The Complicated Legacy of H. W. Bush

On the evening of November 30, former President George H. W. Bush passed away at age 94. From the evening of Dec. 3 through the morning of Dec. 5, he became the twelfth U.S. president to lie in state in the rotunda of the Capitol. He was not the only person to be given this honor recently; Sen. John McCain also laid in state after his death earlier this year.

There were a few notable moments from the viewing in the Capitol, including former Sen. Bob Dole having someone assist him in standing from his wheelchair to salute the casket, surrounded by five military members standing at attention. When I visited, I passed an older black man in a wheelchair leaving; a double amputee from shortly below the waist, the poise with which he held his body upright to salute an officer he passed coming out was truly striking. Along with veterans and government officials, regular Americans waited in long lines to enter the rotunda, some for hours on end.

Bush’s state funeral inside the National Cathedral. Photo via The White House.

Bush’s state funeral inside the National Cathedral. Photo via The White House.

He had a state funeral at the National Cathedral in D.C. on Dec. 5, before returning to Houston, where his family held a private funeral for him before he was buried at his presidential library. His wife, Barbara, and a daughter who died of leukemia as a child, Robin, are also buried there.

Former President George W. Bush, H. W. Bush’s eldest son, gave a eulogy at the state funeral, one attended by all living former presidents and vice presidents, as well as the Trumps and Pences. Trump ordered flags to remain at half mast for 30 days after Bush’s passing.

Photo via The White House

Photo via The White House

As with any politician’s death, discussion around Bush has swirled with the usual clash of those who say we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead and those with differing opinions on the character of the man. A president’s legacy is always complicated, but their deaths often come with rose-colored glasses to further complicate what we remember and how we prioritize those elements.

Bush died the day before World AIDS day—a day to raise awareness of the epidemic that began with great force while Bush was Reagan’s Vice President and that continued into his own presidency. Bush continued Reagan’s legacy of dodging commenting on it and taking little action, and tens of thousands of AIDS deaths that occurred in the 80’s and 90’s happened during his presidency. Bush condemned AIDS-related discrimination and called for compassion for those living with it, but rather that treating it as a medical crisis, he made comments about people needing to change their behaviors to not contract it. Some blame him for suffering the LGBTQ+ community faced.

One of the biggest controversial elements of his legacy, however, is race. AP writer Errin Haines Whack recently wrote, “Lionized upon his death as a man of decency and civility, Bush has a mixed and complicated legacy when it comes to race.”

During his 1988 presidential campaign, supporters published the now-infamous Willie Horton ad, an ad against Dukakis. While the man in question, Willie Horton, was in fact a criminal who committed two more heinous crimes while on a weekend furlough from prison (a program put in place in Massachusetts while Dukakis was governor), the ad itself played into longstanding racial stereotypes and white fear (mainly the “black men will rape our nice white women” trope). The ad today is often described as outright racist.

However, Bush’s legacy on race is not completely black and white (pardon the topical idiom). While racism was abundant in the Willie Horton ad, Bush was hardly a David Duke white supremacist. Bush appointed Colin Powell as the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and appointed Louis Sullivan, a dean at historically-black Morehouse, as his secretary of HHS and it was revealed in letters after his death that he also secretly sponsored a boy in the Philippines for a decade.

There are numerous other controversial elements of his presidency, but to cover them adequately would require a book, not an article.

What, then, is the legacy of a WWII veteran, a man described as a kind and compassionate soul by those who knew him, one with a legacy spotted with devastating political decisions? Is just saying “the legacy of a president” a fair enough answer? How many presidents don’t have mixed legacies? Nixon was a crook who enacted environmental protections. Obama was a progressive of the people who oversaw drone strikes. There are certainly presidents with better, clearer legacies than others, but pinning down what exactly should be remembered isn’t a problem specific to Bush.

Perhaps the era of Donald Trump changes people’s legacies. Rose-colored glasses don’t come only from the death of a president; they come from the comparisons to other presidents, too. For all of Bush’s failings, he was not a self-admitted sexual assaulter who angrily criticized gold-star families.

Trump has given us a different standard for how we measure presidents. Bush did not always do the right thing, but he had a sense for right and wrong. He cared about helping others beyond himself. There are certainly fair arguments to be made that it wasn’t a universal concern; the AIDS crisis and Willie Horton ad paint a picture of someone who cared less for some groups than others. But with Trump, there is no moral code; there is nothing beyond self and bottom line. Just as his time as a reality TV star was, Trump’s presidential run was about his celebrity factor; the draft-dodging president does not have the same understanding of service as the veteran president.

George H. W. Bush has a deeply problematic legacy. People also saw humanity in him that they may not with our current president. Both can be true. You can be enraged at his choices and and still long for his speeches that never encouraged assaulting journalists. To some, Bush is just a war hero; to others, he is just a racially-charged footnote to Reagan. A final verdict on his legacy will not be quite so simple.

Editor’s note: this story was updated on December 31, 2018, to include a link to a full story about Bush’s sponsorship of a Filipino child.

CurrentEmily Milakovic