Any discussion of President George Herbert Walker Bush, who died yesterday at age 94, should start by acknowledging that he was by any measure a public servant, a fine family man, and a hero of World War II.
George H.W. Bush is precisely the kind of deeply experienced person we should demand as president: A former member of Congress, Ambassador to the United Nations, Director of the C.I.A., and vice president. Here was a man who had proven himself in a variety of difficult jobs, gaining the real-world experience needed to protect American interests and navigate the most difficult job of all.
His service in World War II was equally admirable: Bush joined the Navy at age 18, won his aviator’s wings by age 19, flew 58 combat missions, and won the Distinguished Flying Cross after being shot down during a torpedo bombing run in the Pacific.
Bush was the devoted father of six children, one of whom became the governor of Florida and another who became President of the United States. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, awarded Bush the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.
All of this is true.
For those who remember the 1988 presidential campaign, though, there is another equally true George H.W. Bush: the win-at-all-costs Bush, the negative campaigner who employed as his campaign manager the dark master Lee Atwater — a man whose sins were so great that he publicly repented them on his deathbed.
This, sadly, is the George H.W. Bush that has had the most lasting, and destructive, effect on the Republican Party and on American politics. Bush took the notorious Southern Strategy of disgraced President Richard M. Nixon and pushed it another 10 yards down the field with his campaign against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, most notably with the infamous Willie Horton ad.
This was the kind of politics that believes not in giving voters a fair choice, but in stretching to mislead them as much as possible while still keeping a little toe barely touching the concept of “truth.” And after choosing to wage this misleading and frankly race-baiting campaign, Bush had the nerve to celebrate his victory under a “unifying” banner reading AMERICA WINS. (Echoes of another famous banner: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.)
Ironically for someone so well-qualified, Bush chose a good-looking lightweight, Dan Quayle, as his running mate. In doing so, he helped throw open the door to the idea that experience and depth of character don’t really matter, which later gave America the know-nothing Sarah Palin as a national candidate and the character-free Donald Trump as president.
In the same vein, Bush’s selection of Clarence Thomas — a 43-year-old arch-conservative with barely a year of experience as a judge — was deeply cynical and destructive. Bush’s straight-faced claim that Thomas was the “most qualified” American for the job led directly to today’s compromised Supreme Court, and to the baldfaced practice of naming ever-younger and ever-more-political judges to the court. It has been a disaster.
On the topic of young and unqualified: It speaks well of Bush as a father that he was proud and relentlessly supportive of his son, George W. Bush. But it speaks poorly of him as a citizen of the Republic that he passed his win-at-all-costs ways on to his son. George W. and his attack dog, Karl Rove, picked up where the father and Lee Atwater left off, winning elections with scorched-earth campaigning. In 2004 they were even willing to impugn the service of John Kerry, who fought in Vietnam and won the Silver Star while George was safely stateside.
The campaign tactics of both Bushes led directly to the success of Donald Trump, whose genius has been to skip even the little toe of truth. Trump lies outright and plays the race card openly. George H.W. Bush may have voted against him, but Trump and his tactics, and the state of what used to be the Grand Old Party, are now the biggest part of Bush’s legacy. Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Roger Ailes… these are the men whom Bush and his son empowered and who gave us the black state of politics in 2018.
Nobody doubts that politicians, like all of us, are imperfect. There are very flawed people who get great things done, upright people who end up fomenting disasters, and all types in between. For George H.W. Bush, sadly, the legacy is that of an upright man who enabled and promoted the worst instincts in his party in ways that have been very destructive to American politics. It’s too bad.
See our full George H.W. Bush biography »