MEMBERS ONLY: In Defense Of George H.W. Bush

Being a liberal Democrat, there are certain opinions that I have to either keep to myself or roll the dice and mention publicly at the risk of irritating people who might otherwise agree with me on…whatever. It’s never a pleasant experience, but I’ve tended toward going public and owning it, rather than withholding my views out of fear.

Frankly, to this day I’m still feeling the repercussions from my very outspoken criticisms of Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden in 2013, more than five years ago. I still believe I was right to pick apart Greenwald’s bastardization of journalism, not to mention his and Snowden’s seemingly cozy relationship with Russia. About these two positions, I wrote more than 100 articles that year and well into 2014, and I regret nothing — even the fact that I lost a considerable number of social media followers in the process.

Rewinding more than eight years, I even scolded the Iraqi reporter who tossed shoes at then-President Bush. I, of course, was never a fan of Bush 43 and I never will be, but I thought the incident was disturbing and actually ended up generating sympathy for an otherwise unsympathetic, destructive president. Oh, and he was the president, and despite Bush 43’s awfulness, I still respected the office. Worse for me, however, is that I also scolded fellow liberals for cheering the incident. I recall discussing on my podcast that, in America, we solve our problems through clever usage of words, peaceful activism, and the ballot box, not physical assaults. Folks listened, then went back to cheering the shoe-tosser.

This doesn’t make me a conservative apologist, I don’t think. But, naturally, my liberal readers and colleagues tended to label me that way, now and again. So be it. I’m no one’s disciple and I don’t subscribe to any clique. For better or worse, I have confidence in my liberal-leaning values, but I don’t take positions based on ideology.

Weirdly, one of my most unpopular positions for a good long while was my admiration for Barack Obama.

As with any leader, I was well aware of his flaws, but I was also acutely aware that he was a one-of-a-kind president, worthy of the benefit of the doubt. Once again, I ended up inciting liberals like Cenk Uygur who pejoratively labeled me an “Obamabot” merely because I thought we were witnessing an historic figure who was and still is a thoughtful, brilliant leader in the American narrative, free of scandals and hesitant to embrace the easier, crappier aspects of politics.

Again, it got to a point where I legitimately debated with myself whether I should be so overt in my defense of his presidency. In the end, I stood by my convictions. If the “Obamabot” label follows me deeply into the future, fine. I’m actually kinda’ proud of it, especially knowing that today, given the Trump Crisis, aren’t we all Obamabots?

Nevertheless, the same liberals who are wagging their fists in the direction of George H.W. Bush’s coffin are likely the same liberals who, when Obama eventually departs this mortal coil, will hastily remind us about how it was Obama who killed Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American expat who joined al-Qaeda in Yemen, and it was Obama who “droned” Awlaki’s 16-year-old son. It was Obama, they’ll tweet, who spied on millions of Americans and who failed to close Guantanamo. In their view, these things are impossible to overlook, even with the laundry list of upsides.

There’s a strain on the left that tends to reject the redemptive, and which only sees the ugly things, the lapses in judgment, the exceptions. In the case of Obama, any rational observer will see a leader who rose from literally nothing, raised by a single Mom to go on to be the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review, an accomplished and gifted author, a state senator, a U.S. senator, and, against all odds as well as a deeply racist nation, he arguably became the most progressive president we’ve seen since FDR. He rescued the economy from a second Great Depression and passed universal healthcare, with an eye toward eventual single-payer. But some of us will only see the drones and the metadata. Some of us are out for blood, we savor the relentless scolding of all things.

And so it goes with George H.W. Bush.

When I first became ensconced in politics while still in high school, I naively identified as a Republican. In 1988, I worked on the Bush/Quayle campaign from its headquarters in the Hotel Washington on 15th Street in D.C., just a block from the White House. However, by 1992, I had registered to vote as a Democrat and cast my absentee ballots first for Paul Tsongas in the primaries and for Bill Clinton in the general.

Because of my past, Bush’s life carries with it an admittedly nostalgic patina, but I can honestly say that even though I went on to disagree with his policies, and especially disagreed with what I learned about how he ran his campaign in 1988, I still don’t hate him with the fevered rage of some of my liberal friends who seem quick to remind us all how allegedly evil he was. Yes, his record on AIDS is deplorable and his association with Roger Stone’s former cohort, the late Lee Atwater, is unforgivable. But even knowing his flaws and gaping errors in judgment, I find it extremely difficult to join the chorus of liberals condemning him in death.

In the grand scheme, his trespasses were relatively minor compared to other presidents, including marble men like Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and even the aforementioned FDR. Shall we condemn Lincoln for suspending habeas corpus, or for threatening to arrest the chief justice of the Supreme Court, or for dragging his feet on emancipation? Should we condemn Teddy Roosevelt for embracing white supremacy? Should we delete FDR’s legacy from history because of Japanese internment camps and for developing nuclear weapons?

The rational view is to, yes, condemn the bad acts, but to evaluate the men and their presidencies both fairly and in context.

You and I might not have been in love with Bush’s mistakes or most of his political positions, but there’s much to admire as well. Bush passed the Clean Air Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act. He presided over the end of the Cold War, and he understood America’s impatience for war by liberating Kuwait and then bailing out of the region. In great contrast to his son, Bush 43, not to mention Donald Trump, Bush 41 famously pushed for a kinder, gentler America, and a leadership style that rejected bullying. He was a war hero who put nation first when he reversed his position on raising taxes, and he was abundantly gracious in defeat. Post-presidency, Bush took unpopular positions on the NRA, renouncing his membership, and on the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, voting for the Democrat in lieu of Trump. On top of all that, he knew how to laugh at himself.

Sure, it burnishes our liberal cred to piss on his grave in view of our friends on Twitter. But we’d do well to see the broader context of the American presidency, especially now when the institution is being wrecked by Trump. We should be encouraging Republicans to be more like Bush, rather than stomping our feet, insisting that Republicans of all varieties are unworthy and irredeemable. You might be shocked to hear this but there are still good ones out there with whom we can negotiate and even with whom we can forge alliances.

At the end of my life, I’d like to think I won’t be remembered for the myriad awful things I’ve done, and the wonderful people I’ve hurt. I’d like to think I’ll be remembered for my character, my better deeds, and the body of work I leave behind. I really, really hope that’ll be the case, though this week seeing the brutal condemnations of a decent but flawed man in the face of his family, and before he’s even buried, I’m not sure whether I’ve done enough to redeem my mistakes in life.

So, no, I won’t be joining my friends as they condemn George H.W. Bush. I know it’s an unpopular position, but, to reference the old Dana Carvey joke, I’m not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.

Donald Trump, on the other hand…

Bob Cesca is the host of the Bob Cesca Show podcast, a twice weekly political talk show. He’s also a contributor to Salon.com. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.