We Must Not Let Nostalgia for Civility Blind Us to Past Mistakes

‘Legacy.’ It’s said that George H.W. Bush never much liked the word. His son and heir to the throne said the elder Bush thought the word self serving, a politically loaded term bandied about to brandish one’s own supposed accomplishments before history can deliver its final verdict. This is in keeping with what we’re told of President Bush’s personal character; he was by all accounts a humble, compassionate man who dedicated his life to public service and didn’t countenance braggadocio. 

It’s easy to see why, then, that upon his death a unified outpouring of grief from both the left and right sides of the political divide would follow. He was a soft-spoken, mild-mannered champion of moderation. He was also the last of America’s wartime presidents, a fighter pilot who was shot down in WW2, who as President spearheaded the country’s last ever successful military invasion with ‘Desert Storm’, and who oversaw the dissolution of the USSR, America’s great and terrible boogeyman. In grossly simplistic (and stereotypical) terms, he was a President whose legacy appeals to both lily-livered liberals and rough and tumble conservatives alike.

Bush’s death presented a perfect opportunity for left and right to make a great show of coming together, to show that the precious Union may not indeed have fallen into a state of permanent disunity. However, there is a decidedly darker side to the Bush legacy, one that is often glossed over in the hagiographies written upon his death. 

While he may have genuinely yearned for a gentler and kinder form of conservatism, his attempts to shed “the wimp factor,” as Newsweek so kindly put it in its iconic 1987 front page spread, helped set the stage for some of the movement’s ugliest modern-day components. Desperate to compensate for his mild-mannered disposition, he flailed around both domestically and abroad, eager for any opportunity to project his supposedly lacking machismo.

On the home front, Bush (the son of a Wall Street investment banker and US senator) spent his 1988 election campaign portraying his Democratic rival Michael Dukakis (the son of Greek immigrants) as a ‘wimpy’, out of touch elitist whose ‘soft on crime’ liberal politics represented an existential threat to the security of (white) America. 

This came to a head when Bush’s campaign ran the now infamous ‘Willie Horton ad’, detailing how our eponymous African-American antagonist raped a white woman before stabbing her partner while furloughed from prison under then-Massachusetts Governor Dukakis’ controversial ‘Weekend Passes’ scheme. It was exactly the type of race-baiting electioneering used in the incumbent president’s (admittedly more on the nose) fear-mongering campaign ad about the ‘migrant caravan.’

Still, the “wimp” label persisted, so Bush set his sights beyond the nation’s borders for his chance to prove his masculine bona fides, eventually settling on Panamanian president Manuel Noriega. He was actually an erstwhile US ally, but geopolitical expediency is a fickle friend, and as realpolitik giveth, it also taketh away. As the US pursued an increasingly aggressive anti-communist policy in Central America, Noriega went from friend to foe at the drop of a hat, and in 1989, Noriega annulled a presidential election won by his US-backed rival.

Lacking a credible casus belli, and against the advice of several top advisors, he seized on this incident, along with a supplementary list of half-truths and outright falsehoods, to justify an invasion of Panama. This flimsy pretext won him bipartisan support in Washington and convinced 80% of Americans of the need to launch an invasion. It would be codenamed “Operation Just Cause”, a truly Platonic ideal of Orwellian doublespeak, but in keeping with Bush’s penchant for gross overcompensation.

As invasions go, it was a ludicrously one-sided affair, with the Panamanians barely offering even token resistance. Noriega was hauled back to the US in chains and paraded around like a defeated chieftain in a Roman triumph. Of course, he couldn’t simply be disposed of discreetly like some latter-day Vercingetorix, and was instead convicted of a laundry list of trumped up charges and thrown into a federal prison until his death two years ago. 

While Noriega himself was a truly monstrous individual, 2000 Panamanian civilians and 23 Americans were ultimately sacrificed at the altar of Bush’s sensitive and bruised ego, which would be granted only a temporary respite. His approval ratings rose briefly, and The New York Times celebrated his “rite of passage”, in which he “[demonstrated] the willingness to shed blood.” He would demonstrate it again, far more successfully, in the Gulf War. 

Though Desert Storm was uniformly more successful and justified than Panama, it is telling that Bush chose Newsweek (the “wimp factor” magazine) of all publications to lay out his rationale. In any case, this political stay of execution wouldn’t last, and he would go on to lose his bid for reelection, but not before making further attempts to appear tough by pandering to the worst impulses of the populace. 

In the same year as the Panamanian pandemonium, Bush used a DEA agent to lure a black high schooler into selling him crack near the White House so that he could shamelessly brandish it a televised Oval Office address designed to warn of the supposed ubiquity of the drug epidemic. The teenager would spend 10 years in prison for this bit of political theatre. There’s also the fact that he continued his predecessor’s policy of ignoring the AIDs epidemic, going so far as to urge victims to “change their behaviour” in a televised debate for his failed 1992 re-election bid.

It’s only natural, in a world where gentleness and civility seem to have become dirty words, to pine for a president and a time that seemingly embodied these attributes so well. It’s the reason why Bush, like McCain before him, has been ritually deified after his death like some ancient Caesar whose apotheosis had just been voted on in the Senate.

However, it is imperative that we provide an honest account of those who came before us, especially our leaders, and make no mistake – in this unipolar world order, and given our special ‘relationship’ (or ‘dependence,’ to be less euphemistic), Bush certainly was one of our leaders, too. In glossing over the late former president’s many egregious misdeeds, we allow ourselves to exorcise the darker pages of our shared history from our collective consciousness, and may well be dooming ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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