When people ask me what I do, I’ve recently found the most satisfying answer for everyone involved in “culture reporter, broadly defined.” Culture, under this definition, means everything from celebrities to how people engage with larger cultural ideas (politics, public land, religion, etc. etc.) That explains why my political reporting is a bit different — I’m always more interested in talking to the volunteers and crowds than, say, political analysts.
Which, in turn, helps explain my reaction to the death of President George H.W. Bush, who has been roundly remembered, at least in political circles, as a highly decent (even “prudent,” to use the word that, thanks to Dana Carvey’s impersonation of him, I’ve always associated with him) leader, the last of his political kind. As my editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, put it in his obituary for Bush, he died “every Democrat’s favorite Republican.” He resigned from the NRA when it became too extremist and ideological; nearly twenty years after that resignation, when Americans were clamoring for a conservative who was not beholden to the NRA, that resignation letter went viral. His “restraint” while intervening in Iraq is favorably compared with his son’s; as Smith points out in his piece, Obama compared his own “traditional, bipartisan, realistic” foreign policy strategy to that of HW Bush’s.
But the main thread of appreciation for HW Bush, in this moment, is not tethered to the whole of the historical record. Instead, it’s largely rooted in appreciating who he was not: he was not his son, and most importantly, he was not Donald Trump.
That’s why the artifact that began to circulate more widely, after his death, was not the NRA resignation, but the letter he wrote to President Clinton on the occasion of the transition of the presidency. CNN called it “a lesson in grace,” highlighting HW Bush’s belief that “Just because you run against someone does not mean you have to be enemies . . . Politics does not have to be mean and ugly.” (Secretary of State Colin Powell: “I wish we could get some of that back in our system now.”) USA Today calls it “gracious”; the Washington Post’s Alex Horton labels it “an artifact of political humility”; CBS News declared that it demonstrated President Bush’s “civility.”
Don’t get me wrong: it’s an important letter, and it is all of the things for which it’s been lauded. But the main reason that the letter has guided the overarching note of remembrance is, again, because of the contrast between its tone and posture and that of the current leadership. The sentiment driving its virality is the same sentiment driving the appreciation for Bush’s son sharing candy with Michelle Obama. Look at these men in power, not being Trump!
Part of the magnetism to the letter stems from nostalgia for a leader who does not embarrass his country on the national and international stage; part of it is a yearning for “civility” which is another way of saying the “non-polarized, non-hyper-partisan politics” whose decline started right around 1994, just two years after Bush’s loss to Clinton. (For more on that point, I strongly recommend Alan Abramowitz’s The Great Alignment)
That means that many are remembering Bush partly for who he was — but largely for what many wish the current president would be. It’s significant, too, that the primary point of remembrance centers on an interaction between HW Bush and another person in power. And while it makes sense that other politicians and political reporters would look to such a moment — that’s their world! — that doesn’t mean that it’s an adequate or even fair representation of Bush’s legacy. As historian David Greenberg explains, of course, in our attempt to grapple with Bush’s death, there should be respect for both the president and the family that mourns him. And yet: “respect for the dead must coexist with respect for the historical record.”
Writing for Politico, Greenberg offers a clear-eyed look at Bush’s legacy on the right. But another strain of that legacy was highlighted by the timing of Bush’s passing — just one day before World Aids Day. When The New Yorker tweeted that Bush “had irreducible niceness to him, an appealing mixture of noblesse oblige, parody-begging goofiness, and boy-next-door bonhomie,” author Alexander Chee responded with a YouTube clip of the ACT UP Ashes Action from 1992, in which hundreds protested Bush’s inaction on fighting AIDS by sprinkling the remains of those lost to the disease on the White House lawn.
Politicians are challenging figures to eulogize — they are people, and thus have family and others who react to their deaths as one would react to any other death. (When I say eulogize, I don’t mean the actual eulogy at the burial; I mean how they’re eulogized within public discourse). But in addition to their status as humans, politicians are also symbols: the cumulative sum of the actions as leaders. To remember them solely in terms of how they interacted with the powerful and the privileged, without consideration of how they ignored or elevated “the least of these,” to quote the Book of Matthew, who were most acutely affected by their decisions as a leader, strikes me as both ahistorical and incomplete.
Yes, that means that every politician’s remembrance is complicated and mixed. That means remembering that Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and did little to stop the AIDS epidemic in America until it was associated with an “innocent” boy instead of gay men. Which is another way of saying that a leader should be remembered politically, but they should also be remembered culturally. And to acknowledge their cultural legacy isn’t to attack them. It is to do them justice.
“Using the occasion of a person’s death to attack them isn’t edge or cool, it’s childish and cowardly,” political journalist Olivia Nuzzi tweeted after John McCain’s death. “You’re not Christopher Hitchens, you’re an asshole.” The sentiment was retweeted more than 11,000 times. And while I agree that “attacking” isn’t necessarily the right angle, I also think that the word mischaracterizes most of what’s actually happening, either to McCain or Bush “Most figures do bad things and good things,” Texas journalist Chris Hooks responded yesterday, when the tweet began circulating again. “When saccharine hagiography is permitted but not its counterbalancing opposite, the cumulative effect is ‘lying.’”
The problem with eulogies and remembrances is that they are history absent historical training. A historian recognizes how spectacularly easy it is to craft a narrative of a person or event or group vis-a-vis the present: the object of analysis becomes what society needs them to be, in order to fit a certain socio-psychological gap, not what they actually were. Historians are trained to resist that impulse — both in the way they perform research and they way they transmit that research to the public. Good historians are also keenly aware of the limitations of their vantage point: that the sphere of a presidential historian is separate from, but should, in this case, overlap, with that of a gay rights historian.
But pundits and journalists are rarely historians, even if they are versed in history. Remembering a leader is remembering how power was wielded — which means it’s ultimately also always a remembrance of how their power affected, ignored, or elevated the powerless.
Things I Read and Found Compelling This Week:
An incredible investigation into how federal tax dollars fund confederate monuments, many of them still arguing a white-washed history of slavery
How my favorite TV show of 2018 got so good
When and how cooking becomes freighted with resentment
Doing the difficult journalistic work of changing narratives about the South
How yoga studios became the new white safe spaces
This week’s “just trust me” (which came through a reader suggestion, so thank you!)
Odds and Ends Recs:
The Korean film Burning (reviewed here by Manhola Dargis)
The Paul Dano-directed Wild Life (trailer here) based on the Richard Ford novel of the same name, set here in Montana. Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are mesmerizing.
This week’s “aerial view” book, mentioned above, is Alan Abramowitz’s The Great Alignment. It’s somewhat less readable than Uncivil Agreement, which I wrote a bit about two weeks ago, but for someone without a background in political history, it was deeply enlightening — and explains so much about the current reaction to Bush’s death. I threaded some highlights here.
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