A comment on the life and times of George H.W. Bush, after a day of eulogies:
It seems proper, here in the chaos of the Trump Era, to feel a certain nostalgia over the passing of a man so closely identified with the Old Establishment values of discipline, restraint, and nobleness oblige. There are also legitimate reasons to honor GHWB personally: He was a straight-up 21-year-old aviator hero during the naval war against Japan, and I think historians will be generally respectful toward his presidency’s brutally steady foreign policy.
The note he left on the Resolute Desk for Bill Clinton is a worthy artifact, too.
But let’s not over-romanticize the man, or the clan, or the Mid-Century establishment that produced him. For all his capabilities, GHWB was anything but self-made. Like John F. Kennedy before him, GHWB had been meticulously groomed and promoted into power by both his family and the various branches of the “Eastern Establishment.” And the values and practices of that Establishment were, to put it mildly, problematic.
I can’t render a simplistic judgment about that Establishment, though, even though I am philosophically opposed to its very existence. There are moments when Realpolitik demands the iron fist in the velvet glove. And I suppose we’re better off with a few hypocritical, arrogant Kennedys and Bushes striding handsomely around scenic New England than a nest of Borgias patronizing painters and poisoning popes.
But it is rose-colored journalistic malpractice to portray the first President Bush as some benevolent national father figure. The man was essentially a genetically engineered patrician, so steeped in the Establishment’s arrogance and self-evident superiority that he was an absolute disaster as a politician. For better and for worse, GHWB was all about governing, and while that sounds like “exactly what we need right now,” that’s just not the way democracies function.
Yesterday’s eulogies seemed to absolve Bush of politics on the grounds that he outsourced his campaigns to underlings. But his 1988 run for President was so base, so horrible, so racist and devoid of substance that it forced American journalists to reconsider every aspect of mainstream political coverage. By debasing political discourse to win the White House, GHWB debased himself, his family and the nation.
And let’s not forget that Bush, in his determined rise to Leader of the Free World, made political calculation after political calculation. Ronald Reagan led the conservative revolution AGAINST Bush’s Republican Establishment, naming the ever-opportunistic GHWB as vice president merely to pacify the party’s anxious Ivy League axis. When Bush channeled Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and spoke the words “Read my lips: No New Taxes,” he was not only lying, he was pandering to a populist political and cultural movement he neither understood nor respected.
Why should anyone be surprised that this populist, government-hating movement turned on him in 1992, splitting the conservative/independent vote with third party candidate Ross Perot and sliding Bill Clinton into the Oval Office?
I don’t think Bush could have stopped that movement. It flowed from the generational tides of the tumultuous 20th century, and it’s our burden today. But the irony of GHWB’s legacy is just how much he contributed, inadvertently, to the destruction of his own class and its traditional values.
Today we live in an age of New Money American Oligarchs, who float atop a degree of income inequality that would make Gilded Age Robber Barons blush. These are people with all the arrogance of the Bush Family, yet none of its urge toward responsibility and duty. And these people enjoy this ill-gained wealth and power because of the foolish policies and rhetoric backed by Republicans, including but not limited to George Herbert Walker Bush.
So on the one hand, GHWB looks pretty good by comparison in the Age of Trump. But context is everything.