George H. W. Bush (Bush 41) was the presidential candidate whose election I worked against. I was a full-time paid staffperson on the campaign team of Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for president in 1988, and I had far from good feelings about the then Vice President. Partisan that I was, I saw Bush as, among other things, a hypocrite and a demagogue.
His hypocrisy had been apparent to me since 1980 when, after calling Ronald Reagan’s tax cut plan “voodoo economics” in the Republican primaries, he had accepted Reagan’s offer of the vice-presidential spot on the Republican ticket. He then further established his willingness to be hypocritical when, at the 1988 Republican convention, he had pledged with “read my lips” assurance that he would not raise taxes as president. (I knew he would have to raise taxes with the budget deficits exploding in Reagan’s final years.)
His demagoguery became apparent in the heat of the ’88 campaign when he first blamed Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts, for the pollution of Boston’s harbor. The charge was outrageous, since Dukakis had been fighting the Reagan-Bush Environmental Protection Agency, which had been slow to offer support for the cleanup, while the administration had twice vetoed the Clean Water Act.
But the worst of Bush 41 was his use of Willie Horton in a racist campaign ad. Horton was a convicted murderer who was granted a weekend furlough in 1986. Horton violated the terms of the furlough and ended up raping a woman in Maryland, after assaulting and beating her fiancé. He was ultimately apprehended and is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in Maryland. The Bush campaign ran ads that blamed Dukakis for granting Horton’s furlough. (Dukakis favored the furlough program but had no role in Horton’s furlough.)
That version of George H. W. Bush, the nation’s forty-first president, was not on display or mentioned much last week during the many reviews of his life of public service. Instead, what was highlighted, especially in the eulogies at his funerals, but also by the media, which took the occasion of his death to note how much his Republican Party and the tenor of the nation’s political discourse has changed in the last two decades, was the grace and dignity of the man and the good will that he sought to spread both within the country and around the world during his presidency (and throughout his life). And especially when juxtaposed against the dominant attitudes expressed continually by the nation’s current president, Bush 41 was made to seem saintly in the reviews of his life that followed his death last week.
So, it is probably fair to contemplate this question: Who was the real George H. W. Bush? Was it the guy I pretty much despised in 1988 or the guy who was extolled as an exemplar of political virtue and integrity last week?
And the answer is probably a little bit of both and a whole lot more of neither.
Death is that part of the human condition that both gives life meaning and makes us all aware of the end point that we all will one day reach. Much religious belief springs from the reality of death, and funerals are a way to offer hope in the face of death. Typically, at a funeral, we want to believe that the deceased person is in a better place, with all the other loved ones who predeceased him or her. And to give meaning to that thought/hope, the deceased person must be deemed worthy of such a beautiful after-life. And so we memorialize the decedent with eulogies that make him or her worthy of the tears we are shedding and the “place” where he or she is now “at peace” or “resting” or enjoying the bounties of an afterlife that his or her good life has made possible.
Of course, many other reasons account for the way the dead are remembered, especially at funerals. The decedent’s family and close friends are grieving the loss of a loved one, and they want to remember him or her as a person they loved, admired, respected, cherished. Thus, the person’s best qualities and accomplishments are to be noted, emphasized, while the person’s frailties, failures, and irritating idiosyncrasies will be unmentioned, maybe even buried with him or her, never to be thought of again.
But another factor was in play in the positive vibes that emanated from the Bush funeral last week, as it did in the McCain funeral several months earlier. With the death of both men, the country had a chance to feel normal again, if only for the moment. And, collectively, as a nation, it felt good. It felt good to honor men who had been true public servants (whatever their flaws and irrespective of the poor judgments they had occasionally, if not frequently, made), true patriots, true constitutionalists. And in contrast with the current brand of the American presidency, the country, en masse, needed to remember when it felt good to come together in times of sorrow and to rejoice in the spirit of being part of the great democratic experiment that is the United States.
And so, for all of those reasons, the George H. W. Bush I remember and the Bush 41 who was eulogized so lovingly (and remembered by the media so positively) can be understood to be one and the same person. Bush was a public servant with impressive credentials (in addition to his terms as vice-president and president, he served as a member of Congress, was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chaired the Republican National Committee, was the ambassador to China, and served as Director of the C.I.A.), who had also fought in World War II as a decorated pilot. With his wife Barbara, to whom he was married for 73 years, he fathered six children, one of whom died in childhood, while another became president of the country eight years after his father was defeated for a second term.
As the country’s president, Bush did some good things and some not very good things. He supported and signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) but seemed to have little interest in HIV and AIDS or in offering assistance to those in the gay community who were most heavily affected by the disease. In foreign policy, he led the war against Saddam Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait and forced Iraq to relinquish that land, but he offered little meaningful objection to the Chinese government’s attack on its protesters in the Tiananmen Square massacre. And while he is still criticized by some for not forcing Saddam Hussein from power at the end of Gulf War I, he is praised, in contrast to his son, for avoiding the chaos that resulted when Bush 43 “completed” his father’s “unfinished” war. I applauded Bush 41 for ending Gulf War I when he did, albeit I would have preferred no war at all. I have frequently and continuously condemned his son for the folly, illegality, and immorality of the invasion of Iraq in 2003; the consequences of that decision continue to plague us and the world to this day. I feel certain that Bush 41 would never have initiated that war. I also admired the father for the times he was able to rise above partisan party squabbles (as he did in passing the Clean Air Act and in gaining Republican support for the ADA).
I will never be happy about the results of that election in 1988 or of how Bush let the campaign be run. And I will always have complaints about the Bush 41 presidency, including his grant of pardons to the Iran-Contra perpetrators. But amidst all the tributes paid to him last week, I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a tear or two in remembering a “kinder and gentler” man.