Saturday, December 01, 2018

George H.W. Bush: Last of a kind

George H.W. Bush
official portrait.
Today former US President George H.W. Bush died at age 94. He was the last of the Old School Republicans, a type we’ll probably never see again: Kind, decent, respectable, someone with whom one could disagree without it being personal or bitter. I never voted for him, and I often disagreed with him, but I nevertheless respected him, something I can only say about one other Republican president in my lifetime: Gerald Ford, and I think that that’s truly sad. Over the next few days, a lot of people will talk about him, and various points of view will be expressed. This is my personal view.

George H.W. Bush was the only person I’ve ever met (so far) who went on to be elected US President, but that was nine years after I met him and his wife, Barbara, who died back in April. I’ve always felt that it’s possible to get a measure of a person when you meet them face-to-face. It’s nothing weird or spooky, just about human connection that any of us can have with anyone else. In that brief meeting, I got the sense that he was a thoroughly decent man, and while that view was challenged a few times until he left office in January, 1993, it nevertheless persisted.

When I was a student at Southern Illinois University in the late 1970s, I was active in Republican Party politics. The election of 1980 would see several Republicans vying for their party’s nomination, but everyone assumed that Ronald Reagan, who’d lost the 1976 nomination to Gerald Ford, would be the nominee. I loathed Reagan.

I backed Illinois US Representative John Anderson, who died this time last year. Others I met backed Howard Baker, and even another Illinois US Representative, the truly and utterly vile Phil Crane. But I met one older couple (though they were probably only in their 60s, they seemed “old” to me) who backed George H.W. Bush. The couple was something of a pariah among Jackson County Republicans: They were old-line “Establishment Republicans”, that is, fairly moderate, and thoroughly nice. I liked them, probably because I was that sort of Republican, too, but I could tell the conservative party establishment there didn’t like them, and treated them almost as if they were crackpots.

In the end, of course, Reagan did win the nomination, and chose Bush as his vice president, which surprised many people—including Reagan’s own hard-right base, who considered Bush to be a “counterfeit conservative”, as they called it then. I don’t remember much about Bush during the Reagan years; vice presidents usually stay out of the limelight, at least, most of the time. But Bush also took on more work than usual toward the end of those years as Reagan entered his late 70s (and was already showing signs of Alzheimer’s Disease).

Reagan backed Bush for the 1988 Republican nomination, but Bush struggled at the start. That campaign was also memorable for the candidacy of extremist “Christian” TV preacher Pat Robertson, who failed in his campaign and launched a christianist electoral jihad at the local and state levels, the effects of which the USA is still suffering from.

In the general election, Bush faced Democratic Nominee Michael Dukakis, and that campaign was his absolute lowest political point.

Bush had chosen the utterly incompetent and unqualified Dan Quayle as his vice president, and that was a terrible mistake. But allowing the disgusting Lee Atwater and the sickening Roger Ailes to make his campaign ads and strategy, Bush sunk to the lowest level of dirty politics that the USA had ever seen. Atwater was adept at using racist campaigning and for spreading hateful fake rumours to damage opponents of whatever Republican he was working for. I’ll never forget Bush attacking Dukakis for being “a card-carrying member of the ACLU”, a shallow, stupid, and pandering attack.

Because of that, as eager to see the end of the Reagan years, it was Bush’s campaign made me an opponent: I voted against Bush more than for Dukakis about whom I was definitely unenthusiastic.

Then, Bush was elected, and everything changed.

Leaving the hard-right conservatism of Reagan behind, Bush genuinely tried to work toward the “kinder, gentler” country he’d called for. I was surprised—pleased, sure, but surprised.

Reagan totally ignored HIV/AIDS until 1987, when continuing to remain silent was becoming an international embarrassment, but on July 26, 1990, Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. As an LGBT activist, I’d lobbied for the bill because it outlawed discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS.

I also lobbied for another important law that Bush signed: On August 18, 1990, Bush signed the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act (Ryan White CARE Act) into law. The purpose was, as the bill put it, “to provide grants to improve the quality and availability of care for individuals and families with HIV disease” by being a funder of last resort for people with HIV/AIDS, ensuring that no one was denied care due to lack of funds. At the end of its first year, it cost $220 million, and by the FY2005, it was $2.1 billion. The Ryan White CARE Act was very important—so much so that it’s been reauthorised twice—2006 and 2009.

But my most personal connection was the Hate Crime Statistics Act, which was the first US law to include gay, lesbian, and bisexual people by name as an enumerated class. It was ground-breaking, historic, very important, and a bill I’d lobbied for very hard [see also: “Alan J. Dixon and the letter”, in which I talk about my lobbying efforts]. I was there in the audience on April 23, 1990 when Bush signed the Hate Crime Statistics Act into law—the first time that LGBT activists had ever been invited to a White House signing ceremony.

I’m absolutely certain that Reagan would never have signed either bill into law, much less the other bi-partisan laws that Bush pushed and signed. The sad thing is that he didn’t run a “kinder, gentler” campaign, too.

Bush was by no means perfect—no one ever is (Clarence Thomas was an extreme lowpoint of his presidency). I sometimes disagreed with him, as on Thomas, and I loathed his 1988 campaign (and 1992 wasn't much better). But much of what he did as president was actually very good—the last Republican I’ve been able to say that about.

Another notable thing about his presidency wasn’t about him as such: It marked the pivot point in US politics, when the hard-right conservatism unleashed by Reagan became the only acceptable way to be a Republican, the toxic effects of which the USA is still suffering from to this day.

So, Bush was the last of his kind for all sorts of reasons. The last old-time Republican, the last nominee to have served in World War Two, the last Republican presidential nominee that, had things been only somewhat different, I might have voted for.

In his last presidential vote, Bush ended up voting for Hillary Clinton—the wife of the man who’d defeated him 24 years earlier—rather than his own party’s nominee. While I agreed with him on that choice, that’s not really the point: It takes a special kind of commitment to principle to be able to do that. Apparently my impression of him 39 years ago really was correct.

The photo above of George H.W. Bush is his official portrait, and is in the public domain [via Wikimedia Commons].

This post has been updated to provide more detail on the legislation I worked to help pass during Bush's presidency.

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