On George H. W. Bush's Legacy, Propaganda, and Presidents as a Whole

So I, like a lot of left/liberal commentators, was pretty mad about the way the press chose to cover the death of George H. W. Bush. The constant hagiography, the glossing over of the various points at which he was responsible for or complicit in mass murder, and so on. Indeed, Nathan J. Robinson kinda nailed it in this article:

Of course, we can try to appreciate Bush in his “complexity”: He was a good granddad and he made Doris Kearns Goodwin laugh. When presidential obituaries are written, they don’t have to choose between hagiography and “fuckyoulogy.” But it does end up feeling strange to say “He was a war criminal and sexual harasser and did imprison and deport a lot of Haitian refugees, but he was kind to his pets and had a self-deprecating wit.” When someone does extremely bad things, the bad necessarily overshadows the good. As one Medium headline about Bush put it, “If You Murdered A Bunch Of People, Mass Murder Is Your Single Defining Legacy.” I understand why people leave the dark stuff out, then. Admitting it makes it very difficult to say anything about honor and decency and civility with a straight face. What does civility even mean if it’s just “being polite as you send asylum-seekers to their deaths”? There’s no choice, though. Even if it ruins a solemn occasion, the historical record has to be preserved. The Iraqis who were incinerated in the Amiriyah shelter did not get a special multi-page pullout tribute in the newspaper upon their deaths, and it’s for them that we must puncture the decorum of Bush’s memorial. To honor their killer is to dishonor them, and they matter far more.

In retrospect, though, I’m worried this take is… oversimplifying something. Because, to put it bluntly, is there a president alive (or dead, for that matter) whose eulogy wouldn’t contain some reference to mass murder? Trump botched the response to Hurricane Maria. Obama was a big fan of drone warfare. Bush Jr. got us into Iraq. Clinton failed to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. Bush Sr. got us into Iraq (the first time). Reagan ignored the AIDS crisis. Carter… I dunno, but I don’t doubt there’s something. Nixon kept us in Vietnam; LBJ got us into Vietnam.

So how is it that we keep putting mass murdering psychopaths in our highest office?

I would posit that it’s not that simple. As president, you’re in a position where every choice you make can have significant life-or-death consequences for everyone around you, and every mistake you make is incredibly public. If I make the wrong move at my job, someone can’t work for a few hours, and the only people likely to know are those affected, if that. If the president makes the wrong move at his job, it could mean hundreds or thousands of people dying, and the whole world will know about it immediately.

So how do we evaluate presidential legacies in this context? I don’t know, honestly. But it seems to be a little more complex than “this president was responsible for a lot of suffering, so we should treat him like a serial killer”.

Thoughts?

There’s a big difference between something like not intervening in the impossible situation in Rwanda, or the incompetent response to natural disasters of the second Bush or Trump, and the sort of active and explicit criminality displayed before, during and after the presidency of the first Bush.

The job of the President is to murder people. Domestic politics is not the principal purpose of the Federal government. Commander in Chief - head of the military - is the most certain and most definitive job of the President. The role was crafted with George Washington in mind.

I read a good article about how Bush failed to listen to the CIA and got a bunch of people (particularly Kurds) murdered by Hussein, and while I don’t doubt that all of it was true, I suspect that you have to consider things like:

  1. 20/20 hindsight is an amazing thing. To the extent that you may have called the correct shot on 2 or 3 major events, there were probably only about 6-8 major events and several dozen or hundred people sending advice and reports to the President, with different analysis and opinions. Maybe others called more things correctly than you did, maybe you got lucky and got more than most. Either way, your insular view is simplifying something that was probably a lot less clear and your correctness is more likely the happenstance of getting lucky a few times more than it is personal infallibility.

  2. Sometimes your options are between horror and atrocity. The President of the United States is a powerful figure but not God. It could well be that the options were to watch the Kurds get slaughtered or watch the whole Middle East go to hell and 10 times that number of people get killed. We would need to know what the actual course of events was and what all options seemed to be available. Sitting back in our arm chairs, 20 years later, and declaring that there were better options and that our ideas would pan out exactly as we envision them is not realistic. Life sucks.

And let me add that that’s not a defense of Bush. I read Sununu’s book on Bush and it was largely a puff piece and barely went into any detail on anything. But it’s basically all that exists about the Bush presidency.

To deify or demonize the man, with any intellectual rigor, you need to have a good account of what all happened during his Presidency. For the most part, no one seems to have bothered to do that.

Going back and watching some interviews with him, I’m less impressed with how he comes across than I had been hoping. Like his son, W, I get the feeling like he’s a nice and friendly guy. Unlike his son, I don’t get the sense that he’s sort of a moron. Bush is reasonably smart. But not smart like cunning or playing 4D chess, just not stupid. One suspects that his presidency rested strongly on those he hired for his cabinet. He didn’t do horribly, there, hiring some decent people and his instinct seems to have been to seek out real data and facts. But his presidency may have turned out fairly well largely because he was cautious - ala Barack Obama - than because he had a brilliant mind.

On the other hand, Barbara Bush really comes across as a fearsome lady. I would suspect that she had a strong hand in the strength of his Presidency.

Again, it would be nice to have a proper account of what all transpired. At the moment, I think it’s fair to say that all of the strongest opinions about Bush, that I have seen, are all almost certainly based on nothing. Even if the man deserves all of the hate in the world, a critique that is not based on any particular evidence beyond, “People died! He was President at the time! Ergo, mass murderer!” is not reasonable. You need to know what discussions took place, who was involved, when the information came in, what options seemed viable, etc. Minus that and you’re just inferring things based on the view of the world that you prefer.

That’s sort of the thrust of what I’m getting at here, yeah. When every decision you make is life-or-death and grossly public, it’s really hard to avoid making decisions that land you in “serial killer” territory. So is it fair to expect this from presidents? What standard should we use?

Conservative media has long remarked upon what they see as the tendency in the mainstream press to speak glowingly of past Republicans upon their death (Reagan, McCain, GHWB), no matter how much those outlets attacked them while in office or running for office. It is seen as a means for the press to simulate centrism, as positioning to attack current Republicans.

I think you have a good point. I agree that it’s not fair to use words like “mass murderer” to describe a president who made decisions that directly or indirectly resulted in the deaths of innocent people, because he might have been doing what he could have reasonably thought was the best thing at the time, the thing that was most likely to result in more good and less evil than the other available alternatives.

I certainly don’t feel competent to judge Bush, as a president or as a human being; and I have taken everything I’ve read vilifying him with a grain of salt.

No. These presidents or their appointments go out of their way to murder either for crony reasons, personal reasons, or political gamesmanship. There are some pretty bad folks that make it to the top of government.

If they were simply responding to threats in a balanced way, 99% of the presidential mayhem wouldn’t happen. Of course you also have them responding to consequences of past blunders by presidents.

Also, the hurricane situation from Trump in this context is out of left field. His continuation of Obama’s Yemen war among other things fits, though

Wartime presidents are beloved no matter how bad. Peacetime presidents are hated no matter how good. This is true most of the time.

I’ve defined patriotism, before, as being someone who is ruthless in attacking the country and all of its flaws in any discussion with your fellow countrymen, all while defending the country and promoting its strengths in any discussion with a foreign national.

I agree that death should not be an excuse to redeem somebody’s reputation. History should be based on telling the truth.

That said, a funeral is not a history seminar and a eulogy is not a class lecture. It’s acceptable to present somebody’s life in a positive manner in that setting.

But outside of that setting, you should judge a President by everything they did. Not just the good and not just the bad. Look at the good and the bad and see where the balance lies. You also have to judge a President by the things he could have done, good and bad, but chose not to do.

And that, in my opinion, is the worst part of Bush’s legacy; he knew better. He knew that some of the things he was doing were wrong but he chose to do them anyway because it was to his advantage.

Just a reminder to some folks: the word “president” should not be capitalized. Perhaps this common error springs from the same place as the phenomenon described in the OP.