The death of a president is a simultaneously rare and somber event. America has not seen a passing of this kind since Gerald Ford’s death in 2006. George H. W. Bush’s passing came as little surprise to those following the late president’s health, yet to many Americans, it was a shocking call to reflection. A man who held a place in an exclusive club in such recent memory demanded nothing less. However, the call of many to enshrine Bush as a great moral leader or champion of decency rang a bit outrageous to left-leaning individuals and students of history alike. Given Bush’s single term and relative failure on the domestic front, why are many turning to him as a model of the proper presidential figure? What does his memory, along with the memories of contemporary figures, say about American culture at this point in time? How can Americans learn from this?
To clarify, this article does not serve to singularly and tastelessly attack President Bush’s life and legacy. Doing so would be an insult to the man and an immediate cessation of the author’s integrity. Rather, this article will regard the highs and lows of Bush’s presidency in the context of their recognition in wake of the president’s death, and address the overall question of how Americans ought to remember sometimes problematic figures, and whether there is hope of similar icons emerging in the future.
George Bush came into the presidency more qualified than almost any other figure. He had close contact with the workings of government through his positions as Congressman and Vice President. His roles as UN Ambassador, Envoy to China, and CIA Director molded him into a formidable statesman. Yet, over it all hung the shadow of the so-called “Wimp Factor” (a quotation coined on the front page of Newsweek Magazine in 1987). This factor was seen as Bush’s lack of folksy strength portrayed by his former, charismatic boss, Ronald Reagan. This factor should have been dispelled quickly, given Bush’s extensive war record and history in intelligence. Nevertheless, the factor remained, aided by unflattering coverage on Saturday Night Live and other media sources.
What struck more at the heart of public dissatisfaction with Bush was his seemingly cold and privileged view of American society. Born to a former Senator and wealthy New England businessman, Prescott Bush, George Sr. had an in-road to prestigious opportunities: he was captain of the Yale baseball team, became a successful oilman due to his father’s connections, and as a result, was able to join Republican leadership in Texas and eventually the Republican National Committee. This record of patrician opportunity was not lost on American voters, particularly in moments when he seemed out of touch: checking his watch during a debate, seeming confused at a supermarket price scanner, and a lack of personal connection to the recession all spelled doom for his re-election bid in 1992.
Bush also had his fair share of political blemishes. His significant role in the Iran-Contra scandal likely would have led to his indictment and possible imprisonment had he not been pardoned by Pres. Reagan. Bush’s lack of response—and sometimes hostility—to the AIDS crisis still has many LGBTQ+ activists discontent, particularly given that World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 was overshadowed with news of the president’s death. Reneging on promises of “no new taxes” effectively torpedoed Bush’s reputation with conservatives, leaving him scrambling in the face of conservative challenger Pat Buchanan in 1992.
These points are not meant to construct a false-narrative around Pres. Bush, but rather to call attention to the actual opinion surrounding the man prior to his death. This opinion was dampened before Bush’s death by his presidential contrast to his son, whose ineffective handling of wars and the economy left him with one of the lowest approval ratings leaving office. Ignoring the troublesome legacy of Bush Sr., commentators from both sides rushed to laud the former president as a way of backhandedly criticizing George W. Bush. This was effective, as approval rating of Bush Sr. rose after leaving office due in part to his son’s failures.
The point to all this is that extraordinary circumstances can change the public image of a former leader. There is seemingly no more extraordinary circumstance than the presidency of Donald Trump, which has all but decayed public esteem towards the presidency and government. Trump swept into office on a wave of anti-establishment rhetoric and appeals to American racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. His blatant disregard for facts, norms, precedents, (and some may argue democracy in general) leave many Americans begging for the days when even George W. Bush occupied the White House. While Bush 43 may have been notable for his malapropisms (Bushisms, if you will), and his problematic cast of characters within his administration, what he did provide was some respect for the American form of democracy and leadership. Faults of the Bush administration now seem minor given the daily catastrophes of the Trump administration. Both Bushes stood for something, and while that may not have always translated into action or policy, it was almost undeniable in their style and character. Trump stands for nearly nothing, and what he does stand for is highly concerning. Trump is no hero for many Americans, leaving them longing for one to raise up in his place. This is where George Bush’s passing gains significance.
No other modern president acts quite like Trump, save maybe Nixon, and so the passing of one prompts reflection on what used to be. Bush benefited from the presidential pardon during the Iran-Contra investigation, but he never openly questioned the investigation itself. Bush began a war in the Middle East and was significantly involved with Russian affairs, but he never benefited from Russian meddling in elections or sought to make business deals with Moscow. Bush followed a flawed economic policy, but he didn’t blatantly betray working-class voters. Finally, Bush reneged on a campaign promise about taxes, but he didn’t have a compulsive habit of lying. All these factors make Bush problematic, but not pestilential.
In light of this contrast, any reasonable person would long for the days of Bush 41. But the fervor around Bush following his death, and the similar reaction after the passing of John McCain, is a little out of character for progressives. Bush signed on to deregulation, tax cuts, AIDS ignorance, and Iran Contra. McCain advocated regime change in several nations and a continuation of Bush 43’s policies in his campaigns and public life. Both men had their scandals and shortcomings, and both could be seen as genuine adversaries to progressive Democrats. But the fact that the battle was on principle, that it took place in the context of a functioning democracy, and that it involved men whose personal character was all-in-all decent means these adversaries were respected ones, even including their flaws.
How then must Americans remember these public servants, these happy warriors? They must focus on the basis of the men, not necessarily the policy. The respect for the rule of law and for the unwritten courtesies of democracy by both Bush and McCain is becoming increasingly rare. Bush’s actions during the Iran-Contra investigation did little to help the procuring of justice, but these actions didn’t attempt to shred the ultimate legitimacy of the proceedings. McCain’s record in the Senate wasn’t always sterling, but he voted based on principle and independent of the pushes and pulls of his fellow Senators and Republicans. Both men were rather war-hungry, yet they respected the sacrifice of veterans due to their shared experience with the trials of war. They weren’t perfect, but they stood for something. They weren’t superheroes, but they believed in America and its founding principles. In today’s America, they seem like remnants of the past.
The leadership of John McCain and George Bush may appear to have taken a hiatus, but there are signs that it might be on its way back. Energetic candidates were a staple of the 2018 midterms. The honesty and decency of Beto O’Rourke, the unabashed persistence of Stacey Abrams, and the courage of Andrew Gillum engaged and enchanted voters. These candidates didn’t succeed, but their appeal to a new path forward for Democrats means they and others like them are sure to be back. When asked if he would run for president in 2020, Beto O’Rourke gave a refreshingly straightforward answer: no. He went on to say he was committed to winning in 2018, and that he would serve as a public servant following such a victory. Many have rushed to push him into running for president, but for the sake of political history, they should hope he doesn’t. Texas faces a potentially open Senate race in 2020, with John Cornyn facing a potential challenge in the wake of O’Rourke’s success. While many close to Beto say he won’t challenge Cornyn, there remains a possibility of Beto-mania returning to the Lone Star State. Reneging on a major promise was a critique of Bush, and if Beto restrains from doing so he’d be an antidote to the typical runaround and empty answers by politicians. Abrams’ refusal to fully concede to her opponent may seem ungrateful to some. In the context of massive disenfranchisement and obstacles put in place by her opponent, however, it shows an adherence to core values of progressives-that everyone deserves to be heard and their rights deserve to be protected. Gillum saw a recount all the way through against his opponent, amidst significant opposition from conservative media and politicians. He also addressed his opponent’s racist views head-on in a debate, despite the potential backlash he might have faced as the first black gubernatorial candidate in Florida’s history. These core values: directness, honesty, core loyalty, and courage are what many vaulted in the memories of McCain and Bush. Their re-emergence in 2018 means that all may not be lost in the search for genuine political heroes.
Americans are more polarized and dissatisfied than ever. Almost every part of the political process seems broken or worn-down, and there’s a significant lack of leadership and honesty in Washington. In this climate, heroes are needed, and the lack of living examples can easily prompt turning to the dead. But the heroism we search for can be taken up again. What was idolized in leaders like Washington and Lincoln is not far beyond the reach of politicians today. So in the wake of the most recent presidential death, Americans shouldn’t ignore the principle and character of George Bush. Rather, they should accept the man with his flaws, while not giving up hope for heroes to be reborn. Dreams of exceptional leaders don’t have to stay that way, and they can be fulfilled by looking at the past as well as the future.