On September 15, 2016, the now-President made an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, where the host playfully tussled his hair. In the midst of one of the most racially problematic and culturally divisive campaigns in United States’ history, many Americans were morally turned off by the warm and fuzzy treatment of such an unapologetically antagonistic figure.
Fallon was rightly accused of helping to “normalize” the now-President, by making him appear harmless and welcome in the social mainstream. Many moral and marginalized Americans spiritually changed the channel, and, much to Jimmy’s and NBC’s dismay, they’ve still yet to change back. We as citizens intuitively understand the dangers of making too big a show of fondness for people who do harmful things.
When it comes to remembering presidents, a curious challenge awaits marginalized and fair-minded people. For minorities and women especially, trying to mourn or reflect on the lives of powerful American white men can be very much like attempting to tap dance near quicksand. The flair and curiosity of your performance may render you a novel and even welcome sight for a while. But if you’re not careful you may happen upon hazardous footing and could lose yourself in an instant, and likely forever.
Presidents in general are a mixed moral bag, at least for those who take the time to learn about them beyond the confines of the elementary school history classroom. Even the supposed “greatest” among our Presidents did things I suspect most of us would personally find heinously unforgivable.
For instance, it is sobering to process the moral cowardice George Washington displayed in waiting until he and his wife died to free his slaves. Postmortem manumission means he absolutely knew better but still built a massive fortune and stockpile of political capital off over a hundred lifetimes worth of free labor that was not rightfully his to claim.
It’s even more sobering to process the problematic legacies of Abraham Lincoln in the white supremacist remarks he made during the debates with Stephen Douglas, his entertainment of the idea of sending freed slaves back to Africa, or his suspension of the writ Habeas corpus. The emergency-based dissolution of the rights of the detained by Lincoln appears to have been used as a conceptual precedent by later presidents to justify the tyrannically unforgivable actions of other Presidents.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt clearly felt entitled to detain tyrannically when it came to Japanese internment. George W. Bush employed a similar mindset when turning Guantanamo Bay into an extrajudicial prison camp for terrorist suspects.
It seems so many presidents have some horrible moral failures under their belt. So many of us personally love President Obama more than one imagines we have loved or ever will love any public figure, but as long as I personally live, I know I will never be able to accept as “good” the role Barack Obama played in proliferating the usage of drones.
The idea of making civilians credibly fearful of something as simple and normally beautiful as a blue sky is and will remain abhorrent in my mind, so abhorrent it arguably supersedes any nominally legitimate national security imperative, rendering us a craven nation that chooses to terrify masses of unseen civilians on the other side of the world by remote control rather than deal with the possibility of facing threats ourselves.
I wrote President Obama several times about the issue, and in addition to sending a formal letter, he gave a signature speech on the matter. Listening to President Obama, one can sense he was at least guided by a relatively consistent ethos. One can even understand why he felt he had to make such a dubious decision to safeguard America’s human treasure. But it’s still hard to deny the likelihood that he tarnished his legacy just the same, and a good bit of our moral standing with it.
We as a nation simply look both hypocritical and silly denouncing terrorists as “cowards” while using the awesome power of our federal government to institutionalize the all-too-indiscriminant killing of civilians by remote control.
I say all that to alert you that I’m about to say some unflattering things about President Bush. But it is important to make clear that the following remarks are about more than just President Bush. The thoughts I share below are fundamentally about us, more specifically about who we want to be.
The Case for Complications
With George H.W. Bush’s death, I realize I have not felt this conflicted about a public figure since the passing of Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner. Hefner made a number of progressive and civil rights contributions, but he also helped build and sustain a professional and social culture based on misogynistic exploitation and sexual endangerment. The culture he created for Playboy spread far beyond the pages of his magazine or the confines of his offices and mansions.
Hefner’s life’s work helped infuse a pattern of intensified human objectification into our popular culture that is only now in the era of MeToo just beginning to be meaningfully addressed. What exactly would we ask an American woman to feel about someone like Hefner? Is it our place to even wonder?
America has lost a patriot and humble servant in George Herbert Walker Bush. While our hearts are heavy today, they are also filled with gratitude. Our thoughts are with the entire Bush family tonight – and all who were inspired by George and Barbara’s example. pic.twitter.com/g9OUPu2pjY
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) December 1, 2018
I didn’t begin to hone in on how exactly I felt about George H.W. Bush’s passing until I read President Obama’s social media post offering condolences and celebrating a life spent testifying “to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling”.
President Obama went further and said “[Bush] did tremendous good along the way” and described him as “a testament to the qualities that make this country great”. I also saw Michelle Obama’s thoughts shared on Instagram, along with a truly heartwarming photo and the expressed hope that “his memory will be a guiding light for our country and those around the world.”
One can truly appreciate the sincerity of personal sentiment, noble civic intention, and political appropriateness behind the Obamas’ condolences, but what they and many others have said in the wake of President Bush’s passing does not match what I actually feel. What has been said does not match what I even think I *want* to feel. And I’m not sure that what has been said matches the full breadth of what the lot of us honorably *should* feel.
- The misgivings I have about the Obamas’ tender remarks are not really any credible “fault” of the Obamas. If Barack and Michelle Obama were potential jurors on a case regarding the Bush family, they would both be excused in a heartbeat. Not for any judicial incompetence or nefariousness, but rather because they both have deep conflicts of interest that make the rendering of an objective judgment on anything related to the Bush family all but impossible.
- First they have built a real and resilient friendship with the Bush family; a friendship that transcends partisan politics, as some might argue great friendships should, but also makes objectivity highly improbable. Second, as a former First family, it would be civically divisive to the point of politically cataclysmic for a former First Family to be anything less than kind at the passing of a predecessor.
- By my count, there are at least five outstanding points of contention in George Bush’s resume we need to discuss and evaluate in any fair funerary conversation regarding “greatness”. If we don’t discuss them, we are essentially giving license, basically saying “It’s O.K., you can do these things and, as long as you act dignified about it, we will still celebrate and remember you as a kindly champion when you die”.
- 1) Civil Rights. George Bush started his career as a “states’ rights” politician, and he was vocally opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which aligned him politically with the segregationists of the era. He is quoted as saying, “The new civil rights act was passed to protect 14% of the people… I’m also worried about the other 86%.” In a majority rule country, does the 86% really need special worry?
- As a Congressional Representative for the state of Texas, he eventually came around to voting for the 1968 Fair Housing Act, but saw it mostly as a symbolic gesture, one he was peer pressured into on the basis of his status as a G.I. Can someone comfortable sacrificing the liberty and dignity of 14% for the sake of the social comfort of the 86% really count as “great” to that 14%? Should he count as “great” to the other 86%?
- 2) Willie Horton. I have been a political junkie for most of my cognizant life, and the 1988 Presidential race was the first time I bothered to attempt forming a political opinion. I was eight years old and still remember sitting in a Denny’s trying to explain my support for Democratic Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis to my bemused father. Dukakis lost, and my simple, eight year-old brain interpreted the loss as “Democrats must be weak and Republicans be strong”, but what actually happened was much more disturbing than a simple mismatch of political fortitude.
George Bush let campaign manager Lee Atwater’s proxy messaging machine imply that if Michael Dukakis was elected President, Dukakis would let black felons across America have weekends off from prison, and that said black felons would use their weekends to come to white Americans’ homes and rape any white women they found while tying up and knifing any white men who happened to be home.
Bush is celebrated as being a man of character, but he chose to race bait rather than lose an election. When we celebrate him as “great”, we should realize the extent to which we are saying race baiting is not a deal-breaker on American greatness.
It is arguable Bush would never have won the presidency without the Willie Horton ads. It is also arguable that Fox News as a platform for racial propaganda might have had a harder time being taken seriously in the public sphere if George had not helped lead the charge with his immoral Horton abdication. Do I really have to explain to you what it’s been like coming of age as a black male in the aftermath of Willie Horton?
Bush’s failure on Horton seems sadly fitting in arc of American history. The United States likely would not have gotten off the ground as an economic entity without slavery or as a concept without the specter of white supremacy as a lure to get rank-and-file white people to buy into and ratify a constitutional system that really was designed to protect the interests of rich white men.
The Willie Horton ads speak to who we were in 1988, and also arguably who we are right now in 2018. Does racial abdication and malicious caricaturization signify who we want to be? Is it our intention to celebrate racially regressive opportunism as the best the United States has to offer? Commemoration of Presidents is too often a package deal. Rank-and-file Americans don’t always remember *why*we celebrate various public figures, only that we did.
3) Pat Buchanan. Dissatisfied with George Bush’s political moderation and relative social liberalism during his first term, former Nixon and Reagan senior adviser Pat Buchanan challenged the incumbent President in the 1992 Presidential primaries. Instead of holding the line according to any sort of moral principle, Bush tacked rightward, adopting positions and rhetoric more sympathetic to Buchanan’s populist calls for Christian traditionalism, the denial of female reproductive rights, and the general rejection of diversity in American society.
Even after eventually vanquishing Buchanan in the primaries, Bush still rewarded Buchanan’s alienating stances by giving him a primetime spot at the 1992 Republican Convention. From the Convention stage Buchanan delivered his infamous “culture wars” speech, a message that became a rallying cry for Republican rejection of inclusion and equal respect for each other as a basic American value.
If we in the public feel justified turning our backs on Jimmy Fallon for playing with this President’s hair, how much more strenuously must we question the purported “greatness” of someone who not only adopted and lent credence to a ideologically dangerous social reactionary but also gave that person a megaphone on the national stage in exchange for political gain?
4) Clarence Thomas. I like to think of Presidents as smart and diligent, but I have often found myself wondering, “Did Bush just pick Thomas because he was black and filling Thurgood Marshall’s seat?” I’m honestly not sure whether it would be more damning if he just picked “the nearest black guy” or if he was systematically attacking Thurgood Marshall’s judicial legacy by filling his seat with the most ideologically antithetical person he could find.
Every so often, analysts make an exercise of assessing the political leanings of sitting Supreme Court Justices. Every year, Clarence Thomas seems to have topped the list of “most conservative”. A lot of years it wasn’t even close, and that was with Scalia on the bench. The gap has narrowed somewhat since Gorsuch joined, but Thomas and his still-expanding body of work still stand as one of the most enduring threats to social liberalism and general progress in our entire federal government.
The extremity of Thomas’ jurisprudence is appalling for a Supreme Court Justice. If he, Gorsuch or Kavanaugh were alone on the bench, the potential of clearly prejudicial judicial malpractice would raise the question of whether it was even worth bringing a case before the Court at all.
George Bush gave us Clarence Thomas, and all the harm he’s tried to do to social gains like affirmative action. We’d have to wait twenty-six years for the rise of one likely illegitimate President before we’d see the confirmation of such questionably extreme judges again.
George Bush didn’t just nominate Clarence Thomas. He fought and paid a tidy sum for Thomas’ confirmation. The price? The White House-led discrediting of Professor Anita Hill. Her credibility, sanity, and emotional maturity were attacked in a coordinated campaign meant to muddy the waters by questioning her motives. I personally still haven’t forgiven Joe Biden for his role in the Thomas-Hill fiasco. I’m not yet in a place to let go what he put her through and the message that sent to women across America, a message that we saw this year is still reverberating.
If I love Joe Biden, and I genuinely do, but still can’t let him off the hook for his role in savaging Anita Hill, it seems intensely unfair to apply anything less than the same standard to George H.W. Bush. His actions had no moral basis, and they hurt a lot of people, at least one irreparably. Is that what we mean to celebrate when we honor the departed as “great”? Will the less introspective among us be able to discern the nuanced truth if we never mobilize our voices to emphatically tell them?
5) Caspar Weinberger. The very action the civically sane among us are all scared of the current President doing, trying to pardon a potential witness against him to undermine an ongoing investigation, George H.W. Bush appears to have actually done.
Caspar Weinberger was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense until 1987, and he was indicted for his role in the scandalous arms-for-hostages exchange that became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. The prosecutor’s indictment of Weinberger in the Iran-Contra case included mention of a diary entry by Weingberger that purportedly established George Bush had both been aware that the missile sales to Iran were part of an arms-for-hostages deal and lied to the American public about his awareness repeatedly.
The post-Election Day pardon helped cut the legs out from under the prosecutor’s investigation and the United States was left with two critical wounds as a result.
First, a sitting President had used the pardon power to escape the reach of investigators, abusing his power and pummeling rule of law. Second, the United States countermanded its own long-term policy interests by compromising the integrity of an agreed upon arms embargo with Iran, and by establishing a precedent that the nation will under certain circumstances negotiate, do business with and even help arm adversarial entities who take American hostages.
Do incidents like the Iran-Contra pardons make our nation safer in the long-term, at home or abroad? Does such conduct aid our justice system’s pursuit of the truth and accountability regarding our power brokers? Is this behavior we would like to see repeated in the future, encouraged by kind, enveloping public remembrances of “tremendous good”? It seems we who tend to live in the crosshairs of the nations moral failures might need to encourage our compatriots pump the brakes and stop rewarding things we should rebuke.
The above 5 points are not all I protest about George H.W. Bush’s resume. Far more egregious policies have been put in place that hurt the black community during his Vice Presidency and Presidency.
From one human being to another human being, I can happily acknowledge that George H.W. Bush was an individual of inherent worth and mettle, a brave military officer, a loving husband, a committed father, and all-around giving family man. I can acknowledge that his passing signifies a special loss for our nation, as his type of political moderation, compromise and aspirational person-to-person decency has come to increasingly seem a quaint relic of a bygone era. I can even acknowledge that, were I myself to encounter the man personally, it is extremely likely I would come to personally love and respect him as a human being and friend as so many others who’ve known him have.
But I must respectfully protest aspects of this moment of national mourning and challenge us to be a little more judicious and specific in how we celebrate people whose defining role in public life was defining the role United States is to play, within itself and around the world. If we see problems and don’t want more of the same in the future, we owe it to ourselves, our current compatriots, and our posterity to speak up, disrupt the narrative, and as John Lewis would say “get in trouble, good trouble”.
I realize my remarks today will not register as palatable for everyone. That’s fine. We cannot always be palatable with each other if we are going to be the best nation we can be. We are going to agree on a good number of things. And we are going to disagree strongly on a great number of things.
Again, that’s fine. Not only is disagreement fine, it’s actually our job as citizens. Regardless of whether you and I agree or disagree today, I encourage all of you dear readers to keep talking, keep listening. and most importantly, keep thinking. We as citizens don’t just review history when we discuss, remember and celebrate our Presidents. We write it.