Praise For the Departed
During the recent ceremonies honoring the late President George H. W. Bush, we have heard much about his “civility.” But let us not speak falsely now. The hour for our country is getting too late for ordinary encomiums. To be sure, Bush 41 was a patrician who was brought up to believe in “noblesse oblige,” the obligation of honorable, generous, and responsible behavior associated with high rank or birth. The eulogies tell us he did try to speak to the ordinary Jane or Joe when he could. But he was also willing to rush to war and to stir up the racist and vile instincts of many Americans when he thought doing so would help him win a campaign. In many ways, he (probably mostly Karl Rove, but H.W. approved) created the template, on a much lesser scale, for the offensive Trump tactics we have been treated to and continue to see.
Unjustified Rush to an Unjustified War
H.W.’s war drum-beating worked. In January 1991, I began a month-long cross-country drive as Bush rushed us into the first Iraq war. I took back roads and everywhere saw yellow ribbons tied to trees: meaning, “support our troops.” Pray that they might live but also pray that they might kill more Iraqis, including many civilians. Only at the end of my trip did I hear, at a Catholic mass, one of the most powerful and incisive sermons I have ever heard—against his war but especially against his rush to war. On the same day, hundreds of prominent clergy signed a full-page ad in the New York Times declaring the war evil and unjustified.
Many experts have said, then and now, Bush rushed into the war for base reasons. To show he wasn’t a “wimp.” For fear of challenging the newly emerging strong Republican right wing. To distract from an emerging investigation of his son George W’s questionable insider stock sale just before the stock tanked. And to distract from then Vice President Dick Cheney’s role at Halliburton and more. Even his fawning biographer and eulogist, John Meacham, reminded us a few years ago Bush said he would have gone to war even if Congress didn’t authorize it–and if he got impeached, so be it. The eulogists praised his love of his daughter who died at the age of three but did Bush ever speak of the thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties, many of whom would have been little girls the same age? Did he ever apologize?
Maybe the first iraq war would have been necessary, after we had tried stronger sanctions. But it wasn’t necessary then.
H.W. was a racist. The truth must be told. He approved the now almost universally condemned racist “Willie Horton ad”, certainly a model for Trump’s dog-whistle politics.Also, perhaps, a model for his son George W’s racist attack on John McCain for allegedly having fathered an “N-word” illegitimate daughter. (Actually, the girl was his adopted daughter from Bangladesh and McCain proudly took her campaigning with him.)
There is a subtle suggestion that Bush was not proud of the Willie Horton ad and should be given a pass for it. But did he ever apologize for it?
Go Easy With Talk of Civility
George H.W. Bush was not the worst of our presidents. Certainly he was nice to family, employees, supporters, and, at times, to political opponents or journalists, usually after he had retired and was out of the fray. But let’s go easy on all this talk of civility.