It was just after midnight on Nov. 30 when the Bush family released a statement announcing the passing of George H. W. Bush, the first Bush to hold the highest office in the country. Social media exploded with the news immediately after the family’s announcement. The response to Bush’s passing was quite different depending on the social media accounts you follow, or the side of the political spectrum you lean toward.
Many were quick to point out the compassion of the man. It’s particularly noteworthy in the divisive times we live in that he was someone who carried himself with dignity and respect. Bush is famous for the close relationships he forged with common people, including the White House permanent staff. He was a man who treated foreign heads of state with just as much kindness as the folks serving his dinner and laundering his clothes. According to Gallup Polls, his average approval rating was 60.9 percent while in office.
Others pointed to his countless years of commitment to service and American ideals. This was a man who chose to put off college so he could rush to Europe and fight Hitler’s forces and the antithesis of American values. He continued to commit his life to public service even after his plane was shot down and his comrades were killed. He had a packed resume of jobs in the government, including United Nations Ambassador and Texas Congressman.
However, legacies are a funny thing. It’s easy to focus in on the positive things that an individual has achieved once they’re gone and it’s even easier to sweep the negative things they’ve done under the rug. When we think of the dead, particularly someone like Bush with an extensive record of service and compassion, it’s often not easy to think or discuss the missteps and poor choices they made.
With Bush’s history of remarkable achievements, there comes a list of colossal disappointments. The first two that come to mind are the contributions he made toward using racist fear-mongering as a winning campaign tactic and his deafening silence while thousands of gay and bisexual people died across the country from AIDS.
Long before Donald Trump’s racist campaign attacks against Mexicans and immigrants, George H. W. Bush assembled a campaign team that would become infamous for their willingness to take the lowest roads possible to win. During his 1988 campaign he brought together the minds of Roger Ailes, who would eventually go on to found Fox News, and Lee Atwater, who had been a consultant with Paul Manafort. Together they crafted a media-friendly campaign that found its stride with racial resentment.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this takes shape in their Willie Horton advertisements. Horton was an inmate who, while released from prison on furlough, raped a woman and beat her husband. They used his image in a massive advertising campaign that would paint Bush’s opponent, Michael Dukakis, as weak on crime as he supported furlough for non-violent inmates. These ads served as a dog whistle to the public, focusing on Horton’s race and threat he and others like him posed to families across the country.
While Bush was serving as Vice President under Ronald Reagan the country faced the AIDS epidemic for the first time. Tens of thousands of people, who were mostly gay and bisexual, were dying across the country while Reagan and his allies turned a blind eye to it. Reagan would go most of his presidency without even referring to AIDS by name in public. Instead of treating it as a public health crisis, those in power chose to see it a divine intervention punishing those who had chosen a life of sin.
Bush would eventually take some action towards combating the epidemic more than a year into his own presidency. He would sign the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which legally prevented discrimination against individuals with AIDS. Healso signed the Ryan White Care Act, which brought about the first federally funded program for AIDS patients. Even with those two accomplishments, 76,886 people were reported to have died during Bush’s presidency alone due to AIDS.
For those communities that were most impacted by Bush’s policies, actions or lack thereof, Nov. 30 did not offer a fond day of memorial. To many, remembering Bush meant remembering the pain he and his colleagues caused them.
Bush would show growth in the years following his presidency. Eventually, he would even come to embrace the idea of gay marriage and would continue to display compassion that knew no partisan boundaries. I see the ideals of service and kindness he displayed that so many have pointed to in the days since his passing. I admire his ability to have an open mind.
However, I can’t escape the thought of the civil rights activists who soldiered on, knowing that in his campaign for senate in the sixties Bush opposed the Civil Rights Act. I can’t escape the images of gay rights activists imploring the government to help them while their friends were dying around them and I especially can’t escape the thought that if I had been alive then, I could’ve easily been one of them.
In memory of Bush, I choose to honor those everyday Americans who fought and lost their lives in pursuit of being seen by him. When I close my eyes, theirs are the points of light I see most clearly.