Is History Being Too Kind to George H.W. Bush?

tags: George HW Bush

David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers, is a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. He is the author of several works of political history including, most recently, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.

Related Link How George H. W. Bush Is Being Remembered

George Bush, Sr., has died, and our national media have begun the familiar rituals of presidential passings: round-the-clock pieties on cable news, fond tributes from associates, the inevitable softening of the rough edges. This isn’t surprising. There’s ancient wisdom in the Latin aphorism de mortuis nil nisi bonum (speak nothing but good of the dead). The urge to prettify a politician’s legacy upon his demise is understandable and in some ways reflects our finer selves. Bush’s family, friends and admirers deserve comfort in their grief.

But when it comes to presidents and historical actors of consequence, we also need critical dissent. When writing my first book, Nixon’s Shadow, about that president’s endlessly protean image, I found myself grateful that at the time of his funeral—a whitewash that minimized his constitutional crimes—sober, serious historians like David Halberstam and Garry Wills stood up to provide corrective reminders. Had they not done so, future readers might have believed that Nixon’s attempted comeback had succeeded when in fact it did not. Respect for the dead must coexist with respect for the historical record. 

In the case of George Bush, this balancing act means acknowledging not only his positive qualities and achievements—as so many news outlets have already copiously done—but also what may have been his defining political hallmark: his cynicism. From his opportunistic criticism of the 1964 Civil Right Act, to his 1980 election season embrace of supply-side economics and anti-abortion politics, to his last act as president—pardoning many of the Iran Contra crew in order to protect himself—there was a recurring tendency to place short-term gain above longstanding values. 

This isn’t to say Bush lacked principles. As a young man he volunteered to fight in World War II; as an old man, he undertook important post-presidential disaster-relief efforts. These and other acts showed courage and class. At times—in working with Democrats on clean-air legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the 1990 deal to tame the debilitating Reagan-era budget deficits—he acted humanely and even nobly. But in this historian’s reckoning, self-interest prevailed too often over principle. My friend the historian Tim Naftali has called Bush the most underrated president of our times. I would say that what we’re now seeing proves the opposite: Bush was the most overrated president since Dwight Eisenhower, and possibly of all time. 

The son of Prescott Bush, a wealthy investment banker and moderate Republican senator from Connecticut, George Bush entered politics at a moment when the GOP’s center of ideological gravity was beginning to move rightward. His career bore the marks of his struggle to square his patrimony of social liberalism and responsible statesmanship with the new demand from Republican voters for a more zealous and populistic conservatism. By launching his career not in New England but in his adopted state of Texas, where he had moved to make his fortune in oil, Bush would find himself continually pressed to sacrifice his Yankee principles of noblesse oblige and social moderation. Most famously, he did this in 1964, when running for Senate amid the great civil rights struggle. Regarded by many Texas conservatives as an Eastern carpetbagger, Bush denounced the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial discrimination in schools, employment and public accommodations. At other times, as with his congressional vote in 1968 for a fair-housing bill, he incurred his constituents’ wrath. Too often though, the former choice, not the latter, served as Bush’s template in making decisions. ...

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