There's an old maxim that funerals are not for the dead but for the living. If so, what are we to make of the nationally televised, days-long orgies of misty, watercolor memories from Beltway-insider politicos and elite journalists that erupt whenever a prominent national leader passes away?
True, nostalgia sells because it's must-see TV for the older-skewing audience addicted to cable news, but in a pundit-driven world where spin doesn't stop at the grave, the life of the recently departed is often reconfigured — if not starkly reinvented — to fit the politics of the living.
That will never be more true than this week, as Friday's death of the 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush, at age 94, will be wielded like a club by Washington insiders to drive home the contrast between his post-World War II-era of country-clubbish, Cold-War-consensus politics and the go-it-alone crude divisiveness of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — not to mention the last era when (some of) his fellow Republicans didn't oppose popular stuff like balanced budgets or clean air.
The model for the modern presidential grief-fest was created in 2004 when Ronald Reagan's death was twisted by conservatives for an agenda more extreme than what the living Gipper would have actually supported, and which helped push that year's re-election-seeking George W. Bush, or Bush 43, over the top. As I write this now, just 33 hours after the announcement of Bush 41's death, there has already been a tsunami of pieces hailing his most un-Trumpian qualities, his outward civility, and his occasional forays into the lost world of bipartisanship.
CNN's obit captured the weekend's zeitgeist in one paragraph. "But in many ways, the acerbic and bitterly divisive election of 2016 represented a final wrenching departure from the more courtly, old-fashioned politics practiced by George H.W. Bush, who until late in his life would pen handwritten notes to friends, former political allies and foes, and even reporters who covered his presidency," it stated. "He counted Democrats among his closest friends, and his death marks not only the passing of a president but a reminder of a bygone era of greater civility in Washington."
The praise for Bush 41's best qualities are both understandable and deserved. It's hard to find a greater contrast than the one between 1992's just-defeated president's graceful, handwritten note to the man (Bill Clinton) who beat him and the childish and narcissistic tweets of the 45th president — much like the difference between Bush's World War II heroism and the Vietnam avoidance of Cadet Bone Spurs. And Bush's Ivy-bred, hail-good-fellow-well-met, martini-cart chumminess is fondly remembered by his political associates and by access-driven journalists.
As a family man, the late president looks a lot better than a president who ignores his young son and whose older children are under investigation. And like the other modern one-term president, Jimmy Carter, Bush 41's post-presidency was laced with good deeds and occasional candor — like renouncing his NRA membership as that group grew crazy and extreme — that buried memories of their less successful years in the Oval Office.
But the reason Bush's death is a national news story is not those flashes of humanity but because he was one of just 44 men (Grover Cleveland twice) to serve as our president, and for all the little people out there in the dark who never got one of Poppy's handwritten notes but lived under his policies, the reality of his 1989-93 presidency — rejected by 62 percent of the electorate when he ran for re-election — was a lot different from what you'll hear right now if you flip on your TV.
The good, the bad, and the ugly wasn't just a Clint Eastwood movie. Foreign policy was Bush 41's passion — not surprising for a man whose 1960s ties to the CIA as a globe-trotting oil driller are rarely discussed — and in death you'll hear a lot about the good (managing the end of the Cold War, not creating a mess by invading Baghdad as his son later would), but not the bad (a propaganda campaign to launch that 1991 Gulf War that was the precursor to today's "fake news") or the ugly (a pointless 1989 invasion of Panama that even Reagan had rejected as Yankee imperialism).
But the most damaging mythmaking that's taking place in the mourning of George H.W. Bush is to hold him aloft as a paragon of civility (a term that so often means "elites sharing a cocktail as they launch a new war or crush the working class") and friendly bipartisanship when the reason we're even talking about him is because he only gained the presidency by green-lighting the ugliest and — admittedly, by its own late architect — most openly racist presidential campaign in modern history.
History tends to remember world leaders not because they were good family men but because of their driving ambition — and George H.W. Bush was no exception. In 1988, after eight years of abandoning some of his core beliefs (flip-flopping on abortion, for example) to serve as Reagan's vice president, Bush's dream of becoming president was in his grasp — yet slipping away.
Bush's boss was personally popular, but Reagan's governing — marred by the Iran-Contra scandal and growing awareness that prosperity did not "trickle down" to the shrinking middle-class — left voters thirsting for something different. In October 1987, 55 percent of Americans told an ABC news poll that they wanted a change from Reaganism. The 1988 Democratic primaries handed that task to Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, a decent man with an all-American story as the son of Greek immigrants, but a flawed candidate who believed in bland competence over charisma.
When Bush's efforts to distance himself from Reagan (with his promise of a "kinder, gentler America") failed to resonate, he turned to a rising, ugly phenomenon in American politics — the politics of personal destruction — and handed control to the man who would give the nation its master class in racial-resentment campaigning, the late Lee Atwater.
Atwater (a one-time partner of consultants Paul Manafort and Roger Stone … perhaps you've heard of them?) famously acknowledged, in a 1981 interview attributed to him after his death from brain cancer, how the GOP and its "Southern strategy" of the latter 20th century harnessed white racist anger for electoral gain — understanding the shift from blatant N-word bigotry and "state's rights" to more abstract appeals to whites: "Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites."
Working for Bush in 1988, Atwater and the Bush campaign looked for that racial wedge with Dukakis and found it in the case of an African American murder convict in Massachusetts named William "Willie" Horton. Horton had been serving a prison sentence for murder when he was allowed weekend furloughs under a state program while Dukakis was governor and escaped, eventually raping a white woman at knifepoint. The policy was flawed — but the Dukakis link was tenuous, and federal prisons under Reagan and Bush (and also California when Reagan was its governor) had quite similar, lenient furlough policies. But Lee Atwater had found his hot-button flashpoint for bringing racism into the 1988 election.
"By the time we're finished, they're going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis's running mate," Atwater — who was Bush 41's chief strategist — said. A 30-second spot featuring Horton's case and his menacing mug shot photo was outsourced to an obscure political committee run by a man named Floyd Brown (who later launched a group you may also have heard of … Citizens United) that only ran the ad briefly enough to get a Horton-Dukakis link in the national news and to reinforce a Roger Ailes-produced Bush campaign spot called "Revolving Door" that spotlighted furloughs and white fears of black crime. Bush himself frequently mentioned this case as he campaigned. A picture of Horton's mug shot even hung in the Bush campaign office — as the GOP nominee steadily rose in the polls.
The Horton ads were just the exclamation point on one of the most blatantly ugly campaigns in American history — with echoes of McCarthyism (Dukakis was tagged as "a card-carrying member of the ACLU" and tarred with a veto of an almost certainly unconstitutional law requiring kids to recite the Pledge of Allegiance) and worse. There were false rumors that wife Kitty Dukakis had burned a flag at a 1960s protest or even that Michael Dukakis was mentally ill (bizarrely aided by Reagan himself, who joked that the Democrat was an invalid).
I guess it's easy to become an icon of American civility after you've gained the platform of the presidency in a campaign marked by thuggery and a dash of blatant racism — one that made sure middle-class white voters were mad over cultural issues and not over the GOP's pro-wealthy policies. It's also ironic that Bush's passing and the wave of nostalgia is occurring while the movie The Front Runner — depicting the implosion of wonkish 1988 candidate Gary Hart over his personal peccadilloes as the start of the politics of personal destruction that gave us Trump — is in theaters. According to a recent expose by veteran A-list writer James Fallows, Hart's outing as an alleged philanderer with a woman named Donna Rice, right down to the choice of a boat named Monkey Business, may also have been a setup orchestrated by Team Atwater.
You could argue that Bush's muck-covered 1988 campaign doesn't matter if he turned around and governed as a wise philosopher-king. The reality is more complicated. One of 41's first presidential moves was to, in essence, continue to amplify the Willie Horton message by amping up the so-called war on drugs that targeted black men in cities. His political team decided to dramatize the speech by Bush holding up a bag of crack to highlight drug dealing right outside the White House.
The problem was that no one was actually dealing crack in front of the White House. Instead, DEA agents entrapped a suspect — a 19-year-old black high school senior named Keith Jackson, from a poor D.C. neighborhood who told the lawmen he didn't even know where the White House was — and lured him to Lafayette Park for a deal. Arrested only after Bush's speech, the teenager spent eight years in federal prison because of mandatory-minimum laws enacted by the Reagan-Bush administration. When Bush was voted out of office in 1992, President Civility issued pardons for all his cronies from the Reagan White House convicted in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Bush didn't pardon Keith Jackson. He also — and I've heard no mention of this in the hours of television tributes — presided over the rapid acceleration of mass incarceration that primarily targeted nonwhite inmates, policies that ripped apart thousands of families and devastated cities like Philadelphia. As news of Bush's death spread this weekend, networks raced to book his pals like Dick Cheney, who was Bush's defense secretary, or his Secretary of State James Baker. No one booked Keith Jackson, or other forgotten victims of mass incarceration.
It's part of our humanity to not speak ill of the newly dead — except that we live in an age where hagiography too often replaces history. In the case of Reagan, amnesia over what actually happened in the 1980s was used to sell unjustified wars and harmful tax cuts in the 21st century. In the case of Bush 41, our misunderstanding of this so-called civility is selling a 2018 notion of Trump Exceptionalism — that our problems will all be solved if we can just get Trump out of the White House and go back to the bipartisan Way We Weren't of the bygone 1980s.
In reality, undoing Trumpism is just the first step of treating a cancer in American politics and governing that's deeply rooted in the 12 years that George H.W. Bush spent in the White House as vice president and president — and it includes both criminal-justice reform and drug treatment as well as reversing the racism that's propped these policies up. It's hard work — and it can't begin until we start telling the truth about our history.