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Reflecting on H.W.

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, died Friday, marking the end of a career in public life that has spanned over five decades. A World War II veteran and a Connecticut yankee, Bush moved to Texas after graduating from Yale to pursue a career in the region’s booming oil business. The newly branded Texan then pursued a career in Republican politics beginning in the 1960s, serving as a congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and director of the CIA throughout the next two decades. Picked up by Ronald Reagan to be his vice president in 1980, Bush eventually succeeded Reagan in 1988, easily defeating his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis in a landslide victory. As president, his administration is probably best known for directing a U.S-led military intervention in the Gulf region, which was widely seen as an American foreign policy victory in the wake of a lingering “Vietnam Syndrome.” After being defeated by Clinton in the 1992 election, Bush retreated from political life, devoting his time between various humanitarian activities and public speaking—even serving as commencement speaker for Duke’s Class of ’98. 

In the wake of Bush’s death, various news outlets and commentators have begun the usual process of eulogizing the former president and his political legacy. The New York Times published a photo-essay titled “‘I Love You, Too’: George Bush’s Final Days” that recounts the last few days of a seemingly feeble, well-loved dying man surrounded by close friends and family in the comfort of an elegant suburban Houston home. Various political leaders, including former President Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump, have sent out public statements commemorating Bush’s legacy, with Obama praising the “legacy of service” Bush left behind as the 41st president of the United States. In particular, news commentators have also focused on the seemingly hallowed relationship Bush had with his late wife, Barbara Pierce Bush, further cementing his patriarchal legacy as a good politician, good father and good husband. 

In eulogizing former President Bush, we should be careful not to simply whitewash his legacy for the sake of honoring a grandfatherly national leader in the wake of his death. Especially in today’s divisive and partisan political climate, individuals can often-times fall into the trap of looking back at past political leaders and their agendas with a more benign, nostalgic eye. A “Bush nostalgia” has set in where both Republicans and Democrats look toward the Bush dynasty’s 12 years in Washington with a sense of romanticized wistfulness. In this revisionist mindset, although George Bush was by no means perfect, his purported level-headedness, moderation and civility are fondly remembered in comparison to the disgraceful and embarrassing behavior of the White House’s current occupant. 

Behind the façade of this canonized conservative hero, all the president’s flaws are seemingly forgotten. Never mind that Bush failed to properly address the AIDS crisis and exacerbated its effects by turning a blind eye to proper health and research funding until the early 1990s. Operation Desert Storm was successful in liberating Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s invasion, yet U.S. bombers killed thousands of Iraqi civilians in the conflict despite assurances that there would be little “collateral damage” in an American military intervention post-Vietnam. Sure, the blue-blooded Bush dynasty injected respectability and a touch of aristocracy into “moderate” conservativism, but the social and political effects H.W.’s presidency had on the greater American people would have been similar under any Republican president: steadfast adherence to trickle-down economics, cutting the safety net and an aggressive foreign military policy. 

There seems to be a taboo in the direct aftermaths of the death of great national figures like George H.W. Bush and John McCain to not “speak ill of the dead” and to instead eulogize their accomplishments as eminent men of politics. Yet political leadership often entails responding to forces that will inevitably have negative consequences to individuals regardless of one’s intention. Even seemingly storied presidents like John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt left behind legacies that have undermined their images; Kennedy’s philandering is well documented while Roosevelt had few qualms about Japanese American internment during World War II. In remembering George H.W. Bush, we should examine his legacy with a critical eye, and not neglect the many flaws in a presidency that some have romanticized as a paragon of moderate Republican leadership.

This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff.


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