In 2015, the forty-first president looked decent beside the mountebanks, charlatans, and avocado salesmen running for the GOP nomination, let alone his own son. A gentleman, the defenders say. Look at his friendship with Bill Clinton, whom he called a bozo in a less than gentlemanly campaign. He was not a reflexive defender of all things Israel. Endorsing the raising of taxes in a 1990 budget deal likely doomed his presidency.
While Poppy’s one term looks significantly better than his son’s in accomplishments around which the political establishment can rally, let us remember his political life:
- Undistinguished congressman, best known for supporting contraception so fervently that he was called “Rubbers” behind his back; he would comfortably shelve this enthusiasm fifteen years later.
- Chair of the RNC when Richard Nixon needed his boots licked. Envoy to China (he’s the sort of person you appoint to things, Nixon growled).
- CIA director, during whose tenure the agency regained much of its clout after the Pike-Church hearings came closest to shattering it into the thousand pieces that JFK had promised.
- Likely involved in the deal with Iranians that released the hostages in January 1981 to embarrass Jimmy Carter.
- Didn’t register a protest when the Reagan administration agreed to sell arms to our putative mortal enemies the Iranians — he was “out of the loop.”
- His VP national security adviser Donald Gregg coordinated Contra activities, including one Felix Rodriguez and pal Luis Posada Carriles in the mid eighties.
- Ran in 1988 the most vituperative and emptiest presidential campaign of my lifetime after realizing he was going to lose, badly (he won, comfortably).
- Dan Quayle.
- Despite the hosannas for his Steady, Sure Hand, he incarnated forty years of received wisdom when, confronted by Mikhail Gorbachev’s commitment to dismantling the Soviet Union, he flailed; Michael Dukakis would have handled the collapse of the Eastern bloc just fine, thanks.
- By winks and nods — the lingua franca of CIA directors — indicated through his ambassador that he would not mind if Iraq invaded part of Kuwait yet affected surprise when SAD-dum Hussein took it all.
- Encouraged the Kurds to rebel against Sad-dum to save America the trouble of toppling him, then ignored them when Sad-dum began the slaughter.
- Appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, the trajectory of whose career was contingent on white men courting black Republicans.
- Pardoning Caspar Weinberger, Elliott Abrams, among others, for obstruction of justice on the eve of Weinberger’s trial for his role in Iran-Contra.
It’s also World AIDS Day. A dozen years in the White House brought Bush no closer to understanding the enormity of the threat. If Ronald Reagan waited until 1987 to deliver his first address on the epidemic, Bush waited until 1990.
“No president before had arrived with his breadth of experience,” The Washington Post gushed this morning, wiping the existence of John Quincy Adams. Among the many ways in which I can indict the Beltway media when no alternative existed but a handful of network and cable channels is how easily reporters took their cues from the White House. This means framing stories like this. No one who lived under Bush’s twelve years in the executive branch and knew his resumé considered him a wimp. The commitment to mangling the English language and his genuine courtliness masked a terrifying ambition, as they were meant to; it’s how George Bush was brought up to be. “I will never apologize for the USA,” he said on the 1988 campaign trail, with the assurance of an imperial viceroy. “I don’t care what the facts are, ever.”
For a man often cursed with an ill sense of timing, his death was announced before a weekend, guaranteeing blanket piety through Sunday night. Courtiers like Jon Meacham and sycophants like Andrea Mitchell will mourn What America Has Become since Bush waved a bag of cocaine in the Oval Office as a prop in a televised address. If George Herbert Walker Bush ran for the presidency in 2020, we would praise him for the black bag jobs he approved and for his groveling to the men he served. If Donald Trump has his uses, it’s to destroy — inexorably, cleanly — the fiction that our presidents must be gentlemen.