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Wilson Dizard

George HW Bush was bad at being president

George H.W. Bush was president from [Hulton archive]

Date of publication: 3 December, 2018

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Comment: Canonising Bush Sr. as a patron saint of long dead bipartisanship and dignity is a mistake, writes Wilson Dizard.
Most obituaries in the American press, sometimes prewritten years ago in anticipation of his nearing death, tried to politely dance around the fact that Bush Sr. was a bad president. They completely ignored evidence that his flaws were worse than merely being unexciting or politically clumsy. 

On the whole, the establishment consensus is that Bush Sr. was a nice guy who embodied a lost era of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans, to do what's best for the country, and not just themselves.

So what? Even if that assessment is true, that would be a low standard in itself for any measure of public service or political courage, something that seems as lost as the Woolly Mammoth, a Ice Age elephant, in America. And "national mourning" for Bush Sr. seems more like nostalgia for a different time, rather than genuinely missing the man himself, who was, I'll repeat, not good at being president.

We remember the future as we imagine the past. That rule has helped US President Donald sell "Make America Great Again" to a vocal minority of Americans, although one that is in some mythical era of white, Protestant dominance over the continent.

In imagining this mythic realm, Trump boots down the horrors of segregation, slavery and genocide into a kind of joke, one that lets white Americans laugh off the lucky break they have in benefiting from this past, and current, bloodshed.

In the same way, the next week of rehashing the legacy of Bush Sr. will present to Americans an imagined, mythical world, where Bush Sr.'s backslapping, golly-gee persona sprays a kind of deodoriser over the rotting piles of bodies his presidency, and whole career in politics, left for others to clean up.

'National mourning' for Bush Sr. seems more like nostalgia for a different time

Bush Sr.'s time in office was a good time to be an American Cold Warrior. Like Rocky Balboa, we were world champions over the Soviet Communist menace. This seemed great, although the future consequences of the Soviet Union's collapse, sliding from confident Empire to trollish oligarchy (a fate that later befell the US, too), were still unknown.

Bush Sr., just like he was lucky to be born in the wealthy Connecticut family headed by a Nazi sympathising patriarch, mostly lucked into that brief detente, which promised the peace of a "New World Order," as Bush Sr. put it. Pax Americana was open for business, worldwide, without collectivists' corruption getting in the way.

Like the glacier laden plains of Ice Age America, this moment of uncontested American military, economic and cultural might seems impossibly alien to 2018. But this is what the Bush Sr. dutiful liberals and respectable conservatives will be mourning: A memory and not a man. 

Read more: Speaking ill of the dead: A frank look at George HW Bush's grim legacy

Bush Sr.'s sanctification account in part for the chaos, uncertainty and deadly violence that occurred during his time in office, both in the US and around the world.

The most glaring example has so far been in the retrospective amnesia about the 1991 Gulf War. American casualties in the war were
219, and although exact numbers of Iraqi casualties remain unknown, it's likely in the tens of thousands.

But that's not how it appeared on US cable news at the time. I remember, even though I was five when it happened, that grey, green video of brilliant white explosions.

The dark magic of night vision goggles, gave America's fighting forces a superhuman edge on the battlefield the flesh and blood Iraqis couldn't match with their unenhanced eyes.

Forty five years of Cold War military advancements were being brought down on a country that had been one of America's vassals in the grand ideological struggle, but now it had proven disloyal and now deserved the wrath of a world America had won. Even the crumbling Soviet Union supported the US effort.

The most glaring example has so far been in the retrospective amnesia about the 1991 Gulf War

Some takes will likely eulogise Bush Sr.'s Gulf War as a validation of America's omnipotent might after its defeat in Vietnam, but it's hard to overstate how shallow they are.

The Iraq War brought terror, fear and death to Iraqi civilians and army conscripts. The Iraqi soldiers' role in the war was more than to be a vessel for the reinvigoration of America's confidence in its military prowess.

The seemingly bloodless victory of a "video game war" did not appear that way to the retreating Iraq Army, blown to bits by American jets and bombers. It doesn't do justice to the Iraqis who died in Saddam Hussein's vengeful reprisals against separatists or dissidents after the war. These were not video game characters, but real human beings, not lines of grinding, unconscious code.

Although the New Yorker proclaims Bush Sr. was merely standing up to a bully in the form of Saddam Hussein, it absolves the United States of responsibility for flooding the Middle East with weapons in pursuit of "containing" Moscow's influence, which came with its own diabolical strings attached.

The Gulf War did not spring like some angry Babylonian god from the desert, but was a culmination of history guided by sober-looking old white men like George H.W. Bush, who was by all accounts a fine fellow who loved his wife and large adult sons, just like any avuncular character would.

But then there was that time in 2003 when he groped the 16-year-old daughter of a CIA officer, according to allegations made by the victim and her mother in 2017.

"The first thing I did was look at my mom and, while he was still standing there, I didn't say anything," Roslyn Corrigan told Time Magazine. "What does a teenager say to the ex-president of the United States? Like, 'Hey dude, you shouldn't have touched me like that?'"

The mother said she kept the assault secret for fear that he allegation would merely bring embarrassment and career trouble to her husband. After all, Bush Sr.'s son was president.

These were not video game characters, but real human beings, not lines of grinding, unconscious code

By 2017, however, the world had changed and women were sick of being silent about abuse by powerful men. But by then, Bush Sr. was 94, and in a wheelchair. He offered an apology that did not confess to responsibility. The news cycle churned along through Trump era scandal and lies, and will likely remain a mere footnote to Bush Sr.'s canonisation as a patron saint of long dead bipartisanship and dignity in the White House.

Is there such a thing as a good American president? All of them, in one way or another, were responsible for the deaths of others, or the criminal abuse of the innocent.

But what made Bush particularly bad at being president how he was merely a steward for inhumane systems and made little effort to fundamentally change them, and in some cases, made them worse throughout his career as a public employee.


Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture. He enjoys bicycling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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