Speaking ill of the dead: Five reasons why George Bush was a bad president

“Funerals are always occasions for pious lying” – I.F. Stone

It’s the funeral of George H. W. Bush today. December 5 is a day of mourning across the United States of America, and I’ve noticed in the wake of his passing, certain people at the internet shouting factory have been vilified for speaking ill of the dead. It seems to me that the dead are the best people of whom to speak ill, as it doesn’t bother them in the slightest. They’re not around to read it.

How does it make sense that, during his lifetime, they would call, for instance, Richard Nixon, that disgraced earlier occupant of the White House, every name in the book; and then, when he dies, pretend he was a misunderstood American hero? And so the USA is supposed to bury their dead presidents with the type of fanfare and reverence that the colonial forebearers of this nation’s white settlers reserved for royalty. Today, the American press corps is carrying on this tradition, eulogising him primarily by celebrating his polite demeanour and his successful self-representation of civility. Yes, the 41st president presented himself as a nicer person than crazy Trump, the 45th, or his senile son, the 43rd. But for the people whose countries or lives were destroyed by his violent actions, he’ll always be a detestable figure. 

A former president lies in state, not because he was kind to his family or delighted those closest to him with his gracious thank-you notes and a patrician manner (none of this is disputed, by the way), though those stories are important for historians to gather. Of course he was polite. He was a WASP. But does it matter? A public figure isn’t notable for what he does behind closed doors. Hitler liked dogs and kids. This man lies in state simply because he was president; because he held power over the fates of hundreds of millions of citizens, and the direction of the world. How he used that power, or failed to use it, must be reckoned with by any who seek to fully understand his legacy. Sanitising his story amounts to historical revisionism. Below are just five of the many reasons why, beneath that civility, George Herbert Walker Bush was not a good president.

1. Indifference to AIDS

Compared to his right-wing predecessor Ronald Reagan, Bush was a social moderate, an internationalist and, despite his years in Texas, an Easterner by nature. Yet he found himself leading a Republican movement that since the mid-1970s had tilted ever more conservative, more Western, more Southern and less tolerant of social progress. That party loved Reagan, had written Nixon out of its history books, and was a little suspicious of a man whose father, a senator from Connecticut, had been an unashamed Planned Parenthood supporter of sexual healthcare. 

After the divisiveness of Reaganomics, Bush could have been the man to bring the so-called United States together. Alas, he chose not to distance himself from the far-right radicals of his party. To speak now, as several have, about his administration’s shocking lack of response to the AIDS crisis is not about dishonouring the man’s death, but about honouring the deaths of others who were equally beloved to their communities, but far from equal in power, then or now. 

That Bush should die on the eve of World AIDS Day is an irony that cannot be underplayed. At 93, he had the luxury of becoming America’s longest lived president, the sort of age denied to those victims struck down by the disease in the 1980s. The transition from the Reagan presidency to the Bush one was more one of tone than substance when it came to AIDS, a kinder gentler indifference. Messaging that repeatedly pointed to “behaviour change” as the solution, without backing prevention programs known to work. A lack of leadership from the top. No central strategy.

Bush’s main crime here was a compete indifference to human life, which manifested itself in inaction and murderous neglect as the relentless plague marched on unabated. More focused on unnecessary wars and invasions than on domestic affairs, Bush’s priorities did not include funding any meaningful action to stem the AIDS crisis either through research or treatment. Hell, even Margaret Thatcher committed her government in Britain to an advertising campaign warning people of the risk (those infamous tombstone telly ads).

George Bush’s ignorant stance on the disease, which when uttered as president, contributed to false narratives, undermining any meaningful response to the crisis. Focusing exclusively on gay men, he argued that the virus vectors were behavioural. At the same time, in other parts of the world, poverty and not sexual orientation or intravenous drug use, were emerging as vectors. When AIDS activists reacted to his comments, Bush responded blithely that “You can’t talk about it rationally.” AIDS was, during his presidency, the leading cause of death for men ages 25–45, not just gay men, but males across the sexual spectrum. Just how many lives were lost in the 1980s under this Republican head-burying exercise? I suppose we should be grateful Bush even dared to refer to AIDS in public, something Reagan expressly chose not to do throughout his eight-year tenure at the top.

2. The Invasion of Panama

Barely one year into his presidency in December of 1989, Bush invaded Panama for the ostensible reason of executing an American arrest warrant against that nation’s populist strongman and leader, Manuel Antonio Noriega. General Noriega (or “Pineapple Face” as The Sun liked to refer to him), for his part, had been one of the Central Intelligence Agency’s most prized overseas assets during the period when Bush was its director prior to becoming Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Noriega also served the US as a conduit during the Reagan-era Contra War against Nicaragua, when he was photographed meeting with Bush. 

Along with the AIDS crisis, this is a particular bugbear of mine. Having just travelled through Panama, Argentina and Chile last month, I witnessed countless stories from Latin Americans bitter at their northern neighbours’ persistent meddling in their countries’ politics. Lest we forget, Noriega, like Galtieri in Argentina, Pinochet in Chile and many others before them, were despotic demagogues who were only able to seize power because successive American governments secretly armed and funded them with the intention of facilitating military coups to overthrow the democratically elected governments of the day. The US rationale being that a fascist, murdering dictator is always going to be infinitely preferable to anything left-wing that might have Communist sympathies. Another Castro sticking two fingers up at the Yanks? Not on your nelly.

“He’s a thug, crook, witchcraft drug dealer, everything evil,” Bush wrote in his diary, “and his time is up.” Yes, Noriega was a thug, but for many years, he was America’s thug – until he turned on his mentors. Panama’s “Maximum Leader” was one of the CIA’s most valued intelligence sources, acting as a cold war listening post for the US during turbulent times in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Noriega was also one of the primary conduits for illicit weapons, military equipment and cash destined for US-backed counter-insurgency forces throughout Latin America. Bush also regarded him as an ally in his self-declared “war on drugs”, despite Noriega himself having amassed a personal fortune through drug trafficking operations. Though Reagan and Bush were fully aware of this, it was tolerated because of his usefulness to them. By 1989, however, the autocrat that controlled the strategically vital Panama Canal was becoming “difficult to handle” (ie he wouldn’t always do what the US wanted). Simply put, he was the man knew too much. Shades of Suez anyone?

After an unsuccessful US-backed coup attempt in October, Bush invaded that December. He sent nearly 26,000 troops to Panama to remove the pineapple from power. The assault began when the Americans dropped more than 400 bombs in 13 hours, while Noriega fled across Panama City in a Hyundai, dashing from one hopeless hide-out to another, ducking into a school, a hospital and even a Dairy Queen fast food restaurant. On Christmas Day, Noriega sought refuge in the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See (the closest thing the Vatican has to an embassy). To smoke him out, General “Mad Max” Thurman ordered the construction of a “musical barrier” around the building – constant barrages of sound played from the enormous loudspeakers of encircling US army Humvees. Pineapple Face was an opera fan, so the Americans blasted him with rock and pop music played at excruciating volume. Rather than a light spot of Verdi he was subjected to a PSYOPS playlist consisting of The Beatles, Doors, Guns ’n’ Roses, Billy Idol, Eurythmics, David Bowie and Mick Jagger, and most worryingly of all: If I Had a Rocket Launcher by Bruce Cockburn. Faced with the sanity-destroying treatment of listening to Bowie & Jagger’s Dancing In The Street at full pelt yet again, Noriega surrendered.

Noriega was transferred to a show trial in Miami, where he was sentenced to 40 years incarceration as a warning to other foreign leaders to tow the US’s line. It was pure vengeance, a cover-up of decades of illicit regional meddlingBush piously codenamed this malicious, absurd war Operation Just Cause. Bush’s decision to invade a sovereign country in order to arrest one man cost the lives of as many as 3,000 Panamanians and destroyed the working-class Panamanian neighbourhood of Chorrillo.

Certainly without justification. Noriega was sent to an American prison, having spent more than two decades on trumped-up cocaine charges. The trouble is, treating a sovereign head of state like a common criminal scumbag sets some bad precedents. Now, when the US approaches guys like Syria’s Bashar Assad to suggest that he leave office, he digs in his heels for fear of winding up in prison or worse. Back in the pre-Panama days, you could convince a guy like the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos to fly to Hawaii with a duffel bag full of bullion, so everyone could move on.

Just last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the US to pay reparations, though of course that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Overall, 23 Americans died in the operation and 324 were wounded. Bush had called the assault on Panama a “major gamble.” In fact, the invasion, fast and ruthless and relatively surgical, would soon be seen as a prologue to a much bigger show of raw American power, one which was only a year away.

3. Targeting Civilians in Iraq

Bush launched the Gulf War, first as Operation Desert Shield in August 1990, then intensified it as Desert Storm in January 1991. Ostensibly, the war was to restore the Kuwaiti monarchy to power after that nation was invaded by Iraq. Saddam Hussein, however, invaded Kuwait only after effectively receiving the green light to do so from Bush’s ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie. In a now largely forgotten episode, the Iraqi dictator — then a US buddy — asked permission to cross into Kuwait, which was “slant drilling” into Iraqi oil fields and undercutting OPEC cartel prices. It being August, all the big names were away on vacation, so Saddam took the word of a low-level drone that everything was cool. It wasn’t.

If Bush had been a decent manager — the kind of guy who arranges the deck chairs — he would have had better people handling his pet tyrants. Instead, we were subjected to a war which saw 88,500 tons of bombs fall on Iraq and Kuwait over the course of 43 days, initially killing as many as 13,000 Iraqi civilians and 20,000 Iraqi troops, most of whom were killed by bombardment as they fled Kuwait.

The bombing blitz targeted essential Iraqi infrastructure, such as water and sewage treatment facilities, food processing plants, agricultural facilities and the nation’s electrical grid and transportation infrastructure. As many as an additional 70,000 secondary Iraqi deaths resulted from this infrastructural damage. The sanctions that followed Desert Storm caused the premature deaths of as many as 500,000 Iraqis. Shiite and Kurdish rebels who Bush’s State Department encouraged to rise up in rebellion against the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein during Desert Storm were abandoned by the US once Iraq fled Kuwait. And there Bush Snr. stopped, declining the chance to go all the way to Baghdad and toss Saddam from power. That action, he believed, would only bring instability to the region. Shame he never bothered to tell his own son that.

4. The Willie Horton Campaign Ad

And then there was racism. The now notorious Willie Horton campaign ad successfully deployed by team Bush in the 1988 campaign for president featured images of Willie Horton, a black man serving a life sentence for a felony murder conviction who escaped from custody while on a weekend furlough from prison, and went on to rape a white woman and brutally assault her fiancé. The governor who signed the furlough was Bush’s Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis. The sitting president, Ronald Reagan, signed identical furlough requests. Most governors did as a routine matter. But the Bush team made this furlough central to their campaign using blurry high-contrast images of Horton that resembled wanted posters for runaway slaves in the antebellum South.

The Willie Horton campaign ad blew a powerful dog whistle awaking white racism and fear. The success of the ad spurred a generation of race-baiting ads by Republican candidates that have picked at the nation’s festering racism and undermined racial justice. Guided by Newt Gingrich, the new racist campaigns used coded us vs. them language to provide a veneer of plausible deniability to otherwise racist messages. A deniability that the crude Bush campaign lacked. Longtime Republican operative Roger Stone, most recently of Trump fame, at the time warned Bush and Republican National Committee Chair Lee Atwater, “It’s a racist ad” and “You’re going to regret it,” explaining “You and George Bush will wear that to your grave.” Atwater, before dying in 1991, apologised for the Willie Horton campaign ad. Bush never did.

5. Opening Guantánamo

Bush also gave us the notorious off shore limbo of the Guantánamo Bay detentions. When Haitian refugees escaping the violence surrounding the 1991 coup in that country sought asylum in the US, Bush opened up a camp for them at the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. His purpose was similar to that of his son, George Jr., in that he wanted a place to hold people without allowing them on US soil under protection of US law. To Bush, the Haitians posed a threat unlike any other refugee group or migrant population.

Of course, none of these instances of cruel and detestable behaviour contradict the claims made in political obituaries about Bush’s civil treatment of those whom he deemed worthy of civility. His treatment of Presidents Clinton and Obama, for example, are hallmarks of political civility.

Looking at his political legacy in terms of international politics, Bush’s biggest boner may actually have been his hands-off approach to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rather than help Russia and the other former Soviet republics come in for a soft post-socialist landing, as in China after Mao, Bush’s guys quietly rejoiced in the mayhem.

Clinton gave us “shock economics,” Yeltsin, mass starvation, the destruction of Grozny and the oligarchs — but Bush set the stage for a mess with which we, and more importantly the Russians, are dealing today. Bush effectively created the monster that is Vladimir Putin, determined to get even for the humiliation of the 1990s.

Any way you look at it, George Bush Sr. left the world worse off than it was. Amid the praise of that engaging self-effacement and decorousness, we must not forget that he was also a despicable person whose brief presidency set the West on a course to endless war, led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, established a model for racist dog-whistle politics, undermined the humanity of AIDS sufferers, covered up criminal activity at the highest levels of government and worked to undermine not just government accountability, but also the rule of law. The possibility that he may have been courteous to his minions and henchmen doesn’t change that. Let ye be known by thine deeds. May he not rest in peace.

Steve Pafford

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