By Bill Mefford
Whenever a world leader of some importance dies there always come the knee-jerk reactions. One is the respectful, lamentable, biographical remembrances of their lives. Most of these are heartfelt and are best done by personal friends or former colleagues. But these heartfelt memories inevitably leads to fawning, over-the-top hero-worship; almost totally ignoring the faults and failure of the person who has passed on.
The other knee-jerk response, particularly in reaction to the indulgent obsequiousness mentioned above, is to find every possible sin, harmful act, misspoken word, fault and failure committed, and to pound social media with it reminding everyone what a total slimeball the person was..
I hope to do neither here.
The first election I voted in was when George HW Bush ran for president as Vice-President. I voted against him. In fact, as a junior in college I actively campaigned against him. I was dead set against four more years of the Reagan administration, but more than that, I was deeply impressed by Michael Dukakis, an excellent governor of Massachusetts and a smart and effective leader. As a Christian and a liberal I loved that he was an unabashed liberal, refusing to apologize for being so even when Bush repeatedly attacked him for it, demonizing all liberals and creating an unfortunate political atmosphere for more than a decade that followed where people were afraid of calling themselves liberals in public.
Though Bush started in the summer of 88 behind Dukakis by ten points in the polls he quickly made up ground and pulled ahead, largely through not-so-subtle racist dog whistles. Under the leadership of Lee Atwater (who later repented of it just before he died), Bush used the story of a furloughed inmate, Willie Horton, from a Massachusetts’ prison who raped the wife of a man before killing them both to scare the hell out of white America. Willie Horton was black and a frightened white America who wanted nothing to do with soft-on-crime liberal leaders voted for Bush.
The saddest part of this despicable story is that the furlough program in Massachusetts was started by the governor before Dukakis. The governor was a Republican. What George HW Bush should be held accountable is how he continued the racist narrative that black people are dangerous and belong behind bars. Lord only knows how many people have needlessly suffered so that politicians like him could be elected to office.
When George HW Bush was elected I was devastated, settling in for four more years of a Reagan America. Thankfully, George HW Bush was no Ronald Reagan. Even when he did typically Republican things, like go to war with Iraq for their invasion of Kuwait, which gained him a 90% approval rating (and of course, which I opposed) he seemed to me less than comfortable gloating.
Likewise, during his presidency one of the most historic, global transformations happened: the fall of the Soviet Empire. Though many commentators gloated and talked endlessly (and nauseously) about Reagan’s greatness, I remember being mildly impressed with the steady and subtle leadership Bush showed.
Lastly, I was impressed when Bush went back on his campaign promise of no new taxes (remember “read my lips…”?). He worked with a Democratically-controlled Congress and actually raised taxes because that was the right thing to do.
It would be a lie to say I liked him or that I thought he was a good president. But I did not hate him. I merely disagreed with him on most issues. Remember when we would disagree without hating someone for political purposes? Yeah, it actually used to happen.
Perhaps the best thing that I can say about George HW Bush is that he is the last Republican I almost even remotely considered voting for. In 1992, a race that featured what I saw was three Republicans (Bush, Perot, and Bill Clinton who I believe ended up being the best Republican president in history), I wound up voting for none of them. The only candidate I even considered was Bush, but that did not last long (I wrote in a candidate).
But most of all, what I appreciated about 41 was his willingness to take a joke. Not only did he tolerate Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey and his hilarious impression of Bush, Bush thought it was hilarious as well. He and Barbara Bush even became friends with Carvey and his wife.
Does laughing at yourself cover for the many policies he enacted, or supported as a Vice-President, or as the father of one of the worst presidents in US history? No. And that is why I am not mourning for him as a leader, while at the same time my heart goes out to his family who are missing him as a father, grandfather, and a man. We have to be willing to do both at the same time.