On Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, World War II veteran, former congressman, UN Ambassador, CIA director and 41st President of the United States George Herbert Walker Bush died. And, with him, died the last connection the Republican Party had to its roots and traditions of dedicated civil servants.
With George H. W. Bush went any evidence that the Republican Party was once the party of towering figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John McCain. With Bush went any evidence that the Republican Party was once willing to put country over party. With Bush went the last trace of decency left within the GOP.
Bush was a candidate in three presidential elections: 1980, when he lost in the primaries to Ronald Reagan and eventually became his running mate; 1988, when he won after serving eight years as vice president; and 1992, when he lost to then-Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
In each of these elections, Bush made many mistakes and participated in extreme partisanship, but he never once threatened to put his political rivals in prison. Never once did he attack the entire news media as “liars” or “crooked.” Never once did Bush threaten election results if they did not go his way. In essence, the first Bush presidency, imperfect as it was (and it was very imperfect,) adhered to a baseline of morality that seems to be sorely missing today.
Now, the public and the news outlets are genuinely surprised every time the current Republican president acts in a way that’s even semi-courteous to his political rivals or news outlets. Now, every time the president does not lash out or throw a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get his desired result, the average news headline reads “Donald Trump is Finally Acting in Presidential Manner.”
That wasn’t a headline that was necessary for Bush’s presidency. His courtesy toward Democrats wasn’t surprising. When he built a coalition with the Democrats to solve a budget deficit, or when he built bipartisan support to strengthen the Clean Air Act or create the Americans With Disabilities Act, no one asked “Is George H. W. Bush finally ready to act presidential?”
Bush was presidential throughout his tenure, regardless of the mistakes he made. And his mistakes were tremendous. Under him the U.S. conducted a secret war in Panama. He had a large role in the U.S. government ignoring the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and that policy largely continued under his tenure as president. And, of course, the infamous “Willie Horton” ad, packed to the brim with dog whistle racism, was a defining characteristic of his 1988 campaign.
Those actions shouldn’t be whitewashed or forgotten. They were mistakes that had and continue to have lasting damage on this country.
But people shouldn’t forget Bush was a dedicated and flawed public servant, and he embodied a sense of class not currently present in the White House.
Upon leaving the White House, Bush wrote a letter to his successor and bitter rival Bill Clinton, saying “I wish you great happiness … You will be OUR president when you read this note … your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
Now ask yourself, is that something you can ever see the current president writing? Can you see the current president telling his eventual successor: “I am rooting for you.”
Furthermore, where he could, Bush became an advocate for democracy around the world. He worked hard to earn the trust of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and got him to accept the unification of Germany and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Bush didn’t excuse the murder of journalists by dictators, or congratulate authoritarian strongmen when they committed human rights violations. And Bush never colluded with a hostile foreign power just to win an election.
The current president would do well to heed the lessons from his predecessor, to learn about how a president is supposed to act in the face of success or failure.
George Herbert Walker Bush was a complicated, flawed man who had many successes and many failures. Perhaps his failures, especially those regarding the AIDS crisis, were too great and outweigh his successes too much. Perhaps the dog whistle racism of his “Willie Horton” ads did too much damage to the national debate and undid years of progress made by anti-discrimination activists.
The Bush presidency was far from perfect, and perhaps his imperfections are what will stop him from joining the ranks of the “Great American Presidents.”
Yet, he was the last connection the Republican Party had to its roots, the last vestige of a bygone era when the GOP was more concerned with serving its country rather than winning elections. He was the last Republican Public Servant, the last Republican Statesman. George H. W. Bush was the last great Republican.