, he did far less to benefit the average American than Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. I will grant that he was much better than his idiotic son or the GOP’s cartoonishly criminal Nixon and Trump administrations, and superior even to his more lionized predecessor. He’s the best elected GOP president of the past 50 years, but the bar is ridiculously low.