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”.