George H. W. Bush is dead, and so is one phase of American political history. Pundits, news outlets, and political figures have been correct over the last few days to treat Bush, Sr’s — or Poppy’s, as he was known to his family — death with the significance they have. They just happened to have misunderstood this significance.
Bush’s death is a setting sun on a particular postwar consensus and collection of political assumptions that much of the establishment continues to vainly grasp at, even as they fade away, never to return. No, not that of civility, decency, or moderation, none of which have ever really held a solid foothold in US political culture, and all of which Bush himself violated on numerous occasions. Rather, Bush represents a link to a vanishing past of right-wing politics that flourished in the postwar era and has been obliterated since the Reagan “Restoration.”
Bush was many things: a pampered rich boy and a medal-winning World War II fighter pilot; an Eastern establishment political scion and a Texas oil man; a Nixon acolyte and a Reagan successor. He was both a member of that “Greatest Generation” that held a stranglehold on political power until the precise moment his presidency ended, and the last gasp of the quaint, old guard, “moderate” Republicanism that prevailed during the short-lived New Deal consensus, and which was all but eradicated by his predecessor.
Mistrusted by the hard right wing of the GOP, Bush nonetheless enthusiastically adopted elements of their political program, including the aggressive expansion of American power overseas and the racist “law-and-order” policies of the modern carceral state. As such, Bush was a key generational link between pre- and post-Reagan conservatism, the latter of which was later advanced even more aggressively by his son, and which has culminated in today’s historically radical Republican Party.
Bush’s life and political career also reflect the severe limitations of the mythical “reasonable,” “moderate” politics of yesteryear now pined for by today’s media and political elite. While Bush had a pragmatist streak that produced some worthy outcomes, his willingness to play dirty to win, his law-breaking and subsequent covering up of his crimes, and his almost casual use of war as a political tool were ill omens of what was to come. That the modern Clintonite Democratic Party took many of its cues from Bush should make us thankful for its current, albeit painfully slow, transformation.
Climbing the Greasy Pole
Like his later political career, Bush’s business success was underwritten by the connections of his wealthy, politically influential father, Prescott Bush. Before he had even moved to Texas, Bush had a job lined up with IDECO, which manufactured drilling and other equipment, through his father’s best friend and the future namesake to Bush’s third son, “Uncle Neil” Mallon, the president of its parent company. Five years later, thanks to money raised by his father, uncle, and others, Bush started Zapata Oil, whose success was assured when his father, then a senator, led the GOP in beating back an attempt to federalize offshore resources, oil included. The measure would have directly stifled Bush’s company.
Bush’s business career may have benefited through another political connection: his long-denied status as a CIA operative. Rumors have long swirled about Bush’s potential role in the CIA — Yale, his alma mater, was then closely connected to the agency — prompted by the chance discovery in 1988 of an FBI document that seemed to name him as an operative. While the CIA, which neither confirms nor denies the identities of operatives, claimed that that particular man was a George William Bush — a claim strenuously denied by that same man in a sworn affidavit — other hints remain: one of Bush’s partners in Zapata was former CIA employee Thomas Devine; Zapata was identified by investment journal Barron’s in 1988 as “a part-time purchasing front for the CIA”; and several former CIA officials told journalist Anthony Kimery in 1990-91 that Bush let the agency use Zapata as a front for running operations in Cuba.
Barron’s reported that, in order to get a foothold in Mexico, where laws mandated that only Mexican nationals could hold drilling contracts, Bush secretly created a seemingly Mexican-owned front company to disguise Zapata’s involvement in the country’s oil market. (Incidentally, the company’s SEC filings for these years were inadvertently destroyed shortly after Bush became vice president.) Such skirting of legal lines soon became a hallmark of Bush’s political career.
In 1966, Bush sold his position in Zapata and followed his father into politics. Despite his pedigree, democracy proved a difficult stumbling block to Bush’s rise to power. Whether due to the Democrats’ domination of Texas politics, his lack of charisma, or, most likely, a combination of both, Bush failed twice to win a seat in the Senate, instead winning two terms in the House. Indeed, Bush would find the electoral process a tough nut to crack, winning only one other election on the back of his own name.
Rather than any base of popular support, Bush’s political ascent depended instead on his business connections, particularly in oil, and their usefulness for Republican fundraising. Despite voters’ seeming aversion to him, Bush’s political career was guaranteed thanks to his donor base, and most importantly, thanks to Richard Nixon, who continually advanced the young Bush’s career. “Bush will do anything for our cause,” he later said.
In Congress, Bush was a loyal servant of the oil industry. He was somehow appointed the first freshman congressman in more than sixty years to sit on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, where he became, as the Times put it, its “leading oil protectionist,” most notably in his fierce defense of the industry’s coveted oil depletion allowance. In return, the industry showered him with support, attending his fundraisers, setting up a special fund to support his political career, and unsuccessfully pushing for Nixon to make him his running mate in 1968.
Bush’s moderation was less pronounced at this time. His support for Vietnam meant he was considered a hawk, and Nixon reportedly didn’t tap him because he wanted to run with a liberal. Bush boasted a 79 percent rating from the right-wing Americans for Constitutional Action, “not particularly high for a Texas Republican,” the Washington Post noted in 1968, but far higher than his more moderate public image suggested.
Bush balanced admirable votes for civil rights legislation, like the 1968 Fair Housing Act, with moves like putting forward a racially coded “law-and-order” bill after the nationwide riots following Martin Luther King’s murder; the bill would have barred convicted rioters from federal jobs. The press distinguished this “modern” Southern Republicanism from that of “primitives” like segregationist Strom Thurmond thanks to his visits to what the Post called “negro slums,” and his appeal to well-off, economically conservative suburbanites. It didn’t stop Bush from attacking his 1964 opponent’s support of the Civil Rights Act, however, something he later admitted to have done for entirely cynical, electoral reasons. It wouldn’t be the last time.
Nixon covertly funded Bush’s 1970 campaign, funneling more than $100,000 to Bush (which he ultimately didn’t disclose) as part of “Operation Townhouse,” a precursor to Watergate that saw Nixon try to use unreported donations to blackmail congressmen. After losing his second Senate race in 1970, Bush was appointed by Nixon to the post of UN ambassador. Bush’s tenure was mostly distinguished by his efforts to secure UN representation for Taiwan, though he also criticized a resolution urging countries not to help Israel consolidate control of the occupied territories after the Six Day War, and, as one of his final acts, helped secure a smaller US financial contribution to the UN.
After two years, Nixon pulled Bush off the post and appointed him head of the Republican National Committee. Bush called a fellow “Townhouse”-tainted Republican congressman, allegedly asking if he should burn records of the illegal payments. After this moment of panic, Bush quickly reshaped the RNC as an arm of the White House, with all candidates for high-ranking federal jobs being first cleared by the organization.
Bush’s years at the RNC were something of a political ordeal, as he walked a tightrope between his loyalty to Nixon — he was known by the press as one of “Nixon’s men” — and the ever-growing political liability that was the Watergate scandal.
Privately, Bush assured Nixon that “this is gonna come through good.” Publicly, he was just as loyal. He urged the Senate to wrap up its hearings, said he didn’t believe John Dean’s testimony alleging a planned cover-up by Nixon, defended Nixon’s refusal to release potentially incriminating tapes, warned that Nixon being “hounded out of office” would be damaging to political stability, and at one point accused the Senate’s chief Watergate investigator of having spied on the GOP for Kennedy.
As late as June 1974, when Bush was telling the press he was “disturbed” by the transcripts of Nixon’s White House tapes, his RNC was running interference for Nixon, sending out thousands of mailings that selectively excerpted parts of the transcripts to make them look favorable to Nixon. To the bitter end, Bush never did publicly break with his chief political patron, but once Nixon’s position became truly untenable, he wrote him a letter urging him to resign, which, instead of giving it directly to Nixon, he handed to Henry Kissinger to pass on.
A despondent Bush then served as Ford’s CIA director, something he viewed as a death knell for his political career. Others, like Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), viewed it as a dangerous break from precedent, warning that Bush was “too deeply embroiled in partisan politics and too intertwined with the political destiny of the president himself to be able to lead the CIA.”
Bush took the helm of the agency at what he would call “a troublesome period,” in the midst of months of congressional investigations into the agency’s activities, led by Church. Bush claimed public exposures had hurt the agency. Among other things, he said, Congressional investigations had “devastated the morale of perhaps the finest group of public servants this country had.”
Bush proved an able spymaster, stonewalling further scrutiny of the agency. He refused to make public the CIA’s budget, and when the congresswoman in charge of government information policy requested that a moratorium on destroying CIA files be extended, Bush ignored the request and resumed the destruction of the agency’s potentially incriminating records (he informed Congress he would do so, in the interests of transparency). When it came out that the CIA had been secretly employing journalists, Bush refused requests from Senate investigators for the journalists’ names and claimed he was ending the program, refusing to comment on the fact that an earlier CIA report had stated the agency would continue employing twenty-five unnamed part-time reporters.
Meanwhile, under Bush the CIA continued its overseas misadventures. It funneled tens of millions of dollars of cash and weapons to anticommunist guerrillas who were allied with apartheid South Africa and fighting the Marxist government in Angola, an operation later nixed by Congress. It provided aid to strongmen like Congo’s president Mobutu, the agency’s partner in the Angolan operation, and Panama’s Manuel Noriega. When neoliberal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet hatched a plan to kill a dissident on the streets of Washington, DC, his agents came into the country and did the deed right under the agency’s nose, a few blocks from Washington’s Dupont Circle, killing an American citizen in the process. Bush’s CIA was peculiarly unhelpful to federal investigators and quickly exonerated the Chilean government, even as later documents suggested they knew Pinochet was responsible.
Bush’s tenure closed out with one last scandal. When a group of neoconservatives decided the CIA had dangerously underestimated the scale of Soviet military power at the end of 1976, Bush allowed them to wildly contradict the CIA’s analysis, wrongly claiming Moscow was on the verge of attaining nuclear superiority. The neocons leaked their invented report to the press, fueling a subsequent spike in the Pentagon’s weapon spending, and causing an uproar within the agency.
In his contempt for congressional checks and balances, his apparent duplicity, his destruction of evidence, and his presiding over a domestic terror attack on US soil, Bush’s CIA tenure anticipated not just his own later scandals, but the failures and excesses of his son. But Bush had fallen in love with the job, and tried, unsuccessfully, to stay on in the position once Jimmy Carter took over.
Carter’s decision not to keep Bush on freed him to return to electoral politics. Bush entered the 1980 Republican contest as the anti-Reagan, the moderate alternative to Reagan’s conservative firebrand. In reality, Bush shared many of Reagan’s policy positions, from balancing the budget, slashing taxes, and removing “overregulation,” to opposing abortion, gun control, and higher environmental standards on coal.
“Perhaps it was just that, to some, anyone seemed moderate when compared with Ronald Reagan,” wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer in January 1980.
After winning the Iowa caucuses that month, Bush was soon roundly beaten by Reagan in primary after primary, and the two joined forces. After disparaging Reagan’s tax plan as “voodoo economics” and supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and school busing during the primaries, Bush shifted his views accordingly.
Tethered to Reagan, Bush was elected overwhelmingly to the vice presidency. It wasn’t all Reagan’s charisma, however. The campaign had also run a secret operation to obtain sensitive documents from the Carter campaign using former CIA officials loyal to Bush, a reflection of the deep support for Bush within the agency.
Bush’s vice presidency was in some ways an extension of his time at the CIA, as he and Reagan cozied up to various anti-communist brutes, from the Angolan rebels to Indonesia’s Suharto. But it was Bush’s support for the band of murderers and rapists known as the Nicaraguan Contras that would nearly scuttle his political future and expand the acceptable boundaries of executive overreach.
Bush was intimately involved in Reagan’s illegal plan to secretly aid the Contras.“I’m one of the few people that know fully the details,” he wrote in November 1986. “This is one operation that has been held very, very tight, and I hope it will not leak.”
It of course leaked. Taking a page out of both Nixon’s playbook and his own earlier tussles with Congress as CIA chief, Bush stonewalled the resulting investigation and worked to cover up his crime, lest it jeopardize his presidential campaign. Bush lied to the public, telling journalist David Broder he was “not in the loop,” and ignored independent counsel Lawrence Walsh’s repeated requests for his diaries and other records, nearly getting himself indicted. “I would never surrender such documents and I wouldn’t keep such detailed notes,” he wrote, in horror, upon seeing one of his co-conspirators hand over seven hundred pages worth of notes.
Investigators wouldn’t get the diaries until December 1992, the end of Bush’s presidency, at which point Bush lied that he hadn’t seen the original request. Calling the prosecutions of six Iran-Contra defendants the “criminalization of policy differences,” Bush pardoned them all before leaving office, taking the unprecedented step of pardoning an accused criminal twelve days before a trial in which he himself could be called as a witness.
“The Iran-Contra cover-up has now been completed,” Walsh told Newsweek.
But the earlier pardon of Bush’s former boss (Nixon) by his other former boss (Ford) had already inured the public and, more importantly, the Washington press, to the idea that high-level officials would face no consequences for breaking the law. The press largely dismissed Walsh, with one Post writer appearing to mock his “anachronistic sense of duty” and his belief that “it was a serious matter — a serious crime — for members of the executive branch to lie to Congress and other investigators.”
Bush’s neutralization of the Iran-Contra issue at the close of Reagan’s administration opened up his path to the presidency. That path ran through another election — never Bush’s forte — and Michael Dukakis, a technocratic-liberal Massachusetts governor who by mid-year was leading Bush by seventeen points.
Bush whittled down that lead and overcame his natural deficits as a politician thanks to a crack campaign team. One member was the man whom a Democratic congresswoman had dubbed “the most evil man in America,” Lee Atwater, the famed racist political consultant, whom Bush had first run into while at the head of the RNC. Another was Roger Ailes, the future head of Fox News and Nixon’s former campaign adviser. And it wasn’t just Nixon’s team and campaign tactics Bush adopted. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, many of the donors who had appeared on Nixon’s secret list of corporate donors were now giving more than ever to Bush’s campaign.
Under Ailes and Atwater’s tutelage, Bush waged one of the dirtier general-election campaigns in recent political history. His team turned the famously verbally inept Bush into a warm family man while attacking Dukakis on red-meat issues, most notably crime. One ad depicted prisoners walking in and out of a revolving door. Another was the infamous Willie Horton ad, so racist even Roger Stone thought it went too far. “No more furloughs for people that rape, pillage and plunder!” Bush would intone on the campaign trail, making Horton’s name into a household word, while showing off his cowboy boots (“Don’t let them tell you I’m no Texan”). Meanwhile, Dukakis dealt with widely publicized, mysteriously sourced rumors that he suffered from mental illness.
Once in office, Bush made good on his aggressively anti-crime campaign, outlining his National Drug Control Strategy, calling for harsher punishments for drug dealers and “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors.” It was, according to the Heritage Foundation, “the largest increase in resources for law enforcement in the nation’s history.” The Drug Policy Alliance today asserts the speech “defined the irrational zero tolerance drug policies of the times that put ideology and politics above science and health.” To drive the speech home, Bush had the DEA entrap an eighteen-year-old boy into selling drugs in Lafayette Park so that he could affirm in a television speech that crack was being dealt across the street from the White House — a crime for which the boy spent a decade in prison.
Famed for his pragmatism, Bush did indeed allow some victories for common sense, including raising luxury taxes, tightening air pollution standards, raising the minimum wage, and signing both the Americans With Disabilities Act and the 1991 Civil Rights Act. But Bush’s support for the latter came only after he was terrified by David Duke’s surprisingly successful Louisiana campaign, in which the former Klan leader ran as a Republican; a year earlier Bush had vetoed the same bill.
Arguably his most lasting domestic legacy was on the Supreme Court, where he nominated the accidentally liberal David Souter and, more significantly, the very young and very conservative Clarence Thomas. In choosing the latter, he not only elevated a prominent sexual predator to the country’s highest court, but helped ensure the defeat of a bevy of progressive measures in the decades to come, threatening to undo any of the good ones Bush had signed.
Ironically, it was his foreign policy, the area Bush tends to get the most praise for today, that has proved the most damning stain on his legacy. As president, Bush continued to advance the Washington foreign policy consensus he had championed during his time under Reagan and Ford, now partly for personal reasons: long accused of being a “wimp,” including most prominently in a 1987 Newsweek cover, the insult clearly deeply stung Bush, who fumed over it years later in not one but two autobiographies.
Bush’s foreign policy seemed designed to exorcise these demons. After using Panama’s Manuel Noriega as an asset for years, Bush invaded the country and deposed the strongman in a move motivated by the need to counter the “whole wimp factor,” in the words of his national security adviser, who admitted that the invasion didn’t make much practical sense. The deafening praise Bush received for the invasion, and the memory of it as a short, splendid little war, obscures the destruction it rained down on ordinary Panamanians, whose neighborhoods were engulfed in flames and whose bodies were buried in mass graves, concealing the exact number of casualties.
A year later, Bush went one better, attacking the country of another former ally, this time Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, with even more horrific results. The war kicked off with a war crime — the burning alive of hundreds of civilians in a bomb shelter — and closed with Bush’s forces pummeling fleeing Iraqi soldiers with cluster bombs and other weapons on the so-called “highway of death,” leaving behind charred, melted skeletons in place of men. Dick Cheney, Bush’s secretary of defense, maintained tight control over reporting of the war, ensuring the images beamed back to Americans were as sanitized as possible, just as he would do more than a decade later under Bush’s son.
Bush, who had relentlessly compared Saddam to Hitler to drum up public support for the war, had also encouraged Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds to rebel, hinting he would support them. Once Iraqi forces were removed from Kuwait, however, Bush lost his enthusiasm for taking on “a totalitarianism and a brutality that is naked and unprecedented in modern times,” as he had put it. The Iraqi rebellion he encouraged and then abandoned was brutally suppressed by Hussein.
Bush at least pursued a more conciliatory approach with North Korea, withdrawing all US tactical nuclear weapons from the area in pursuit of diplomacy. But it was his cynical wars of choice that would have the longer-lasting legacy in Washington foreign policy thinking, particularly as his son pursued an even more aggressive, even more unnecessary war in Iraq more than a decade later, with the help of many of the same figures Bush had first elevated to prominence. Bush won plaudits for doing nothing inflammatory as the Soviet Union collapsed, but in the long run set US-Russian relations on its current disastrous course, promising Gorbachev that NATO wouldn’t expand eastward even as his administration worked behind the scenes to “leave the door ajar” for this very move, an act that would help fuel the rise of Russian nationalism and Vladimir Putin’s ascent.
The 1992 election made Bush a one-term president, but his legacy lived on, as his watered down Reaganism essentially became the political program of the new Democratic Party. Bush’s “humanitarian” wars, and his threat to bypass congressional war authorization, became the foreign policy modus operandi of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and continue to constitute the party’s approach, as evinced by Democrats’ steadfast support of Trump’s bombing of Syria early in his presidency. Clinton and the Democrats became even more ardent drug-and-crime warriors than Bush had been, gutting welfare and slashing social spending partly in pursuit of a balanced budget. Finally, Clinton and the Democrats finished off Bush’s work on NAFTA, finally ratifying it in 1993 and helping create the Rust Belt discontent that Trump would ride to power in 2016. That election was less a loss for Bush’s style of politics than a passing of the torch.
His legacy also lived on in the US establishment’s chummy ties with Saudi Arabia, which Bush had been instrumental in strengthening as both president and vice president, and which the same media outlets that mourn Bush’s death today have spent the past few weeks furiously denouncing now that Trump is their champion. Bush’s unusual and disconcerting closeness to the regime — as well as his decision to station troops in the country during the Gulf War — would haunt the country years later when thousands of Americans were killed by a group of well-financed Saudi terrorists on September 11, 2001. Bush’s close friend, Prince “Bandar Bush,” was later directly implicated in financing some of the terrorists.
Trump Before Trump
As with seemingly every non-Trump politician both living and dead, there is some insatiable need to rub out the rough edges of former political leaders and present a perfectly smooth, sterile, and misleading image of who they were. It’s half patriotic glorification, half myth-making-as-resistance.
But civility, decency, moderation — none of this accurately describe the record of George H. W. Bush. Bush brazenly flouted the law and lied throughout his career; he changed his beliefs when it suited him and engaged in scurrilous, sometimes racist, smearing of his opponents; he launched appalling wars for political gain and enthusiastically supported some of the world’s worst thugs; and his career was a microcosm of the worrying merger of business interests with public service and, quite possibly, the national security state. If Bush is a “moderate,” it’s because many of these practices have long been internalized as normal and routine for the political elite.
Rather, Bush’s presidency was a key bridge between the New Deal-era conservatism of Nixon and the more radical post-Reagan GOP, both of which were rooted in an unfettered, militaristic executive. Bush’s roots in the Eastern Republican establishment of the postwar era prevented him from fully advancing the Reagan program, a task that would fall to his son; paradoxically, and tragically, it was his liberal political opponents who adopted his agenda as their own, a fever dream from which the Democratic Party only now seems to be waking up.
But if nothing else, at least we’ll have that one Simpsons episode.