The memorial events for George H.W. Bush and the coverage of his passing have been, as expected, a series of tributes to the late former president’s dinner-jacketed decorum.
Odes to the button-downed bonhomie with which he blithely started wars, stoked racism, lied to the American people, defied federal prosecutors and pardoned criminals to cover up his complicity in their crimes.
Poetic waxing to the noblesse oblige with which he laid the foundations for the carceral state, allowed a generation of young gay men to die in needless agony and single-mindedly pursued the interests of a ruling class bent on removing all restraints on its own depravity.
Washington is the kind of town where they disapprove of eating dead babies with a salad fork. That’s why D.C. media types have devoted hours of coverage to thank-you notes, service dogs and broccoli ― and deemed any attention paid to Bush’s long list of malfeasances narrow-minded, even childish. It might be impossible to count the number of times the flagrant liar, pardoner of cronies and employer of virulent racist tropes has been called “honorable” in the past few days.
It might be impossible to count the number of times the flagrant liar, pardoner of cronies and employer of virulent racist tropes has been called 'honorable' in the past few days.
Sure, this coverage concedes, Bush had his faults, but he was such a nice guy. How can you ignore the man’s personal decency or personal suffering, they have asked those of us who watched friends waste away from disease and criminal neglect. What about his personal heroism, they have asked those whose husbands, brothers and mothers ended their own lives to avoid another night being haunted by the ghosts of Iraq.
The coverage is in stark contrast to how the D.C. press tends to cover the decidedly unbeloved President Donald Trump, whose personal behavior is, of course, the ripest of low-hanging fruits. The media typically gives more airtime to a single Trump gaffe than it does to any three of his policy goals. A 3 a.m. rage tweet from the president will lead every newscast, while the specifics — or lack thereof — of his China policy go mostly neglected.
This week, no one in the Washington establishment found it scandalous that the president who cut a trillion dollars in taxes for the wealthy would speak at Bush’s funeral. Many of them were probably hoping, however, that they wouldn’t have to share a pew with the man who insulted Sen. John McCain.
Members of his own political party, and the conservative media machine that keeps it in business, don’t mind his policies at all, but they plainly wish he’d be less crass and more predictable. If only he’d be more presidential, like the GOP’s standard-bearers used to be. That’s the implied wish that pulses through the coverage of Bush’s death. Once upon a time, our presidents knew which fork to use.
The coverage of Bush’s passing has been a lamentation for The Death of Civility, a lesson in The Way Things Should Be Done. A eulogy for The Way We Used To Be. But it should rightfully serve as a vivid reminder of How the Fuck We Got Here. It should be a nail in the coffin of the notion of Trumpian Exceptionalism, the political class’s self-protective belief that Trump’s mendacity is unprecedented and could not have been foreseen.
The coverage of Bush’s passing has been a lamentation of The Death of Civility. But it should rightfully serve as a vivid reminder of How the Fuck We Got Here.
On issue after issue ― taxes, abortion, voting rights, civil liberties, terrorism, deregulation ― Trump holds positions essentially identical to those of Bush. Not on everything, of course. It’s impossible to imagine Bush acting as cruelly or capriciously as Trump has on immigration, or trade or the rights of journalists, for example.
Yet it’s just as difficult to see how we would have gotten to Trump without going through Bush. Without his lying about intelligence to justify the Gulf War, his questioning whether atheists should be considered patriots or even citizens, his saying yes to the Willie Horton ad, his calling Michael Dukakis a “card-carrying member of the ACLU” or his turning a deaf ear to the desperate pleas of tens of thousands of AIDS sufferers.
Bush’s reticent, modest affect reeked of his aristocratic Connecticut upbringing at the feet of his investment banker (and later senator) father. But his win-at-all-costs, take-what’s-rightfully-yours political mien was straight out of the West Texas oil fields, where, in 1948, at the height of Jim Crow, he alighted after making a calculating decision to adopt the Lone Star State as the launching pad for his career. That career would serve as a microcosm of the seismic political shifts underway during the 1960s and 1970s, mirroring, as it did, the Southern migration and ideological retrenchment of the GOP.
Even a cursory consideration of the 30 years between the Bush and Trump presidencies will remind us that those shifts only intensified under Bush and continued apace after he left office. The story of the right wing in America never changes, with its incantations of trickle-down scripture, garbled insurrectionist rhetoric, GI Joe cosplay and misty-eyed nostalgia for Jim Crow and legal date rape. It’s been a decades-long tragedy dell’arte, populated by a cast of grotesques whose saving grace, in the eyes of those who ritually honor them, has been the good manners that Trump, the vulgar Queens real estate developer, never learned to cultivate.
Yet Donald Trump became president by promising the same thing GOP nominees, including George H.W. Bush, have always promised: richer rich people and terrified brown people. Trump may lack the patrician bearing of a Bush or a Mitt Romney, but the basic outline of the Republican leading man has barely changed since well before Poppy’s reign. McCain, Romney and both Bushes were, like Trump, sons of rich and powerful fathers who repeatedly bailed them out of trouble ― and they all, like Trump, disingenuously described themselves as self-made. They all had histories of reckless behavior and cruelty, and despite the occasional spasm of “No, ma’am, he’s not a Muslim” decency, often indulged the worst impulses of their constituents.
Barry Goldwater, whose rhetoric on civil rights and on “freedom” from liberal social engineering Bush enthusiastically echoed early in his career, was a racist provocateur who called for the deportation of immigrants and a return to segregation. Trump’s paranoid fantasies may be even more baroque than Goldwater’s, but they are hardly less substantial than George Bush’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act.
Donald Trump became president by promising the same thing GOP nominees, including George H.W. Bush, have always promised: richer rich people and terrified brown people.
Bush the first was just as capable as Trump of adopting a patently inauthentic tough-guy persona, one that was less convincing, perhaps, smelling more of pork rinds than KFC, but just as calculated and demagogic.
Like Trump, Bush allied himself with figures like Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, proud descendants of, and mentors to, a long line of sweaty, paranoid eavesdroppers, from J. Edgar Hoover to Richard Nixon to Joseph McCarthy to Rupert Murdoch and Matt Drudge. These men were skittish bullies, builders of panic rooms and grand, improbable theories, and their handiwork is still on every day’s depressing front page. He made the most flagrantly cynical and backhandedly racist political appointment of the pre-Trump era when he chose the demonstrably unqualified, serial sexual harasser Clarence Thomas to replace revered civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court.
Bush inherited a political landscape that Ronald Reagan had rendered far less decent and fair, and more rancorous and dishonest, than it had been. And he left things looking worse, not better. Any consideration of his legacy has to include his willful stoking of racist, classist and religious paranoia in the service of gaining power.
The dominant force of his political career was his abiding cynicism, evident in his willingness to tack to the right despite his (supposed) moderate, blue-stocking core beliefs. He was, in fact, accused of lacking such beliefs altogether (a criticism he referred to defensively as “the vision thing”) and of adopting hard-right rhetoric as a convenient pose. His bullying stance toward political opponents and the press may have been different from Trump’s in degree, but not in kind, and it too poisoned the national discourse. It’s not hard to draw a link between Bush’s rhetoric and Bill O’Reilly’s later demonizing of Dr. George Tiller, or Sarah Palin’s threatening of Rep. Gabby Giffords.
The fact is that, despite his personal graciousness, avuncular manner and endearingly cocked head, George Bush paved the way for the puffed-up, thuggish and ill-mannered Donald Trump. Yes, Trump is worse. Much worse. Bush clearly was capable of a personal decency that will forever elude, even baffle, Trump. Bush was apparently the kind of guy who would rake over a swastika that had been carved into a beach, something Trump would probably not even notice. But if all one had to do to be a successful president was be a nice guy (only sometimes, and only to some people), Mount Rushmore would feature four faces of Jimmy Carter.
It’s important to remember this when the end of the Trump administration finally nears, because the battle we need to win isn’t with Trump, per se, but with the modern conservatism that created him. Under his banner, it has grown more virulent, but it was nurtured in no small part by George H.W. Bush.
When the end of the Trump administration finally nears, the battle we'll need to win won’t with Trump, per se, but with the modern conservatism that created him.
The coverage of his death, in its inevitable insistence on manners — chief among them the refusal to critique a president in the name of “respect” for the presidency — stands as a monument to Washington’s most cherished ideal: permanent impunity for the political elite. It serves as a warning to anyone expecting the post-Trump era to be a meaningful corrective to the havoc he is wreaking.
Mitigating the damage done by Trump means pushing back hard, now, on the notion that he represents a radical departure from Bush’s legacy or modern Republican politics. The people who want us to believe that George H.W. Bush was radically different from Donald Trump want to make people like Trump more powerful and the world he envisions more possible. They just want them to have better manners.
There’s going to come a time, very soon, when Republicans are going to line up in droves to plead ignorance or expediency in the name of a greater good, or insist they held a secret opposition to Trump from the beginning. It’s a good bet that, when they do, they will make appeals to the legacy of George H.W. Bush as spun by the Washington media.
If they succeed in that project, if the GOP manages to use Bush and other well-mannered Republicans to assert their “decency” bona fides, to paint Trump as an aberration rather than an inevitable culmination, they will have succeeded in fully entrenching his anti-democratic, world-threatening views. If, come Trump’s impeachment, or resignation or electoral defeat, they are allowed to present themselves as sane, reasonable correctives to the unseemly vulgarities and indecencies of Trump, his radical, authoritarian worldview will have been ratified, not rejected.
Peter Birkenhead is a writer in Washington, D.C.