The Flexible Legacy of G.H.W. Bush

Rock stars Poppy Bush and Lee Atwater, at Bush’s 1989 Inauguration party.

Is it still too soon? It’s always too soon for some truth.

The G.H.W. Bush I recall rose through the ranks on the strength of his family connections, his oil money and connections, and thank-you notes. Patrician dynasty looks good today compared to Trump, but that just reflects our society’s deep moral relativism. In this relativism, Bush was very American — he was always very flexible in his convictions.

Bush campaigned against the Civil Rights Act in 1964; decades later his wife made insensitive comments about the displaced New Orleans residents, mostly African-American, in the Astrodome. Bush voted for the 1968 Civil Rights Act, though. Flexible.

Bush loyally supported the Republicans who elevated him, from Nixon to Reagan, even when they were doing wrong, until conventional wisdom required a different posture. Flexible.

We will never know if Bush was the messenger who went to Iran to cut a deal for the hostages to be released on Inauguration Day, an echo of the October Surprise by Nixon that did happen in 1968 to win that election. But we do know that Bush supported the “voodoo economics” of Reagan after disparaging them with that phrase — the phrase was Bush’s, and trickle-down economics has been the economic game plan for the nation pretty much ever since. Bush’s economic beliefs were flexible, especially if they sent money to the top.

Bush tried to distance himself from the corruption of Reagan’s Iran-Contra/voodoo economics era with the wan phrase, “kinder and gentler.” I thought, and still think, that’s a catchphrase for a laxative, not a bold vision of a true leader. Another Bush phrase, “thousand points of light,” was really just a call for non-profit organizations to help poorer Americans rather than the government. Thin stuff from a candidate known for the cringeworthy phrase “the vision thing.”

Up against one of the truly awful campaigners of the 20th century in Michael Dukakis, Bush was trailing by 17 points in the polls in July 1988… so Mr. Flexible Convictions had Lee Atwater trot out Willie Horton ads that set the tone for dog-whistle racism in GOP politics for the next three decades and counting.

Once in office, Bush presided over the launching of the Gulf War. That war is largely misremembered. What actually happened is more like this: Iraq, supported by the U.S. during the Iran-Iraq War, wanted to reclaim oil from Kuwait that it claimed Kuwait was stealing with slanted wells that infringed on Iraqi territory, and claimed Kuwait was overproducing oil and lowering the price as a result. Right or wrong, Iraq got the high sign that the invasion was ok from our Ambassador April Glaspie. Then, something changed, and quick: all of a sudden this was an invasion that “will not stand,” and the war propaganda cranked up quickly, with the ambassador thrown under the war parade tanks. Jim Baker and Bush put a good face on it, and there was no shortage of Arab states ready to deal with Saddam, whom the U.S. had given cover to for a long time.

But, to rally American support for what was clearly an oil war, Kuwait ginned up false stories about babies being taken out of incubators by Iraqi soldiers. The person who testified about this to Congress was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the U.S., not an actual witness. She was prepped by Hill & Knowlton PR firm, which was hired by Kuwait to make sure the U.S. went to war on behalf of Kuwait. It was pure propaganda, and as usual the U.S. media went with the war drumbeat instead of the truth. There were many protests against the war, and the Senate voted rather narrowly to support the war (52–47), but we’re not supposed to remember that.

Something else we’re not supposed to remember is that the U.S. went to war to protect the Saudis (read: Saudi oil for us), and the U.S. coalition used Saudi Arabia as a massive staging area for the war. This American military presence in Muslim holy lands deeply offended a person named Osama bin Laden, and that had grave unforeseen consequences for America in the following decades.

The ensuing war did not topple Saddam but did set the stage for the next Iraq War by the next Bush, which destabilized the Middle East and has cost trillions of dollars with no real end in sight. I think historians will eventually realize that the critical moment in American affairs in the Middle East was the first Gulf War, not the Iraq War. Once we let an oil president go to war there, the rest was inevitable. So inevitable that terrorist attacks launched from Afghanistan in 2001 were instantly transformed, on the same day as the attacks, into a reason to re-invade Iraq. Which makes no sense. That’s pretty doggoned inevitable.

The Gulf war was framed as a noble cause just like WWII, a nostalgia trip of sorts for WWII vet Bush. Medals were distributed liberally, there was a huge post-war parade, the works. (Gulf War Syndrome was denied and ignored, of course — we couldn’t talk about all the toxins unleashed out in the desert, on everyone, starting with depleted uranium.) But the Gulf War didn’t really solve anything. My memory of the time is that America had a kind of post-war hangover that, combined with a recession, doomed Bush against the younger, more affable, but somewhat compromised (and eventually very compromised) candidate Bill Clinton.

No history of the Bush Administration is complete without noting his two-faced response to the Tiananmen Square uprising in China. Watching students risk their lives and build a large replica of the Statue of Liberty was a thrilling, incredible moment for anyone who had lived through the Cold War and thought of China as only “Red China.” What did Bush do when China murdered untold hundreds/thousands of the students in the crackdown? Publicly, he denounced it. But Bush quickly and quietly sent Brent Scowcroft to China to assure the Chinese government that we were simpatico with the Chinese government. Never mind our public stance, it’s really ok to murder the students,we let the Chinese know. Scowcroft toasted the Chinese by candlelight. Bush’s commitment to seeing democracy flourish overseas was, as usual, flexible.

Others have noted Bush’s hardness of heart with regard to HIV/AIDS research better than I can. Those lives just did not matter to him, period. The sanctity of life was, again, a flexible concept to Bush.

In the end, Bush was nearly infinitely flexible: a person who could be kind in person or in a thank-you note, but who could also lead the United States down extremely cynical economic, political and geopolitical paths that blew back on the U.S. in all kinds of ways.

I think the Presidents of the late 20th century and early 21st century will be little-remembered, much as the pre-Progressive-era Presidents of the late 19th century are hard to recall. The real leaders of our nation in both eras were the robber barons, the captains of industries who really called the shots. We have taken this to an extreme with Trump; not even the Gilded Age went this far. But until we reclaim our government from the corporations in a new Progressive Era, we will have Presidents like G.H.W. Bush who serve their masters only too well. Their service will not be viewed in a kind and gentle way by history.

A geography professor and meteorologist at UGA in Athens, GA. I write about news, sports, weather, climate, education, journalism, religion, poetry, the South.

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