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George H.W. Bush wasn't Trump — but from Willie Horton to the AIDS crisis, we shouldn't whitewash his legacy

For all his patrician civility, Bush also fully embraced the GOP's post-Lyndon Johnson southern strategy.
Image: President George H.W. Bush
Pres. George H. W. Bush focused on California's economic strength, drugs in the work place and new business technology in a speech before the California Chamber of Commerce centennial dinner in Los Angeles on March 2, 1990.Alan Greth / AP file

Former President George H.W. Bush died on World AIDS Day. Inevitably, mainstream media outlets rushed to praise him for his civility and decency. It was left to left-wing outlets like the Nation to note the perverse irony that Bush was silent about the AIDS crisis when he was Ronald Reagan's vice president and the disease was killing an entire generation of gay men. As president, Bush's response to AIDS was to tell victims to "change their behavior," a framing that blames people for having sex instead of acknowledging the years of government neglect — prompted by bigotry — that contributed to and amplified the humanitarian disaster.

Bush has died at a point when America is starved for examples of probity in public life.

Bush has died at a point when America is starved for examples of probity in public life. The current president, Donald Trump, is deeply unpopular, in part because of his personal cruelty and incivility. Last week, he blandly defended the use of tear gas against migrant children and threatened to declassify unknown documents for no apparent reason other than harming Democratic opponents — a clear abuse of presidential authority. In contrast, Bush seems to come from a less partisan, less scabrous time. Understandably his admirers want to hold him up, on the occasion of his death, as a symbol of America's essential virtue; virtue which has been lost, but which we can regain through bipartisan amity and a celebration of universally admired values like loyalty and familial devotion.

The problem is that Trump didn't come out of nowhere. His current assault on democratic norms, his authoritarian leanings and his embrace of fascist tactics, are the logical endpoint of longstanding trends in U.S. politics, and especially in the Republican party. To look back with nostalgia at the Bush family patriarch is to ignore the fact that Bush past is what led us to Trump present. And if we can't acknowledge this uncomfortable history, Trump may be all we have to look forward to in the future.

Bush's patrician civility is supposed to stand in contrast to Trump's gutter racism. But Bush, for all his decency, fully embraced the GOP's post-Lyndon Johnson southern strategy, using racism to rally white conservative voters around white supremacy — all in the interest of solidifying his own political power. His infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad, which blamed his opponent Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis for a murder committed by a black parolee, was a grotesque dog whistle linking racism and crime.

Nor was that an aberration in his career, as Rebecca J. Kavanagh, senior staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society in New York City, pointed out on Twitter. Bush attacked the Civil Rights Act in 1964 to curry favor with Texas conservatives. As president, he vetoed a civil rights act that would have prevented discrimination in employment, and a voter registration bill intended to register millions of minority voters.

He also enthusiastically embraced America’s so-called war on drugs, a policy that had a disastrous and disproportionate impact on minority communities. Bush wanted to make a speech claiming that crack was being sold near the White House, even though there was in fact little to no drug activity near the capitol. So the DEA recruited a teen to make a sale, then busted him. The 18-year-old was sentenced to ten years in prison. Though the boy's life was ruined at his specific behest, Bush refused to commute his sentence. The incident involved flagrantly false talking points treated as truth; the subordination of law enforcement to political ends; and the scapegoating of people of color for political gain. An honest assessment of Bush is a reminder that Trump didn't invent any of those things.

Bush even anticipated Trump's use of the executive office to subvert legal accountability. Trump has floated the idea of pardoning his former campaign manager Paul Manafort — a suggestion which seems intended to stop Manafort from testifying against Trump himself. Bush, for his part, actually pardoned his own former colleague, President Ronald Reagan’s Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Weinberger was being investigated for his participation in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Reagan officials illegally sold arms to Iran in order to funnel the proceeds to right-wing militias in Nicaragua. The prosecutor in the case believed that Weinberger's testimony might lead to information implicating Bush in the scheme. Thus, Bush may have used his pardon power to shield himself from the rule of law.

Bush's refusal to abandon Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas foreshadowed Trump's response to sexual harassment allegations against his own nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

And that’s just the beginning. Bush's refusal to abandon Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas despite credible sexual harassment allegations against him foreshadowed Trump's response to sexual harassment allegations against his own nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Bush's own impunity to sexual harassment allegations against him mirrors Trump's brazen disregard of multiple accusations of sexual harassment. Bush's war in Iraq is part of decades of U.S. warfare in the region — warfare which continues to this day.

Bush did admirable things in his presidency as well. He championed the vital Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, and he deserves credit for his sober handling of the period after the fall of the Soviet Union. He was certainly not as cartoonishly evil a figure as Trump — a man who literally tried to cut off health care to his hospitalized infant nephew over an inheritance dispute.

So Bush isn’t Trump. But he was a leader in the Republican party which would embrace his successor. The cocktail of racism and authoritarianism in which Trump marinates has been brewing for decades. Bush was a wealthy white man who used racist rhetoric to solidify power while making sure to shield himself from the consequences of his reckless disregard for the law. In that context, Trump feels more like an inevitable successor than an exception. We know that Bush's brand of civility won't save us, because we tried it.

When a president — any president — dies, there's an impulse for nostalgia and a call for fellow feeling. People want to praise the past and Make America Great Again. But given what MAGA has brought us, it may be time to put less hagiography in our eulogies, and more honesty.