“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones …”
— ‘Julius Caesar’ by William Shakespeare
Former President George Herbert Walker Bush — decorated World War II pilot and 41st president of the United States — has been the recipient of warm, fuzzy accolades from practically every political writer here and abroad since dying last week in Houston at the age of 94.
As befitting a president, he was honored with a moving state funeral after thousands filed past his casket in Washington. Even Oval Office Occupant Donald J. Trump made a midnight cameo appearance with Melania on his arm.
It was only two years ago, during his 2016 campaign, that Trump mocked Bush’s phrase, “a thousand points of light,” asking, “What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out?”
Bush, in a 2017 book, responded by calling Trump a “blowhard” and stating that he and his wife Barbara “voted for Hillary Clinton.”
Although he pointedly invited Donald to his funeral — unlike Barbara, who specifically forbade Donald’s attendance at her own service a few months ago — Trump was only allowed to be an observer. Since a sitting president typically offers a eulogy when a former president dies, it was a snub from the grave by George H.W.
By now all the pomp and circumstance has been reported. As journalists, it isn’t our job to deify Bush; we must tell the story with all the warts.
George H.W. Bush, POTUS 41, was father of George Walker Bush, POTUS 43. Neither was an outstanding president. The elder Bush is being remembered for his grace and for being a dignified statesman, among other things.
However, he left a checkered past:
- By allowing Republican strategist Lee Atwater to persuade him to play the race card — the Willie Horton murders during his 1988 campaign for president — Bush forever changed the political scene. The ad opened with declarations that ”Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers” and that his opponent, Michael Dukakis, “not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison.” The ad flashed photos of Horton and details of his crimes while flashing the words ”kidnapping,” ”stabbing” and ”raping.”
According to Marcia Chatelain, a Georgetown University professor of African-American history who teaches a class on race and racism in the White House:
“The ad campaign encouraged more race-based politics and quickly showed Democrats, that in order to win elections, they have to mirror some of the racially inflected language of tough on crime.”
Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and Bush’s Democratic opponent, had a furlough policy that allowed nonviolent offenders to be freed on weekends to help ease their re-entry into society. Horton, a murderer sentenced to life without parole, slipped through the cracks.
Once freed, Horton, a black man, tortured and raped a white Maryland woman and bound and stabbed her boyfriend. To say Horton’s release was a mistake is an understatement.
In a racially sensitive time, Bush’s television ad cited the case as evidence that Dukakis was insufficiently tough on crime. Atwater remarked, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”
It took 25 days for James Baker, Bush campaign chairman, to finally disavow the ad, though Bush himself expressed no regret for it. A New York Times story said that “(W)hen the Maryland Republican Party put the same twist in a scurrilous fund-raising letter, it took the campaign six weeks to disapprove.”
Even today, that 1988 campaign has deeply affected American politics.
Wrote the Times:
“When President Barack Obama was trying to forge a bipartisan coalition to overhaul the criminal justice system to ease sentencing laws that many in both parties believe went too far, some lawmakers worried that any change that resulted in the release of someone who would then go on to commit another violent crime could be political suicide.” No more Willie Hortons.
- When Bush was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas, he came out against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, deriding his opponent as “radical” for supporting the bill that ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination. He added, “The new civil-rights act was passed to protect 14 percent of the people. I’m also worried about the other 86 percent.”
His words were in stark contrast to the action of his father, Prescott Bush, a Connecticut senator who worked to desegregate schools, protect voting rights, and raise money for the United Negro College Fund.
- When Ronald Reagan was president, then Vice President Bush instructed National Security Adviser Robert McFarland to find a way to assist drug-dealing Contras in Nicaragua regardless of the costs — political or otherwise.
Money from the secretive and illegal arms sales — ostensibly to free American hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon — was funneled to an armed conflict in Nicaragua where anti-communist Contras were battling the communist Sandinistas.
After Reagan left office, then-President Bush unilaterally ended the federal investigation. Both he and Reagan were complicit in the affair. The deal was deeply complicated and left a smear on Reagan’s presidency. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh launched an eight-year investigation that became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. Even Reagan was called to testify, but was of course never charged. In all, 14 people were charged.
Bush issued six pardons before he left office. He, too, had to live with the Iran-Contra cloud.
- Thirteen years before his son, George W. Bush, lied about weapons of mass destruction to justify his invasion and occupation of Iraq, President George H.W. Bush made his own set of false claims to justify the aerial bombardment of that same country — The first Gulf War.
The elder Bush was proud of his war, but was criticized for not toppling Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi strongman invaded Kuwait. After American coalition forces forced Saddam to high-tail it back to Baghdad, Bush halted the war.
Later criticized as timid, Bush sat back and watched as Saddam’s air force devastated a Kurdish uprising. His son would later use the 9/11 attacks and fear of alleged weapons of mass destruction to invade both Iraq and Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom — the war in Afghanistan — is now America’s longest and most expensive war. The estimated cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is close to $3 trillion.
Bush was a man of many hats: pilot, CIA director, vice president and president.
However, he’ll probably be most remembered for an admonition he made inside the New Orleans Superdome on Aug. 18, 1988. As he accepted the Republican presidential nomination and launched his campaign against Dukakis, Bush said:
“My opponent won’t rule out raising taxes, but I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say, ‘No.’ And they’ll push, and I’ll say, ‘No.’ And they’ll push again, and I’ll say to them, ‘Read my lips: No new taxes!’
Two years later, he agreed to a compromise that raised several existing taxes.
R.I.P., George Herbert Walker Bush.