The Worst Thing We Read This Past Weekend™
An artifact from the era of George H.W. Bush bobbed up on the internet not long ago, two months or so before he died. It was an old opinion article from the New York Times; in the flat cutout language we most often use today to paste together the past, it was described as something like Maya Angelou supporting Clarence Thomas. Had she? Him? Really?
But it was not that, or not exactly that, or not that on those terms. “I am supporting Clarence Thomas’s nomination,” Angelou wrote, attributing her declaration of support to her having, in the black tradition, “the courage to hope.” Why was she hoping? Because a faint, dissolving hope—that Clarence Thomas might be “intelligent, well trained, black and young enough to be won over again”—was the most that black America could get from George H.W. Bush.
This was the situation that the first President Bush had created: Thurgood Marshall—the first and only black person ever to have sat on the Supreme Court, the mastermind of the legal strategy of the civil rights movement—was retiring, and Bush had put up a callow, committed right-wing ideologue, whose only connection to Marshall was that he was also black, as his replacement. And the administration had let it be known that, as Angelou put it, “if efforts to scuttle his appointment are successful, another conservative possibly more harmful, and one who has neither our history nor culture in common with us, will be seated firmly on the bench till death or decision rules otherwise.”
It was nasty racist hardball, an extortion scheme to force black people to choose between civil rights and representation—or not even to choose, since Bush was ready to replace Thomas with someone equally hostile. It was an act of bigoted cruelty toward everyone involved. It was the way things went under George H.W. Bush.
Here is how the New York Times, in its obituary of Bush, described the entire episode:
In Washington, Mr. Bush nominated Judge Clarence Thomas, a 43-year-old United States appeals court judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall, a champion of civil rights and the first black person to serve on that bench. Judge Thomas, who is also black, soon faced questions about his conservative ideology and accusations of sexual harassment by a former aide, Anita F. Hill.
The White House responded by trying to discredit Ms. Hill, and after a pitched battle with Congress, the Senate confirmed Judge Thomas by a vote of 52 to 48, one of the narrowest margins ever for a Supreme Court nomination. (It was a far more contentious nomination than Mr. Bush’s choice of David H. Souter, who had been confirmed by the Senate, 90 to 9, the year before.)
Only inside those parentheses at the end was a hint, by comparison, of how ugly the whole event had been, and how intentionally George H.W. Bush had made it ugly. This was typical of the Times obituary, which was typical in turn of the entire weekend’s worth of coverage. For those of us who lived through the Bush years, it was like walking through a wet cardboard diorama of the world that had existed then.
The span from 1988 to 1992 was, if you were there for it, a mean and rotten time. But this past weekend, it was retroactively imagineered into some golden age of statesmanship and decency. The Times piece made no mention of the race riots that broke out under Bush’s presidency, or of the savings and loan crisis in which his son Neil was held civilly liable. The Willie Horton campaign ad arose in the piece only as an attack on Michael Dukakis as a “Massachusetts liberal,” without any reference to race or racism. The string of letters “AIDS” only appeared in a reference to his childhood “tended to by maids and a driver.” The Gulf War, the Times did allow, was “not an unalloyed victory”:
Mr. Bush felt compelled to defend his decision to suspend the assault before it could topple Mr. Hussein, and his critics questioned his earlier effort to give Mr. Hussein financial aid and intelligence data.
Forty-one Iraqi civilians died in military or terroristic violence last month, by the United Nations’ count, 27 years after Bush started a war and then tried to declare it finished. When the Times wrote that the first Gulf War “to many Americans helped purge the ghosts of Vietnam,” what it meant was that Bush could take credit for reviving the American plan of trying to reshape the world through overt force, whether it worked or not.
But to pick at the missing details or the false lessons was to miss the uncanny dishonesty of the Bush coverage as a whole. Part of the purpose, obviously and transparently, was commentary on the present day, setting up a hollow plaster bust of Bush the Elder to contrast his statesmanship and rectitude with the deranged and corrupt rule of Donald Trump, or with the hubris and bungling of George W. Bush. Once, we had men of integrity running this place.
Those of us who were there know we had no such thing. If things have gotten worse, and they have, it is nonetheless the case that if you plot the career of George H.W. Bush onto the moral arc of the universe, it was already bending out and away. That he expressed disapproval of the military adventures that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney got the country into doesn’t change that fact they were his own son and his own defense secretary, and their adventures were the continuation of his own adventures. That he let other people do his race baiting for him, rather than shouting it from the rostrum himself, doesn’t change the fact that he did it, and won with it. He made secret illegal bargains with a hostile foreign power, and he lied about it, and when the law was closing in, he pardoned everyone involved. The worst abuse of power everyone fears Trump might do is the thing George H.W. Bush already did.
And Bush got away with it. This was the other angle to the praise and warm memories of the 41st president—the Times and the rest of the press were building them from existing memories (if “memories” is the right word) of the bogus premises that had constituted professional political discourse back then and all along. Bush was a wimp but he got tough and made Michael Dukakis the wimp. The Gulf War showed America was back from Vietnam. The CIA…well, who knows precisely what it was doing when Bush was running it, so say he can be “credited with restoring morale.” Iran-Contra was a political problem, but no one paid for it, so it wasn’t a major or lasting one. The people who ran the country did what they did, and the press worked out how to explain that it was basically OK.
Still there was one truly loaded fact about Bush that survived, mostly. The right-wing rage industry did force the Associated Press to delete a tweet and rewrite the top of its obituary, to try to make it go away. The offending tweet had read:
George H.W. Bush, a patrician New Englander whose presidency soared with the coalition victory over Iraq in Kuwait, but then plummeted in the throes of a weak economy that led voters to turn him out of office after a single term, has died. He was 94.
It wasn’t the mixed metaphor that set them off, or the conflation of approval ratings with the state of the presidency. It was that the tweet had described him, correctly, described him as a one-term president who was rejected by the voters.
The revised version of the AP obituary moved the fact that Bush was a war hero from the top of the second paragraph up to make it the very first item in his resume. The new lead also described him as a “two-term vice president,” while the specifics of how long he was president, and how his presidency ended, got bumped lower down.
Right-wing Twitter, unlike the mainstream press, understood the true lesson from Bush that might be worth celebrating in the present day. It had nothing to do with a higher standard of discourse, or dignity, or good manners. It was that when the country is going badly, and a weak and arrogant president is making things worse, the voters have the power to throw an incumbent president out.