These days, a lot of people are regularly posting online comments wondering how America has fallen so low; how civility in public discussion is on the wane.
As news of the death and subsequent burial of President George Herbert Walker Bush chugged along the optical cables that connect us, I saw many sympathetic expressions. Comments are along the lines of:
“Well, I hardly agreed with him but he was from a time when at least we could disagree with civility.”
A picture of the traditional note outgoing President Bush Sr. left for incoming President Clinton is also making the Internet rounds. And there it was again: Civility. Much like the civility when these two presidents toured the country to raise relief funds for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Civility. After all, George Herbert Walker Bush’s phrase “a thousand points of light” is second only to his quip about “voodoo economics.”
As a man who served in the military, Bush surely knew the common wisdom that a person’s true character comes out under fire.
During the Presidential Campaign of 1988, then Vice-President Bush was famously behind Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the polls. And the historical trends did not line up for him: the last time a sitting Vice-President succeeded his boss had been over 150 years prior.
But George Herbert Walker Bush, that gentile man of civility, would win by any means necessary. How American. Bush was a fighter, after all, and waged a surprisingly aggressive campaign.
When Democratic candidate Dukakis said he was “a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union,” Bush turned that into a negative, stating:
“[Dukakis] says, ‘I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU.’ Well, I am not and I never will be.”
Bush was, of course, a card-carrying member of the NRA at the time. Who needs to support the First Amendment as long as you have the Second Amendment? Bush also demagogued Dukakis for “controversial” views like supporting legalized abortion or opposing mandatory school prayer – “controversial” views that had already seen their time in the Supreme Court and were the law of the land.
Bush also attacked, repeatedly, Dukakis as being an elite. After all, Dukakis was from Harvard and for Bush:
This, from the guy who, like his father – a U.S. Senator – before him and his son after him, attended Yale – Yale! – and was inducted into its elitist of the elite social club, Skull and Bones; again, just like his father and his son. This calling others out as “elitist” from the guy that the media is now proclaiming part of the old-school patrician club of the white and wealthy and WASPy.
Yale and Harvard are different? Liberalism is elitism?
The two people most credited for George Herbert Walker Bush’s come-from-behind Presidential victory were Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater. You may recall Roger Ailes as establishing Fox News as the second most divisive force in American history, just behind the Confederate Constitution. Lee Atwater, Bush’s Campaign Manager, was a piece of work you may not know because he died in 1991. But he is, no doubt, the patron saint of campaign managers like Karl Rove and Kellyanne Conway. In 1981, long before the “civil” Bush appointed him as campaign manager, Atwater said this:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut taxes. We want to cut this”, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
And just in case you think that quote is too outrageous to have been uttered in 1981, you can hear him say it as well.
And Ailes and Atwater weren’t kidding about the tactical use of racism to get results. They had no problem with the infamous “Willie Horton” ad which, in light of Atwater’s comments about how to dog whistle “race,” make the George Herbert Walker Bush campaign positively groundbreaking in the most negative of ways:
Or consider this ad, part of the same effort. Do you see how the close-up focuses on the black man going through the revolving door? He even briefly looks at the camera, just to add to the menacing effect:
The racism wasn’t lost at the time. The ad campaign was so sensationalist, the media covered it as a news story in its own right. Much like how the media covered President Trump’s outrageous campaign remarks 30 years later. In both cases, millions of free publicity dollars were generated and the negative content drove the national discussion.
Bush, of course, denied any racism at all. And he certainly never denounced the ads.
So, there you have it: that “kinder, gentler” President. “Poppy” as he was affectionately known within his family. Including, I assume, the grandchildren he, the whitest of white men, saw as “brown.” Well, maybe he didn’t really see them as different. But he sure was sensitive enough to his surroundings to know that others would.
George Herbert Walker Bush weaponized the Southern Strategy. He called upon the worst devils of our nature. He is the genesis of the present corrosive national discussion. The most vile of sentiments can now be used casually in national forums. From Bush, there is practically no leap to get to the smear campaign of the 2000 primary season that benefited his son, George W. Bush, against Sen John McCain. The smear, by an unidentified group, insinuated that McCain fathered a “black” [sic] child out of wedlock. And, of course, we should not forget the extensive Republican whispered efforts to insinuate that President Obama wasn’t even a U.S. citizen. Because skin color.
The flavor of President Trump’s candidacy and presidency does not stand apart from George Herbert Walker Bush. Quite the contrary. President Trump is a direct result of the Bushes. When Trump released a racist ad during the recent election cycle, the media had to go all the way back to the Willie Horton campaign to find something equally egregious.
Whether President Trump is in office or not, we are now living in the Bush Legacy.
Perhaps it is unfair to point out that President George Herbert Walker Bush did serious damage to his country, America, on the same day as his burial. He did, after all, enlist to fight during World War II and we should honor those who risk their lives in service to their country. Much like the way the 2004 Presidential campaign of his son, President George W. Bush, honored Sen John Kerry’s Vietnam service by viciously attacking and challenging it. (A later investigation showed that Kerry had been smeared – “swiftboated” as it is now called – and the attacks proved baseless. This is in contrast to the allegations that President George W. Bush hadn’t even completed his term of service in the Texas National Guard – allegations that proved true.)
So, let us remember the 41st President of the United States. We can remember the way he managed the end of the Cold War. Or remember the way he was instrumental in crafting the Reagan Administration’s illegal plan to sell arms to Iran for release of American hostages (as well as issuing a later Presidential pardon to most of the high-level Reagan administration officials indicted or convicted in the scandal including Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, his National Security Advisor, the Assistant Secretary of State, and the CIA’s Chief of Covert Ops).
But please let us not remember the 41st President for his “civility.”
Civility is not part of President George Herbert Walker Bush’s legacy. His legacy consists of Roger Ailes’ Fox News and Lee Atwater’s normalizing of overt racism as an acceptable campaign tactic. These are as much a part of the lasting Bush legacy as Bush’s appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
Unlike what the media is reporting, the tenets of the Bush era are still alive and well, even as he is buried. Alive and well. With or without President Trump.
Fortunately, we need not accept the present gaslighting about a “kinder, gentler” time that never existed. It is possible to have the American Dream and still be woke.