President David Cop-A-Feel is dead.
We are going to see a lot of liberal lament for Bush now that he is gone. Heck, we even see that for his terrible son now that Trump is president. But let’s not forget that Bush Sr was part and parcel of the move of the Republican Party to the right. His actions were not as extreme as that of his son or Trump, but they helped pave the way for what is today an undemocratic party flirting with fascism. I don’t find Bush a despicable or contemptuous figure, but there’s a lot unsavory aspects to the man and his policies that need to be remembered as so many liberals long for the Republican Party where Lee Atwater could racebait Bush into the White House.
Bush was born in 1924 to one of the nation’s most elite families. His father, Prescott Bush, was a Republican senator from Connecticut from 1952 until 1963. Young George went to the best schools—Greenwich Day School, Phillips Academy, Yale. He was indeed born with a silver foot in his mouth, to quote Ann Richards’ epic line about him at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Of course, his time at Yale was delayed by World War II. Bush enlisted in the Navy upon his graduation from Andover and became an aviator, a very dangerous occupation, even compared to most other military jobs. On a September 1944 mission, while attacking Japanese instillations on Chichijima, an island between Iwo Jima and the Japanese mainland, Bush’s plane was hit and crashed. He parachuted out but the other man in his plane died when the parachute did not open. Bush got pretty lucky here. He floated for only four hours before a ship came to get him. His fellow fighters circled him to keep away any Japanese attackers and make sure that he wasn’t lost. It was a submarine that picked him up and worked there for the next month, picking up other people in need of rescue. Through the war, Bush flew 58 combat missions and was discharged shortly after the Japanese surrender.
Bush married Barbara Pierce in 1945 and they had six children, one who died young and five who just may have contributed to a lot of terrible things in American history. He started at Yale immediately after the war as well, where he played baseball, was a cheerleader, and was inducted into Skulls and Bones. Nothing but elitism for this man.
Rather than staying in New England, Bush decided to make a name for himself in the oil industry. He moved his family to west Texas after graduation, which is a tremendously unpleasant part of the country. Of course, he had help through all of this. Daddy was a long time member of the Board of Directors for Brown, Brown, and Harriman, which had a subsidiary called Dresser Industries. Bush was hired an oil field equipment salesman for Dresser. But a rich boy like George Bush wasn’t meant to work for others. With all the help he needed from his rich New England connections, Bush started the Bush-Overbey Oil Development Company in 1951 and then the Zapata Petroleum Company in 1953. The next year, he was named president of the Zapata Offshore Company, which drilled in the Gulf. In 1959, he and his family left the wild life of Midland for the oil capital of Houston, where Bush would base his political career. He became a millionaire on his own by the early 1960s and turned to politics, which was the family business after all.
Bush’s pre-presidential political career is really quite unimpressive. His rise was based almost entirely on his connections, all the way to the vice-presidency. His management and competence were a piece of the puzzle too, sure, but those things don’t matter if his last name isn’t Bush. He became chairman of the Republican Party in Harris County, which is Houston, but that didn’t satisfy him. He was more interested in policy than being a money man and inside player. So he aimed high. He ran for Senate in 1964 specifically because Texas senator Ralph Yarborough, one of the few southern liberals at that time, voted for the Civil Rights Act. Yarborough was a good man, the only southern senator to vote for every major piece of civil rights legislation between 1957 and 1970. This was outrageous to a man like George Bush. So Bush won the Republican primary and took on the liberal incumbent, running explicitly on Yarborough’s racially liberal record. He got his hat handed to him. Texas was a conservative state, but it was also still a Democratic state and those roots ran deep, allowing even a racial liberal such as Yarborough to defeat an anti-civil rights candidate in that heated year. It’s worth noting as well that despite George Bush’s reputation as a moderate by today’s context, he was not and never was a man of moderate politics. Yarborough’s campaign was based on painting Bush as a right-wing extremist who was too conservative for Texas voters. And at that time, it was both accurate and successful. It might not have remained that way, but George Bush was no moderate.
These were just the ones who won in 1964. Others tried to follow the same path, but fell short.
Here’s an ad from George H.W. Bush’s unsuccessful 1964 campaign against liberal Democratic Sen. Ralph Yarborough of Texas. pic.twitter.com/JlpLcuWXx5
— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) May 7, 2018
Bush did win a House seat in 1966, becoming the first ever Republican to represent Houston in Congress. He moderated a bit on civil rights, voting for the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and supporting birth control, but by and large, Bush was a bog-standard conservative Republican, a major supporter of the Vietnam War, and general backer of Nixon’s policies. Nixon liked Bush and convinced him to take another shot at the Senate, taking on Yarborough again in 1970. Maybe he would have won, but Lloyd Bentsen primaried Yarborough over civil rights and other the senator’s other liberal positions and was a formidable candidate in the general election. Bush lost again. He would next win office on his own when he ran for president in 1988. This was not an impressive political career for someone who wanted to be president.
Again though, Nixon liked Bush. So he named Bush his UN ambassador in 1971. His work there was largely without much distinction and without any embarrassment. He was competent in the way that Bush was competent. Well-connected, likable, and rich, Bush was the ideal Republican. He left the UN when Nixon needed a new head of the Republican National Committee. This was 1973 and Nixon was in free-fall. Bush accepted and while he defended his friend the president, he also started to distance himself, focusing increasingly on building the Republican Party and less on defending Nixon. Finally, he requested that Nixon resign before being convicted for his crimes for the sake of the party as a whole.
Bush was one of the rare Nixon insiders completely untainted by Watergate and Nixon’s other debacles. So now, although a complete insider, Bush had become a rapidly rising star in the Republican Party. Gerald Ford named him liaison to China, which was the equivalent of being the ambassador, except that we had not normalized diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic yet. But even that only came after Bush was a finalist for Ford’s VP, with Nelson Rockefeller beating him out. Interestingly, some of the push for Bush came from people who a) hated Rockefeller for being too liberal but more interestingly b) people who felt Rockefeller would overwhelm Ford, whereas Bush was a good company man. Well, the latter was certainly true, although Rockefeller in the end was a perfectly fine choice for the position. Bush was also #2 on Ford’s list in 1976, when he chose Bob Dole instead. By this time though, Bush was head of the CIA. Again, he served primarily as a stabilizing force in an agency rocked by scandal, in this case the Church Committee’s exposé of all the horrible things the CIA had done in the previous three decades that now came to light.
When Jimmy Carter took the presidency, there was some talk about Bush staying on at the CIA, but he left government for the next four years, becoming a senior Republican in the policy and influence world. He taught a few courses at Rice, played a big role in the Council on Foreign Relations, and prepared his run for president.
It was a pretty stiff field Bush faced in 1980—not only Ronald Reagan, but Howard Baker and Bob Dole, as well as some relatively minor candidates. Bush’s big theme was his experience in government and his honor, a reference back to how he helped guide the party through Watergate. The latter was a good position to take for those who still had a bad taste in their mouth from Nixon and while the former was true enough, again, it’s worth noting that he was a nothing when it came to electoral politics. Bush went all in for Iowa and it worked with a narrow victory over Reagan. But in New Hampshire, Reagan wiped the floor with Bush and walked away with the nomination. Bush did have his memorable line accusing Reagan of embracing “voodoo economics” with his supply-side foolishness, but of course Bush would largely go down this road as well when he took power. Reagan also named Bush as his VP, bridging a divide in the party with mainstream business conservatives and party elites.
As VP, Bush wouldn’t do a whole lot. That’s the norm for the position, really only changing with Al Gore. There’s not all that much to say—he attended funerals, met with foreign leaders, chaired a couple of commissions, etc. This would later prove to be quite valuable as by the time 1988 came around, he knew everyone and everyone knew him. He also almost certainly knew just about everything about Iran-Contra and like so much of that horrible scandal, his involvement was not investigated nearly to the extent that he should have been, a fact that the independent counsel’s final report made note of. We will probably never know precisely what he knew, although who knows what papers may come out or eventually be declassified now that he has died.
Bush knew he would run for president again soon after Reagan’s reelection. His biggest challenge became known as “that vision thing,” because while Bush was competent, no one knew what he cared about. Bob Dole was running again too, and he was no pushover. So was Jack Kemp. And good ol’Pat Robertson, in a candidacy that wasn’t take too seriously, even if the grifting preacher did win Iowa. In fact, Bush only finished third in Iowa. But he came back for a big win in New Hampshire, somewhat by distorting Bob Dole’s tax record, which greatly angered the legendary curmudgeon. Dole’s lashing out at Bush generally is seen to have helped the latter and he cruised to the nomination.
Michael Dukakis started the general election season as the favorite. But between Dukakis’ poor campaigning, the electorate already forgetting about Iran-Contra, and the same unfair attacks from the media that Democrats always get (in this case Bernard Shaw’s utterly offensive and horrifying question asking if Dukakis would support the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered and then tank photo ridiculousness), Bush came back. Dukakis wasn’t a supporter of the war on crime and this would hurt him in a period where the open racism of 1960 might not play publicly but the slightly more hushed racism that was acceptable could be powerfully deployed. Bush came to power using some of the most reprehensible tactics in American history. The hiring of Lee Atwater as a campaign advisor came with all the race-baiting one could imagine. The Willie Horton ad was utterly grotesque, an openly racist ad harking back to long American fears of black men raping white women. Bush can never be forgiven for this, not to mention Atwater, who at least claimed to want forgiveness on his death bed. That sort of toxicity has become central to Republicans strategies ever since. It’s interesting to me how the fact that George Bush used a white supremacist advertisement to win the presidency has largely been forgotten about in memories of him, with the blame going to Atwater.
Bush also began what is now a long and grotesque tradition in the Republican Party—prioritizing genuinely stupid people as presidential and vice-presidential nominees. Dan Quayle was so obviously unqualified and an embarrassment for the next four years. One might argue that Quayle’s “potatoe” incident was unfair, but then it really wasn’t because he was that disinterested and dumb to not notice an obvious error. Even more stupendously stupid was his attack on Murphy Brown, as if a TV show character was a real person. All of this was just red meat to his idiot supporters. Of course, none of this stopped John McCain from doing the same with Sarah Palin. And then there was 2016, when Republican voters decided that someone who combined the stupidity of Quayle, the crudity of Palin, the attitude of Roy Cohn, and the wealth of Jay Gould was the perfect nominee. What a country.
In any case, Bush defeated Dukakis in blowout fashion. In a sign of how much electoral maps can change in a relatively short length of time, Dukakis won Iowa and West Virginia while losing California and Vermont. Bush had famously said “Read my lips, no new taxes” while campaigning. But facing a Democratic Congress and significant deficits, Bush gave in. This infuriated Republicans, who managed to defeat his budget, but then Bush had to respond by giving in to more Democratic demands, undermining his popularity with Republicans. His economic advisers told him that all was good and by mid-1990, convinced him to stop spending time on the economy, arguing that it was going to be fine in 1992 and he should focus on foreign policy. Whoops! By mid-1992, unemployment spiked to 7.8%, the highest since 1984. This would severely hurt Bush that fall. It didn’t help that Bush had already told reporters he found foreign policy a lot more interesting than domestic policy. He would certainly show this through his presidency, but his relative indifference to domestic policy by 1992 created the image of a president who really didn’t care about the economic problems affecting everyday people.
This general indifference came through in a lot of his domestic program. Bush claimed he was going to be “the environmental president.” Uh….. Now, maybe he actually believed that embracing a soft version of environmentalism was going to be politically useful for him, as it was for his mentor Nixon. But by 1989, environmentalism had become significantly more polarized, as it is today. Bush reauthorized the Clean Air Act, but it’s not like that was some big brave act. He had no answer at all for the spotted owl issue roiling the Northwest. Bush came out in support of the timber industry instead of environmentalists fighting to save the last old-growth forests, not exactly the move of the environmental president. But he never had the leadership skills or willingness to spend capital on this issue to solve anything at all. Fixing this would be one of Bill Clinton’s first priorities in 1993.
Bush was also typical of Republicans in effectively opposing legislation to make the nation more democratic. His veto of the motor-voter bill was the most prominent example during his administration. That bill simply required all states to allow voters to register at the DMV when they got their drivers’ license. Of course, VOTER FRAUD and BIG GOVERNMENT were the outcry from the right, including Bush. But what this was really about is the same reason why Washington, DC will never become a state—it would help Democrats win elections. When conservatives have a choice between power and democracy, they inevitably choose power. And that very much included George Bush.
Bush could have held the Reagan administration accountable for Iran-Contra. Instead, he chose to pardon everyone. Gee, I wonder why? Just before he left office, he pardoned Caspar Weinberger, who was just about to go on trial for his crimes, describing him as a “true American patriot.” He also pardoned such lovely people as Elliott Abrams and Robert McFarlane, basically ending any responsibility anyone would face for Iran-Contra. But, hey, let’s not get in the way of liberals’ longing for George Bush, the Good Republican President.
Then there’s Bush nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Of all Bush’s actions, this is probably the most unforgivable. First, there was the slap in the face to the civil rights movement to replace Thurgood Marshall with someone as utterly unqualified and counter to everything people worked and died for as Thomas. Second, there was Thomas’ rank sexual harassment, not that this bothered many male Democratic senators at the time. The long-term implications of Thomas’ period on the Court have been truly horrible. Of course, Democrats also got very lucky with Bush’s other nominee to the Court—David Souter. So compared to W or Trump’s nominees and the extreme politicization of the judiciary today, I guess things could have been worse. But Thomas was a man well to the right of even Bush and while attacks on him being stupid for not being a showboat like Scalia were quasi-racist, Bush naming Thomas to the Court is a huge blackmark on his legacy, one nearly equal to Andrew Jackson naming Roger Taney or Grover Cleveland naming Melville Fuller.
Bush’s escalation of the War on Drugs was a terrible, awful, no good thing. On September 5, 1989, Bush gave his first televised national address as president. He had a bag of crack on the desk with him that he said was purchased in the park across from the White House. He said he would vastly increase the funding of the War on Drugs. What this meant in reality was turning the police in cities on black and brown people, who were largely engaged in the only economic activity available to them. Most of the violence has always been related to the illegality of drugs and Bush just made this worse, turning the criminal justice system into a factory to incarcerate black bodies. It also completely failed to stop people from using drugs and that war has largely been lost, despite last ditch desperate attempts from people such as Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to revive it.
Bush’s response to other racial issues were also pretty bad. Perhaps the most important domestic event of his presidency was the Rodney King riots and there was no useful leadership in the White House on that. Bush said he was outraged and that the government would fight police brutality, but that never happened and never has. Bush also vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990 twice. That now largely forgotten law would have made it easier for people suing over sexual or racial discrimination to win lawsuits; Bush vetoed it because he thought it would lead to quotas in hiring and anything that really fought back against white privilege was never something a man who had first started in politics to oppose civil rights could handle.
Bush was always more interested in foreign policy and he had plenty of it to deal with. Of course, he entered office just before the Berlin Wall came down and as the Soviets were in decline. I think it’s fair to say that Bush handled all of this quite capably. Any additional U.S. interference could have led to a backlash and while not all his advisors were too excited about cozying up to Gorbachev, Bush’s willingness to sign the START I treaty in 1989 was an important step. Of course, the U.S. would also promote the oligarchic capitalism of the post-Soviet Russia, but that wasn’t per se the Bush administration any more than it was a lot of other players, including Clinton officials.
As for the Iraq War, I think that’s complicated. There was a good reason to force Iraq out of Kuwait. You can argue that it wasn’t any of our business, but it was an open invasion of a sovereign nation for the reason of looting their resources. That’s really reprehensible. And of course Saddam Hussein was a terrible human being. For better or for worse, the U.S. has a critical military interest in Saudi Arabia. I can’t much criticize the prosecution of the war either, at least in terms of geopolitical strategy. It ended quickly and Bush was convinced by his advisors to leave Hussein in power because of the vacuum it would create to get rid of him. His son, too stupid and dealing with too many Freudian issues to understand this, would prove his father right.
On the other hand, there was his call for Iraqis to rise up and then leaving them to get slaughtered. From a strictly geopolitical standpoint, if you don’t actually care about the people involved, I get why you might do this. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work this way. When the United States is at war with a nation, calls for that nation’s oppressed minorities to revolt, and then abandons them to slaughter, that is an immoral act. It’s also an act that had a tremendous long-term impact on American credibility, especially in the aftermath of his son’s absurd second war in Iraq.
Bush and his advisors very much saw the Gulf War as revitalizing American militarism and dominance abroad. At the time, there was a lot of talk about how Iraq had finally gotten the U.S. over its Vietnam Syndrome. Well, I guess the jingoistic patriotism that accompanied the invasion certainly did some of that. This fact is also highly celebrated at the Bush Library in College Station, where there’s an entire room dedicated to Bush’s toughness in the face of Saddam’s aggression and how finally the U.S. could come together to dominate the world. It’s a rather depressing part of the museum. We certainly saw the love of Americans killing brown people again in Iraq a dozen years later.
It was also during the Gulf War where Bush issued his “New World Order” speech, which of course was an order with the Americans on top. This would be a capitalist order, where governments would advance the wealth of the global 1 percent with a limited amount of democracy underpinning this. Of course, central to the New World Order was American-dominated trade agreements. His administration was also the shepherd of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Bill Clinton gets more credit/flack for NAFTA because he was a Democrat and because he signed the bill. But this was Bush’s baby. He announced it and supported it from the beginning. His Commerce Secretary, Robert Mosbacher, perhaps did more than any other American to see it through.
Bush’s actions in Panama were also highly questionable. Manuel Noriega certainly wasn’t a great guy, but he was a bad guy with lots of ties to the U.S. His thuggery was getting more over the top, including voiding democratic elections that had replaced him. And he was running drugs for the Colombian cartels. But it’s not as if that was a new thing. The question here is why we invaded Panama? The proximate reason was an American soldier getting killed in Noriega’s crackdown, which led to 24,000 invading troops to capture him. But Bush was all about showing America’s toughness and of course the media just ate it up, as they do basically every time the U.S. kills some brown people around the world for whatever spurious reason.
There was plenty about Bush that was basically OK, at least in comparison to later Republicans. A Thousand Points of Light was pretty dumb, but a non-offensive push toward nonprofits and individual acts of kindness and charity. Would rather have the government handle most of these issues of course. He signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, although it’s not like he really did anything to promote the law. He signed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, giving some limited federal recourse for those who had been sickened in the Cold War, especially uranium miners. And while Bush picked up a lifetime NRA membership in 1988 (what coincidental timing!) he broke from the organization after they attacked him when he placed a temporary ban on semiautomatic assault rifles in 1989.
In 1992, Bush was sure he would win reelection. Most of the top Democrats decided not to run. When Arkansas governor Bill Clinton won the nomination, this relative unknown wasn’t seen as a tough a challenger as Mike Dukakis had been, and Bush wiped the floor with him. But thanks to Clinton’s youth and energy and a sliding economy, Bush began to plummet in the polls. Bush’s disastrous visit to a grocery store, where he had never seen a modern checkout counter with a bar code scanner, didn’t help as he looked hopelessly out of touch with real Americans. To be fair, he had always been hopelessly out of touch with most people. Ross Perot’s bizarre entry into the race probably had no major effect on the final result. Although setting the narrative of the election, especially around NAFTA, Perot seems to have largely captured a variety of voters, including a lot of the conservative white guys from traditionally Democratic states that would eventually vote for Donald Trump. But while a lot of these people might have voted for Bush in 1992, many would have voted for Clinton as well.
Bush retired to Houston after his defeat. He stayed fairly active. He was the target of an assassination attempt when he visited Kuwait in 1993. Clinton responded by launching some missiles at Baghdad, a favorite activity of Americans at the time. Bush supported his sons’ rise to political power, gave speeches, provided strategy and support for leading Republicans. He and Clinton later became friends after the latter left office and they did quite a bit of traveling supporting various causes together. Basically, he lived the long life of an elder statesman.
In his late life, Bush developed a love of feeling up young women, often in the company of his own wife. We might chalk this up to the dementia of an old man, but there’s not a ton of evidence Bush was suffering a lot of cognitive decline in his later years. Plus, what are the chances that this habit developed before he turned 85? He was certainly with it enough to come up with a terrible but credible line with the David Cop-A-Feel bit when he sexually assaulted young women.
In the end, Bush was probably an average president, but that’s really more about most of our presidents having been between bad and Trump. There’s nothing particularly wrong with being an average president. But he’s also been more than a touch romanticized by liberals because a casual glance makes it seem he led a Republican Party far to the left to that today. That’s not wrong per se, but it also lacks context. Bush pushed the party to the right from his first engagement with politics. His nomination of Clarence Thomas, his pushing Dan Quayle on the national scene, his Lee Atwater ad, the War on Drugs, naming Dick Cheney Secretary of Defense, and leaving Iraqi rebels out to dry—these are very bad, no good things. And they need to be remembered more than an imagined moderate Republicanism of 1989.