No More Lip Service for George H. W. Bush (Part I)

Editor’s Note: Spectator contributor Sean Howard begins the New Year with a two-part consideration of the actual legacy — both domestic and global — of the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush. This month, in Part I, Howard considers Bush’s domestic missteps.


The death of former US President George H.W. Bush, aged 94, on November 30 unleashed a pent-up, purple torrent of praise for a leader of laudable character who’d dedicated his epoch-spanning life to selfless service, building a “kinder, gentler” nation and world. To many, it seemed both symbolically significant and historically cruel for the 41st President, father of the 43rd, to end his days aghast at the antics of the 45th, the antithesis of incorruptible political probity and democratic decency. In the closing words of The New Yorker obituary (“The Irreducible Niceness of George H. W. Bush“):

 What a rotten end for an honorable man.

Before focusing on his domestic legacy, it is unfortunately necessary to note a literal kind of ‘gross mishandling’ in Bush’s past: his long-standing penchant for grabbing young women. As Laura McGann argued succinctly in Vox on December 1: “8 Women Say George H.W. Bush Groped Them. Their Claims Deserve to Be Remembered as we Assess His Legacy.” As she stresses, no such case of “sexual harassment or assault” – particularly one involving such high doses of power and privilege – should “be bracketed off as part of a politician’s private life. It’s an important part of the story of their leadership, their use of power, and their policy.” Even in the midst of the #MeToo Moment, however, much US mainstream media chose to airbrush the eight women from their family-group portraits of ‘Poppa Bush.’

Some of the victims reported that, as they were groped, Bush cracked a dirty ‘joke,’ described in his spokesperson’s ‘apology’ as a “good-natured…attempt at humor”:

Do you know who my favorite magician is? David Cop-a-Feel!

The same sick ‘wit’ – or instinctive disrespect – was on display in 1984, when Bush quipped, after his debate with Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic nominee for vice-president (the first woman on a major party presidential ticket): “I kicked a little ass last night!” And when, as president, Bush stood by his Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, in the face of credible allegations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill and other women, was he perhaps wondering what the fuss was all about? (Just as Trump, himself a serial harasser or worse, questioned the furor surrounding Christine Blasey Ford’s equally credible claims of attempted rape against his nominee, Brett Kavanagh?)


On December 4 — lest we lapse into hagiography” — the BBC’s Nick Bryant warned of the dangers of a “legacy ” so obviously and one-dimensionally “repackaged for the Trump era,” willfully blind to Bush’s “many failings.” Topping Bryant’s list was the disgraceful campaign ‘gentleman George’ ran against Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis in 1988, starring an ad effectively blaming Dukakis for the rape of a white woman by a black man, Willie Horton, a convicted murderer on ‘weekend furlough’ from a Massachusetts jail. Noting with disgust that Dukakis “opposes the death penalty,” the narrator sonorously concludes: “Weekend prison passes – Dukakis on crime.”

Though Bush did not officially ‘approve this message,’ it ran, as Bryant notes, “for 25 days before” he “condemned it,” while his campaign director, Lee Atwater, vowed, “evidently with [Bush’s] blessing,” that “if I can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win the election.” In a New York Times death-bed confession in 1991, Atwater recalled that:

[F]ighting Dukakis, I said that I “would strip the bark off the little bastard” and “make Willie Horton his running mate.” I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not.


Perhaps, but terrible harm had been done, not just to Dukakis but to race relations, already reeling from the viciously stereotypical ‘war on drugs’ launched by Ronald Reagan and intensified by Bush and then Bill Clinton, the ‘Willie-Horton-proof’ 1992 Democratic nominee who, in January of that year, as governor of Arkansas, signed the death warrant (by lethal injection) of Ricky Ray Rector, a black prisoner so mentally “impaired” he “did not know what death [was] or understand that the people he shot [were] not still alive.” (Clinton left the primary campaign to attend the execution – though he presumably missed Rector asking if the dessert from his last meal could be saved for later.

As The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now (December 3), Bush was equally happy “running a racist election campaign” and “escalating a racist drug war,” something he did with indecent haste on the heels of his “kinder, gentler nation” nomination acceptance speech. Said Hasan:

[Bush] sat in the White House, in the Oval Office, in 1989 and held up a bag of crack cocaine, [of] which he said, famously, “Well, this was found just outside the White House, in a park across from the White House. That’s how bad the drug problem is.”

It was a great, dramatic visual prop. And yet, we discovered, thanks to reporting from The Washington Post, that that drug dealer, the drug seller, had been arrested by federal agents, yes, in Lafayette Square, but he had been lured there, to quote The Washington Post, by those federal agents. He was told to come and sell his [drugs] by an undercover operative.

It was, said Hasan, “pure cynicism” on the part of a “supposedly honest Republican President.” Fake news, no less, which reaped handsome dividends for the burgeoning prison-industrial complex, a “$1.5 billion increase in spending” on “more prosecutors, more jails, more courts.:

And we know how that ends, Amy: mass incarceration, the imprisonment, disproportionately, of young black men, lives lost, thousands of innocent lives lost in the so-called ‘drug war’ both at home and abroad.

Shortly after Bush’s Oval Office address, as Michelle Alexander notes in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, a poll showed 64% of Americans, “the highest percentage ever recorded,” agreed “drugs were the most significant problem” facing the nation.

This surge of public concern did not correspond to a dramatic shift in illegal drug activity, but instead was the product of a highly orchestrated political campaign.

And it singled out crack, a drug plaguing mainly poor African-American inner city communities, for the harshest policing and (mandatory) sentencing, rather than cocaine, that whiter, posher vice; a racial double-standard echoed today in the determination of the Trump Administration to treat the opioid epidemic – raging with particular severity in rural, white, ‘fly-over’ America – as a physical and mental health crisis rather than a golden chance to ‘lock them up.’


The Willie Horton ad was much in the news in the months prior to Bush’s death, adduced as a chilling example of the dog-whistle depths to which Trump was daily descending in his portrayal of Central American asylum-seekers as rapists, drug-dealers, murderers, etc., descending in endless ‘criminal-caravans’ on the US-Mexico border. (Bush’s immense contribution to instability and repression throughout Latin America will be recognized in Part II.) The echoes between ‘41’ and ‘45’ sound even louder when we recall, as journalist Steven Thrasher did on Democracy Nowthat in 1991 ‘41′ “created an enormous refugee camp on Guantánamo Bay” to ‘house’ families from Haiti fleeing a coup, just as ‘45’ has authorized “massive cities of tents” to punish people for – and deter others from – exercising their rights.

Whether ‘45’ will go as far to the dark side as ‘41’ remains to be seen, for as Thrasher notes, after the Haitians detained at Guantánamo were tested for AIDS, the 270 testing positive were “segregated” and the women “forcibly sterilized,” “not only a disaster for the way that people with HIV and AIDS were treated” but also creating “the legal architecture for the Guantánamo prison base after 9/11.”

To be fair, despite promises of more funding, Bush also ignored the plight of Americans with AIDS, a callousness inspiring the heart-rending ‘ashes action’ of 1992, which saw activists scattering the ashes and bone chips of AIDS victims on the Rose Garden Lawn.

Bush’s most famous broken promise — “Watch my lips, no new taxes”  — was the U-turn that did most to doom his re-election bid. Most Americans, of course, were not shocked a politician would break his word; but many did seem shocked that George Herbert Walker Bush – that dourly decent father-figure, the antithesis of ‘stuntman’ or ‘magician’ – would break his.

Though had he been a truly ‘honorable man,’ he might have closed his 1989 ‘war on drugs’ address with a special message to African-Americans:

Judge my deeds – no more justice.

Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.