If you were Very Online over the weekend, by early Saturday morning you had already glassed over every possible take on the passing of George Herbert Walker Bush: patriarch of America’s most prominent Republican family, congressman, CIA head, Veep, POTUS, statesman, symbol of a better time.
You probably also read that he was a race-baiting war criminal whose phony War on Drugs condemned hundreds of thousands of mostly poor minorities to rot in jail, who helped pave the way for the destruction of Roe, and who deliberately fiddled while the AIDS crisis burned.
You heard how he was a statesman whose cool head and WWII-born desire to protect the international order helped bring a mostly-peaceful end to the Cold War. You heard how he was a genuine liberal internationalist, a man who saw the horrors of war, was a true hero, and who spent a lifetime making sure that never happened again.
You also may have heard (although this weirdly is never mentioned) how he invaded Panama for no good reason, continuing a century of violent colonialism in Latin America. Maybe you also heard how he approved bombing on the Highway of Death in Iraq, an absolute cravenly and brutal war crime.
Oh! He also abandoned the Kurds and the Shi’ites to their fate after encouraging the to rise up against Saddam. And he also gracefully ceded the stage after losing his election, becoming friends with Bill Clinton, and showing us that politics doesn’t have to be so rough.
That’s where we are. Actions against actions, perceptions against perceptions. Some of the perceptions are high-blown idiocies, of course: politics is inherently personal unless you are sheltered from their effects; Bush’s DEA entrapped a kid with no record so that Bush could hold up a bag of crack on the TV.
The rich doyens of the media and the consulting class have spent a weekend pining for the days when we didn’t take things so darn personally, and when gracious patricians like George Bush the Older showed us a better path.
That is pernicious bullshit, of course. Politics matters. Health care and welfare aren’t a debate between Paul Ryan and Steny Hoyer or whatever: they are a matter of life and death for people. The myth of George HW Bush is that this stuff doesn’t matter, that we can just reach across the aisle and find middle ground, which always results in screwing over the non-rich.
That was Bush’s career. He rose to prominence by running a race-baiting campaign against Richard Yarborough, a true GOP lion on Civil Rights. He consistently sold out his principles on women’s reproductive rights in order to win over the evangelical base, going to far as to appoint Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court (which had the double-pleasure of letting conservatives sneer “What are you complaining about? We appointed a black guy!”). And of course, Mr. Gracious Politics Should Be Nice ran the Willie Horton ad implying that if Mike Dukakis won your wife would be raped by a black felon.
This stuff matters. His War on Drugs mattered. His kissing up to the Evangelicals mattered (that it was unsuccessful for him doesn’t mean it was any less empowering for them). George Bush, in his race-baiting, in his trolling, in his indifference to the suffering of the wrong people, didn’t just help set up today’s GOP; he was a major part of it.
But…he also believed in civic service. He also believed in family (his, anyway). He also believed strongly that the world should be bound by treaty and institution to avoid the horrors of WWII. He was a man who understood the world and studied it deeply, far more than could be said of his son or, god knows, Trump. In the second half of the 20th century and beyond, he was certainly the finest Republican president, and a man who helped make the world peaceful.
So what does this mean? It’s not any bullshit like “he was a complicated man!” He was, and he wasn’t, like everyone else. It means, perhaps, that you can be a decent President even if you are a race-hustling war criminal. Which means that being a race-hustling war criminal is built into America. It’s baked into the job of being President, but it is also who we are.
America has always been a country that has sided with the powerful against its workers. It’s always been a country where racism works (see: Stacy Abrams, for example). For the last century it’s been a country that throws smaller countries against the wall. We’re a nation dictated and determined by the absolute dictates of capitalism, which is inherently violent and cruel.
That we are also a nation that fights against this is inspiring. That we are a nation where labor leaders, civil rights leaders, LGBTW leaders, and so many more try to take from the powerful what we deserve is inspiring. It isn’t uniquely American, but there is an American ferver. That’s cool, and that’s why this stuff matters.
Our politics is based around violence, both physical and statutory. George Bush was part of that. That’s why the myth of decency is inherently indecent, an insult to what we’re still fighting for and fighting against. George Bush was a fine American President. The job of the future is to change what that means.