The tributes to former President George H.W. Bush, who died on Friday aged 94, have been pouring in from all sides of the political spectrum. He was a man “of the highest character,” said his eldest son and fellow former president, George W. Bush. “He loved America and served with character, class, and integrity,” tweeted former U.S. Attorney and #Resistance icon Preet Bharara. According to another former president, Barack Obama, Bush’s life was “a testament to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling. And he did tremendous good along the journey.” Apple boss Tim Cook said: “We have lost a great American.”
In the age of Donald Trump, it isn’t difficult for hagiographers of the late Bush Sr. to paint a picture of him as a great patriot and pragmatist; a president who governed with “class” and “integrity.” It is true that the former president refused to vote for Trump in 2016, calling him a “blowhard,” and that he eschewed the white nationalist, “alt-right,” conspiratorial politics that has come to define the modern Republican Party. He helped end the Cold War without, as Obama said, “firing a shot.” He spent his life serving his country — from the military to Congress to the United Nations to the CIA to the White House. And, by all accounts, he was also a beloved grandfather and great-grandfather to his 17 grandkids and eight great-grandkids.
Nevertheless, he was a public, not a private, figure — one of only 44 men to have ever served as president of the United States. We cannot, therefore, allow his actual record in office to be beautified in such a brazen way. “When a political leader dies, it is irresponsible in the extreme to demand that only praise be permitted but not criticisms,” as my colleague Glenn Greenwald has argued, because it leads to “false history and a propagandistic whitewashing of bad acts.” The inconvenient truth is that the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush had far more in common with the recognizably belligerent, corrupt, and right-wing Republican figures who came after him — his son George W. and the current orange-faced incumbent — than much of the political and media classes might have you believe.
He ran a racist election campaign. The name of Willie Horton should forever be associated with Bush’s 1988 presidential bid. Horton, who was serving a life sentence for murder in Massachusetts — where Bush’s Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, was governor — had fled a weekend furlough program and raped a Maryland woman. A notorious television ad called “Weekend Passes,” released by a political action committee with ties to the Bush campaign, made clear to viewers that Horton was black and his victim was white.
As Bush campaign director Lee Atwater bragged, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate.” Bush himself was quick to dismiss accusations of racism as “absolutely ridiculous,” yet it was clear at the time — even to right-wing Republican operatives such as Roger Stone, now a close ally of Trump — that the ad had crossed a line. “You and George Bush will wear that to your grave,” Stone complained to Atwater. “It’s a racist ad. … You’re going to regret it.”
Stone was right about Atwater, who on his deathbed apologized for using Horton against Dukakis. But Bush never did.
He made a dishonest case for war. Thirteen years before George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction to justify his invasion and occupation of Iraq, his father made his own set of false claims to justify the aerial bombardment of that same country. The first Gulf War, as an investigation by journalist Joshua Keating concluded, “was sold on a mountain of war propaganda.”
For a start, Bush told the American public that Iraq had invaded Kuwait “without provocation or warning.” What he omitted to mention was that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, had given an effective green light to Saddam Hussein, telling him in July 1990, a week before his invasion, “[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”
Then there is the fabrication of intelligence. Bush deployed U.S. troops to the Gulf in August 1990 and claimed that he was doing so in order “to assist the Saudi Arabian Government in the defense of its homeland.” As Scott Peterson wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in 2002, “Citing top-secret satellite images, Pentagon officials estimated … that up to 250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks stood on the border, threatening the key U.S. oil supplier.”
Yet when reporter Jean Heller of the St. Petersburg Times acquired her own commercial satellite images of the Saudi border, she found no signs of Iraqi forces; only an empty desert. “It was a pretty serious fib,” Heller told Peterson, adding: “That [Iraqi buildup] was the whole justification for Bush sending troops in there, and it just didn’t exist.”