It’s important to be respectful when someone with opposing political views, who stood for those views, dies — even though their views were opposed to mine.
And that’s precisely why I think it’s important to sharply criticize George H. W. Bush in death.
That’s because it’s not his political views that are the issue. The issue is his craven flouting of political and constitutional responsibility, and his damage to our democracy, in helping felons, president Reagan, and probably himself get away with illegally dealing arms to two brutal regimes, and destroying massive amounts of evidence in a clear obstruction of justice.
There is no plank in the GOP platform supporting the sort of conspiracy and pardons that Bush engaged in. There are no Hoover Institute papers supporting it. It’s not a conservative opinion.
Just as thieves don’t support thievery in general, and murderers don’t want there to actually be more murder in the world, Bush himself wasn’t of the opinion that actions like his are good. He didn’t do them because he valued actions like these; he did them because he could, and because they enhanced his power directly and indirectly at a cost to society that he did not care to consider.
It was his autocratic and anti-democratic actions, not his opinions, that he deserves criticism for.
Anyone can chuckle their way through communicating with other powerful people (and chuckle their way into incessant sexual assault). It’s when their powerful friends abuse the public trust, or a popular wave of hate offers easy political points at the expense of the powerless, that we see their true colors. It’s when they go from being an upstart truth-teller who decries “voodoo economics” to the person in charge that we see if they keep telling the truth, or shut up and let the worst liars among their team carry the torch.
There are plenty of Republicans whose political views I disagree with, who I have mourned or will mourn — Sandra Day O’Connor, Bill Weld, Jack Kemp, Bob Dole. They were decent people who stood for their values, even if those values were partially attributable to blindness to the realities of class, race, and other forms of oppression. That is, they were party to oppression, but at least they did not seek social destruction for their own ends; social destruction was just a side effect of their biases and misconceptions.
But George H. W. Bush stood against his own values, when it convenienced himself and the class of connected kleptocrats, military profiteers and autocrats he associated with.
We can hope his soul finds peace, but there’s no respect in pretending he wasn’t an empathic force for the destruction of our democracy.
None of this ignores the good in Bush. There’s no reason why pointing out the good in a leader is incompatible with denouncing the bad. And it’s a mistake to associate everything done by a leader’s tribe with the leader themselves. You go to war with the army you have, as a notoriously craven associate of Bush’s once said.
But there is a sliding scale of actions which one end are primarily attributable a leader themselves, and at the other primarily attributable to the tribe. So while you go to war with the army you have, what you decide at that point is your responsibility.
Suggesting that we punt on addressing the legacy of the dead is a very poor way to take them seriously. Bush was a big deal! He could take it!
We all contain multitudes. But ignoring the extent of the evil in Bush’s actions does deep injustice to the good in him. A silence on his bad aspects due to a misunderstanding of what “respect” means is not a silence that honors the good in him in the slightest; instead it cheapens it. The good in Bush doesn’t need our charity. It deserves to be appreciated in the full context of the man, not because we’re tiptoeing around what we really think.
It’s worth saying how destructive he was now, because honor, dignity and respect matter. Silence seems similar to those values only to the cowardly.