NEW YORK – The curtain is about to fall on George Herbert Walker Bush, known colloquially as Bush 41, or simply 41. The patriarch is, if not exactly dying, no longer doing well enough to want to be seen much in public. The final taxi, as Wreckless Eric sang memorably though not famously, awaits.
Do not believe the soon-to-be-everywhere hype. Dubya’s dad is and was a very bad man. No one should forget that.
The old Skull and Bones man has skillfully set the stage for — not his rehabilitation exactly, for he was never shamed (though he much deserved it) — his rescue from the presidential footnotery familiar to schoolchildren, that of the Adamsian “oh yeah, there was also that Quincy” variety. The centerpiece of this so-far-going-splendidly historical legacy offensive is his authorized biography by Jon Meacham, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” a demi-hagiographic positioning of HW as a latter half of the 20th century Zelig.
This has been done before, compellingly and brilliantly, in Robert Caro’s soon-to-be five-volume (!) biography of LBJ. Caro uses LBJ as a window into his times; that’s what Meacham is up to, too. But there’s a big whopping difference between the subjects. LBJ was a man of principle who was also a cynical SOB; Vietnam tarnished his amazing civil rights legacy. He knew that and regretted it until he died.
There is, sadly, little evidence that Bush ever had a big ol’ destiny in mind, good or bad. He may be the first of that crop of presidents who followed them (excepting, perhaps, his son after 9/11) whose main goal in life was accomplished when he won a presidential election. Clinton and Obama and perhaps Hillary next, they all figured they’d figure out how and why to change America after they took office and some stuff to react to happened (OK, that includes W).
“Mr. Bush may never have achieved greatness. But he’s led a long and remarkable life, which has spanned the better part of the 20th century. He fought in World War II. He started a successful oil business. He spent two terms in the House of Representatives; he served as ambassador to the United Nations and as American liaison to China; he ran the Republican National Committee and, far more important, the C.I.A. He was vice president for eight years and president for four. At 90, he jumped out of an airplane,” Jennifer Senior writes in The New York Times Book Review.
Pardon my shrug. Dude’s a boy Hillary. Great resume. What did you accomplish at all those gigs? Even at the CIA, he’s remembered for. …
In his 1988 run for president, neither the advantages of incumbency as Reagan’s vice president nor his Democratic rival Michael Dukakis’ awkwardness were enough for him; he felt it necessary to deploy scorched-earth tactics to obliterate a good man, albeit a politician not prepared for the national stage against a GOP that had turned rabidly right under Reagan. Lee Atwater’s “Willie Horton” ad remains a colossus of scurrilous race-baiting, a dismal precedent that paved the way for Bush 43’s racist whispering campaign targeting John McCain’s adopted daughter in the South Carolina primary and Donald Trump’s glib desire to subject the nation’s Muslims to an Americanized Nuremberg Law.
We won’t hear about Willie Horton during “ain’t it sad HW died” week.
“His campaign tactics may have been ruthless, but in person he was unfailingly decent and courteous, commanding remarkable levels of loyalty. Character was his calling card, not ideas. To the extent that he had one at all, his governing philosophy was solid stewardship: leading calmly and prudently, making sure the ship was in good form, with the chairs properly arranged on the decks,” Senior writes.
Of course he was polite. He’s a WASP. But does it matter? A public figure isn’t notable for what he does behind closed doors. And Hitler liked dogs and kids.
Bush deserves, as do we all, to be judged for what he set out to do. It is by his own standards — his wish to leave the ship of state ship-shape when he left for Kennebunkport in 1993 — that he falls terribly short.
It was the economy, stupid … and he was the stupid one. After the stock market crashed in 1989, HW sat on his hands, waiting for the recession to magically go away. As the invisible hand of the marketplace dithered and dawdled, the housing market crashed too. Millions lost their jobs. Countless businesses went under. Lots of misery, much of it avoidable. Much of which could have been mitigated with a little action from the Fed and a Keynesian stimulus package. He did little.
By the time he left, everyone, not least Wall Street traders, breathed a sigh of relief that there was going to be someone at the wheel going forward.
There were, of course, the wars. There’s his good war against Iraq, for which he gets credit for merely slaughtering Saddam’s army as they retreated down the “highway of death” and not going on to kill everyone in Baghdad, as his stupid bloodthirsty son tried to do. Mainly, the Gulf War is a plus because few Americans died in combat (some “war” dead were killed in forklift accidents). Still, it was a war that needn’t have been fought in the first place.
In a now largely forgotten episode, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — then a U.S. buddy — asked permission to invade Kuwait, which was “slant drilling” into Iraqi oil fields and undercutting OPEC cartel prices. It being August, all the big names were away on vacation, so Saddam took the word of a low-level drone at the State Department that everything was cool. It wasn’t.
If Bush had been a decent manager — the kind of guy who arranges the deck chairs — he would have had better people handling his pet tyrants.
Then there’s the truly sorry invasion of Panama. No one remembers now, but this was Bush’s first personnel dispute with a dictator. Gen. Manuel Noriega was getting uppity, HW decided to put him in his place, the marines slaughtered thousands of Panamanians. Really, for no reason.
Certainly without justification. Noriega was sent to a U.S. prison, having spent more than two decades on trumped-up cocaine charges. The trouble is, treating a sovereign head of state like a common criminal scumbag sets some bad precedents. Now, when the U.S. approaches guys like Syria’s Bashar Assad to suggest that he leave office, he digs in his heels for fear of winding up in prison or worse. Back in the pre-Panama days, you could convince a guy like the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos to fly to Hawaii with a duffel bag full of bullion, so everyone could move on.
Bush’s biggest boner may have been his hands-off approach to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rather than help Russia and the other former Soviet republics come in for a soft post-socialist landing, as in China after Mao, Bush’s guys quietly rejoiced in the mayhem.
Clinton gave us “shock economics,” Yeltsin, mass starvation, the destruction of Grozny and the oligarchs — but Bush set the stage for a mess with which we, and more importantly the Russians, are dealing today.
Any way you look at it, George Bush Sr. left the world worse off than it was. The possibility that he may have been courteous to his minions and henchmen doesn’t change that.
Ted Rall is a writer and political cartoonist. © 2015, Ted Rall
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