We are living in a world in which Donald Trump, one of the most despicable men to serve as president, makes all other presidents look better. When it comes to the Bushes, he makes W. look smarter and H.W. look even better. But while we often say we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead we also shouldn’t sugarcoat history.
George H.W. Bush was by all accounts an honorable man. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a heritage of public service. His father Prescott Bush was a senator from Connecticut. Bush went to elite schools and then before college enlisted in the military. He then finished his degree at Yale and moved to Texas to make his own fortune. In 1996, he ran and won a seat in the House of Representatives. Then won a second term but lost his race for the Senate in 1970. He was considered a relic of a Republican Party that no longer exists. He served as ambassador to the U.N., chair of the RNC, chief of the liaison office in China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and then Reagan’s vice president before being elected president. He served one term losing to Bill Clinton in 1992. He was, as the saying goes, ‘hoisted on his own petard’ when he went back on his pledge: “Read my lips, no new taxes” and then supported tax increases.
If you only read his Wikipedia page, you’d think he was perfect. But that’s not a view shared by those affected by HIV/AIDS. Bush was complicit with Ronald Reagan in not being willing to even mention the word AIDS in public for years. Even when he was president, he dismissed it as a behavioral issue. Steven W. Thrasher who will join the faculty of Northwestern University in 2019 as the inaugural Daniel H. Renberg chair of media coverage of sexual and gender minorities wrote, “When I teach AIDS history, I always show a clip of ACT UP’s October 11, 1992, “ashes action” at the White House, in which brave activists took the cremated bodies of loved ones who had died of AIDS and hurled them onto Bush’s lawn. (If you’ve never seen it, I dare you to watch without crying).” Nearly 10 years after the epidemic was diagnosed Bush still wasn’t willing to do anything about it.
We also shouldn’t forget the 1988 Willie Horton ad run by the Bush campaign that helped him defeat Michael Dukakis. The ad had a purpose, which it accomplished, to bring out people’s innate racism. Then as president, Bush’s choice to replace civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court was Clarence Thomas. He also vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990. “Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the bill’s main Senate sponsor, called the veto ‘tragic and disgraceful,’” the New York Times reported. “Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which represents 180 civil rights, women’s, labor and religious groups, said only two previous presidents, Mr. Reagan and Andrew Johnson, had vetoed civil rights bills.”
But in 1990 Bush did sign the Americans with Disabilities Act, a huge step forward for the millions living with a disability. One wants to give him credit for being basically a decent and kind human being but he clearly had on blinders when it came to some groups.
So as the nation mourns its 41st president people will look back on him with differing thoughts often dependent on how his actions impacted their own life or that of their friends, family and loved ones. Interesting what has gone viral in recent days is the letter he left for Bill Clinton to read on his first day in office as president, which concluded: “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good Luck.”
Can anyone imagine that such a letter could be written by the disgusting excuse for a man now sitting in the Oval Office? In any event if justice is done Trump’s letter, whatever it says, will be titled “Letter from a federal prison.”
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.