The nation, and the internet, are remembering President George H.W. Bush following his death just after midnight on Dec. 1. Some obituaries and remembrances are highlighting what writers describe as his "civility" — a hot button word that pundits and critics have variably longed for in both the actions of political protesters, and our word-diarrhea prone President.
Bush, Sr. was reportedly affable and diplomatic; he certainly did not use dehumanizing language in 280 characters to disparage his enemies while in office. He was also responsible for presiding over the end of the Cold War, strengthening environmental protections, and signing the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.
But many on Twitter pointed out his apparent superiority to President Trump shouldn't elide a clear-eyed look at his life in public office. And that his legacy is much more complicated, and even ugly, than some of the obituaries suggest.
The hagiography surrounding Bush and the attempts to silence any criticism has more to do with just the ongoing emphasis of many on civility at all costs.
— Carolina Workers Collective (@WorkersCarolina) December 2, 2018
When Jimmy Carter dies, he'll get half a news cycle and there won't be a single Democrat on Meet the Press.
— Stagger Lee Shot First (@elongreen) December 2, 2018
Trump may make us long for a qualified and diplomatic president. But as many have pointed out, that doesn't mean we should gloss over the actual mark these conservatives of yore left on our country, and on people's lives.
Won’t sugarcoat George H.W. Bush’s legacy: Willie Horton, Clarence Thomas, War on Drugs, Iraq, Iran Contra, but his service, handling of the Cold War, climate policies & NRA comments also can’t be ignored. Presidents who pass should be fairly critiqued not instantly mythologized.
— Adam Best (@adamcbest) December 1, 2018
Here are some of the other parts of Bush's legacy that Twitter says we can't forget.
1. The AIDS Crisis
One of the harshest indictments of Bush's legacy came about thanks to the darkly ironic timing of his death. Bush, Sr. passed on World AIDS Day, the day memorializing the AIDS crisis and its victims, raising awareness, and showing support for those living with HIV.
Don’t know that I can really handle George HW Bush apologia/hagiography on World AIDS Day.
— Isaac Butler (@parabasis) December 1, 2018
As President and, before that, Vice President under President Ronald Reagan, Bush led the country while AIDS took the lives of over 100,000 Americans in the 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, those fighting for action on AIDS criticized the two administrations' slowness to address the crisis, and Bush's conflating of the disease with irresponsible "behavior."
Organizations still fighting to de-stigmatize the disease, activists, historians, and others, did not let the timing of Bush's death go unnoticed.
It’s World AIDS Day.
So let’s remember what George H.W. Bush did about that:
- banned HIV+ people from entering the U.S.
- reduced research funding
- favored abstinence education over actual sex ed including safer sex practices
- over a 100,000 died of AIDS on his watch
— Racheline Maltese (@racheline_m) December 1, 2018
A generation of LGBT Americans, many in their 20s and 30s, was wiped out by an AIDS epidemic ignored by Reagan/Bush and Bush/Quayle until it was far too late. God how I wish they could have lived until 94 too. We won’t forget them and we won’t ignore the truth. #WorldAidsDay
— billy eichner (@billyeichner) December 2, 2018
mourning the thousands who died of AIDS while Reagan/Bush laughed, cut AIDS research, barred HIV+ people from entering country. never sugarcoat a president’s legacy after death, but especially not on World AIDS Day
— Lena Solow (@lenaruthsolow) December 1, 2018
2. Pardons for Iran-Contra
During President Reagan and Vice President Bush's second term, news broke that the government was secretly selling arms to Iran, which was under an arms embargo, and using the proceeds to support the anti-socialist Contras in Nicaragua. The scandal became known as The Iran-Contra Affair, and it laid bare the U.S.'s clandestine efforts to interfere in South American politics, often with bloody consequences.
But Bush was just the Veep — what did this have to do with him? The government ended up indicting 14 officials and convicting 11 for their role in Iran-Contra. But in the final days of his administration, Bush pardoned six of the indicted.
In all the praise for deceased #POTUS41, most have forgotten when #GeorgeHWBush participated in a gov coverup and pardoned 6 gov officials who broke the law. I am sure #Trump hasn’t forgotten. ‘President Bush Grants Pardons for Iran-Contra Defendants’ http://t.co/CPM6ZcyO2s
— FDMillet (@FrancisDMillet) December 2, 2018
Sorry, but you can't be mad about Trump's obstruction of justice, attacks on Mueller and dangling of pardons in front of Manafort and then also claim George H.W. Bush was a paragon of integrity who respected the law and special counsels, given he did this:http://t.co/gxDgopgiBd pic.twitter.com/siDS2bVRJZ
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) December 1, 2018
3. The War on Drugs
As president, Bush continued Reagan's "war on drugs" approach to combating drug use in America. This resulted in racist mandatory minimum laws which led to the disproportionate incarceration of minorities with harsh sentencing for minor drug offenses.
Historian Joshua Clark Davis shared a Twitter thread about the secret history behind an anti-drug Bush press conference that has gone viral. Essentially, Davis says that DEA agents set up a drug bust in front of the White House so that Bush could make a point about the pervasiveness of the drug problem in a televised address. Because of mandatory minimum laws, the high schooler who sold drugs to agents ended up serving a seven-year sentence.
President George Bush wanted to show America what crack cocaine looked like at his first Oval Office address on Sept 5, 1989. He wanted to show you could even buy crack in front of the White House. That’s how bad the crisis had gotten. That’s how Bush announced his War on Drugs. pic.twitter.com/exGGPxJ6f2
— Joshua Clark Davis (@JoshClarkDavis) December 1, 2018
This is a major part of Bush’s legacy. It’s what his War on Drugs did to just one person. But it shows the human costs of that war in miniature detail. A high schooler was lured to the WH to sell crack and spent 7+ years in prison, so that the President could make a point on TV.
— Joshua Clark Davis (@JoshClarkDavis) December 1, 2018
4. Clarence Thomas and #MeToo
President Bush appointed Justice Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and stood by him in the wake of Anita HIll's accusations of sexual harassment and the subsequent congressional hearing.
Those memorializing Bush connected this part of his legacy to the recent Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford hearings. And, to the allegations of sexual harassment of Bush himself.
Oct. 9, 1991: George H.W. Bush met with his SCOTUS nominee Clarence Thomas to determine his ability to refute Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment. Bush reaffirmed his “total confidence” in Thomas, who would be confirmed the following week, 52-48. pic.twitter.com/Z7wFMyTZec
— POLITICO (@politico) December 1, 2018
We got Clarence Thomas from HW and "Bart O'Kavanaugh" from Trump too. So they seem to have quite a bit in common. I will never forgive Bush for Thomas or Trump for Kavanaugh. Not to mention Dubblya lobbied for Kavanaugh behind the scenes too. They are all terrible honestly.
— Rebecca Riley ☀️🌎🌲🦋🌈✡️ (@emprestheodora) December 2, 2018
Alongside Bush's amped up War on Drugs, some are remembering the 41st president for promoting racism to help him get elected, and his failure to legislate civil rights. That's what references to "the Willie Horton ad" are talking about.
Bush used an ad that demonized a black criminal as a way to show that his opponent was weak on crime. He also vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990 which would have strengthened anti-discrimination laws.
How George H.W. Bush lives on: The Willie Horton ad that helped get him elected was made by Floyd Brown. After '88, Brown formed an organization to get Bush nominees onto the courts. One of those nominees was Clarence Thomas. The name of that organization was Citizens United.
— corey robin (@CoreyRobin) December 1, 2018
George HW Bush escalated the war on drugs, leading police to receive the military-grade equipment now used. Bush helped create the current police state, which has led to the incarceration & death of thousands of black & brown people, while doing little to curb drug use.
— X (@XLNB) December 1, 2018
Willie Horton is not just a footnote in George Bush's otherwise storied career. The 41st president consistently supported racist political positions.
He opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, saying, "It was passed to protect 14% of the people. I'm also worried about the other 86%."
— Rebecca J. Kavanagh (@DrRJKavanagh) December 2, 2018
There will be a lot of revisionist history on H.W.
As a Black man, I won't forget that he nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and ran on racial fear-mongering ads like "Willie Horton" that supported the death penalty. pic.twitter.com/ayrAppDoby
— Charles Preston (@_CharlesPreston) December 1, 2018
Bush's one-term presidency clearly has reverberations today. While it's tempting to analyze history through the lens of Trump, it's important to remember the figures who came before him without the excuse that funhouse mirror retrospection provides.