The television spent the entire weekend reminding me that George Herbert Walker Bush loved his country, his wife, his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren, his dog, the city of Houston, the town of Kennebunkport, baseball, football, golf and so very much else besides.
Our 41st US president, the talking heads assured me, was a veritable ocean of love. The newspaper folks did their part to paint this picture, as well; stealing a leaf from Jesus of Nazareth over the weekend, Bush Sr. died and rose again on the warm updraft of early 1990s B-roll footage and gushing headlines from all corners of the country.
This legion of whitewashers was at pains to commend Bush Sr.’s decency, fairness and honor before, during and after the commercial breaks. In the age of Trump, the power-loving media clearly relished the opportunity to say good things about a president again. It was a fused loop: Bush Sr. is dead; he was nice; lather, rinse, repeat.
The hagiography festival made a particularly grand to-do about the fact that George H.W. Bush was president when the Cold War ended. What the glowing obituaries obscured, however, was that Bush Sr. was a Cold Warrior of the first order, actively involved in a number of genuine atrocities that spanned the globe.
Most of Bush Sr.’s biography has been well documented for good and ill, but his time at the helm of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is seldom discussed in this hemisphere. He spent only a year in that job, but it was one of the bloodiest years South America has ever known. Fifteen years later, he personally, if inadvertently, opened the door for the proto-fascist takeover of his own party. Those two tales, combined with some other dark chapters of Bush Sr.’s life, frame a career in power and politics that did damage most everywhere it went.
As director of the CIA from 1976 to 1977, Bush Sr. was an integral part of a US government covert terrorism/torture program in South America. Known as Operation Condor by the participants, the program was aimed at destroying left-leaning governments and organizations they feared might come to support the Soviet Union. Forty years later, the horror and chaos unleashed by Operation Condor still plagues that region, and is a fair explanation for why massive caravans of asylum-seeking migrants continue to arrive at the US-Mexico border.
Documents that were recently declassified reveal that the “Dirty War” in Argentina, the Pinochet regime in Chile, Alfredo Stoessner’s dictatorship in Paraguay and other atrocities across the continent were actively supported by the US government. Thousands of leftist peasants, union leaders, teachers, students, priests, and nuns were slaughtered, imprisoned and tortured, and George Herbert Walker Bush went to work every day at CIA headquarters to make sure it happened.
Many years later, when Bush Sr. rose to accept the Republican nomination for president in 1988, he made a fateful promise. “Read my lips,” he told the enthusiastic crowd, “no new taxes.” He broke that pledge in 1990, and in doing so dropped an atomic bomb on politics in the United States. Breaking that pledge infuriated the conservative wing of his party, which was deeply suspicious of Bush’s internationalist leanings to begin with.
Political opportunists like Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist “made their bones” in conservative circles by attacking Bush Sr. from the right for breaking that promise on taxes. Buchanan’s 1992 primary challenge, combined with Ross Perot’s outsider run for the presidency, conspired to make Bush Sr.’s first term his last. Notorious GOP operative Lee Atwater couldn’t help this time; he’d been dead for a year.
When Bush Sr. lost to Clinton in 1992, Gingrich and his ilk began a takeover of the Republican Party that became complete during the administration of Barack Obama. Odd as it may seem, it was the Cold War that ultimately caused all this: Bush Sr. couldn’t afford his Gulf War after Reagan’s long military binge, and that binge happened because the Reaganites (Bush Sr. included) decided to spend the Soviet Union out of existence. Raising taxes was Bush Sr.’s only option, and it was the end of him in politics.
The fascist upswelling that came in the wake of his broken campaign promise is as much a part of Bush Sr.’s legacy as the crisis at the southern border. Operation Condor happened even though the TV people this weekend chose to leave it off the script. The GOP’s neo-fascist twist erupted during Sr.’s administration. Both are side effects of the Cold War that will be with us for many years to come, and deserve their own wing in Bush Sr.’s library down in College Station.
Bush Sr. was the first president I was fully aware of from the beginning of his administration to the end. I was barely alive for Richard Nixon, only a boy during Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and only half-aware of Ronald Reagan’s first term. I remember being afraid of nuclear bombs for much of that time but didn’t really understand how terrible Reagan was until his second term, and by then he was already gone.
It is fair to say that I have actively disliked Bush Sr. for my entire adult life. When he became president, I hated and protested his war, scuffled for work during his economic downturn, laughed my ass off when he barfed on the Japanese prime minister and voted gleefully against him in 1992, helping to make him a one-term Republican president just like Ford and Herbert Hoover. As I grew older and somewhat wiser, I came to fully appreciate all the many reasons why my bedrock disgust for the man was not merely justified, but required.
Bush Sr.’s involvement with and subsequent cover-up of the Iran-Contra scandal could give Donald Trump lessons on how to obstruct justice.
He became a member of the #MeToo fraternity of scumbags after eight women claimed he groped them during picture-taking sessions.
He lied about the threat Iraq posed in order to justify the Gulf War a full 13 years before lying about Iraq and war became the hip family thing to do.
US forces deliberately bombed water-treatment facilities during that conflict, actions that were nothing more or less than biological warfare waged upon a civilian populace, also known as “war crimes.”
Iraq still glows in the dark from the depleted uranium left behind by all the exploded US ordnance during that war.
He tripled down on the Nixon/Reagan “Southern Strategy” during his 1988 presidential campaign by turning Atwater loose with the “Willie Horton ad” that set the low bar for gutter racist politics in the US for a generation.
He fathered George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, raised them to be the men they became, and while the sins of a father should not necessarily reflect upon the sons, the sins of the sons — W. in particular — certainly cast a grim light upon the father. Something in that household made those two boys into the malevolent fools they grew into, and it wasn’t the fishing on Cape Porpoise Harbor.
The benign, benevolent, grandfatherly figure we’ve been seeing on TV was also, thanks to W., one of the more shameless war profiteers of the 21st century. As a board member and unofficial “ambassador” of the private equity Carlyle Group, Bush Sr. made many millions from that company’s weapons sales thanks to his son’s ongoing Iraq catastrophe. “A tidy gift,” I wrote some 15 years ago, “from son to father.”
Bush Sr. was a creature of the Cold War and all the derangement that entailed, to be sure, but the man also had free will and made his choices. His legacy is not binary — as vice president and then president, he championed the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments which are still protecting the environment to this day — but there is a hell of a lot of suffering and death out there with his name all over it, for which he was paid very, very well.
Ignoring these truths in the service of a palatable mythology is a disservice to the future. The TV people can buff up George H.W. Bush’s resume all they please. We deserve better heroes than him.