It’s become fashionable in some circles this week to denounce the newly buried George. H.W. Bush as a war criminal, but that seems gratuitous. After all, from a technical standpoint, what American president isn’t a war criminal? It’s probably a short list.
Thanks to the invasion(s) of Iraq, the bombing of civilians in places like Cambodia and Laos, Guantanamo Bay/torture, the overthrow of numerous democratically elected foreign regime, and support of repressive states like Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, “war criminal” is kind of a weak accusation to throw at a commander-in-chief.
We’ve had a few presidents that would have proudly tattooed the term on their pecs or had it emblazoned on their limo flags. In this sense, George H.W. “Poppy” Bush didn’t particularly stand out, compared to his son least of all.
If anything, the defining characteristic of the elder Bush is that he didn’t really have one — at least, not as a politician. There’s evidence that as a Navy pilot he showed considerable bravery and ingenuity. He came from a generation when children of the very rich still fought in the wars their parents arranged to enter, and Poppy flew real combat planes by the age of 19, escaping probable death by cannibalism in one remarkable episode.
He also supposedly had a legit 11 handicap, which isn’t bad for a president. Only Jack Kennedy and, oddly enough, Donald Trump are said to have better scores. (Trump is actually a crack golfer despite an even-for-presidents bad rep for cheating.)
For most of his political life, George Herbert Walker Bush was basically the unimaginative proxy for other powerful interests. He was always the front man for the fellas at the club, be it Skull and Bones or the CIA (he retains the dubious distinction of being the only spy head to become president). He excelled in this brute-behind-the-scenes role.
But once fashioning himself as something other than Ronald Reagan’s wingman, politics demanded he offer the national public glimpses of his personality. Sadly, he was president before he found out he didn’t really have one.
This would have been fine, if he’d been a more confident person. But Bush was not satisfied to be remembered as a dull imperial steward, and his flailing efforts to carve out a macho personal myth on par with Reagan or Kennedy marred both his presidency and large swaths of the planet.
Unable to let insults stand, he dreamed up stunt after stunt in an attempt to counter Heathers-style media taunts that grew out of inside jokes circulated in Washington during the Reagan years.
His presidency turned into an endless cycle: Bush would do something goofy/out of touch, the press would bash his brains in for it and he’d overreact, often by having someone bombed or jailed.
Here are the top five moments in this progression:
1. The “manhood problem”
In the age of Trump, it looks like a misdemeanor, but people forget Poppy was a pioneer of fake news. A key moment came in his October 12th, 1984 debate against congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro.
Bush seemed to resent being thrust into the role of first male to debate a woman on the presidential stage. A Bonesman to the core, that wasn’t the history he wanted to make. He was hyper-aggressive throughout, and in a key moment, over-reached factually. Referring to the deaths of Marines in Beirut at the hands of terrorists, Bush said:
”For somebody to suggest, as our two opponents have… these men died in shame — they better not tell the parents of those young Marines.”
But neither Ferraro nor Walter Mondale had ever uttered anything of the sort. Ferraro pounced, saying, “No one has ever said that those young men who were killed through the negligence of this Administration and others ever died in shame.”
Mondale labeled the accusation “unpardonable” and demanded an apology. The take-cornered Veep refused.
The day after the debate, Bush gave an address to a bunch of longshoremen in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was overheard saying, “I tried to kick a little ass.” If you believe Kitty Kelley’s account in The Family, this is what happened next:
Hours later his staff showed up on the press plane wearing buttons that said, “We kicked a little ass.” Some reporters started calling the Vice President “Kick-Ass George,” others wore hats made of jockstraps.
A few days later, Barbara Bush, while engaged in what the New York Times described as “banter” with reporters, said Ferraro was a “four-million-dollar — I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.” Poppy’s press secretary, Peter Teeley, said Ferraro was “too bitchy.”
It was absurd enough that the former Yale first baseman fled to the company of longshoremen after his debate with Ferraro, but things got even sillier when he told the press the “kick a little ass” remark was an “old Texas football expression” that he and his children (remember that part) used “all the time.”
After all this, Mondale decided to take a shot at Bush, right in the jockstrap. He said Bush “doesn’t have the manhood to apologize.”
A few weeks later, the Doonesbury comic strip — which was a big deal in an age when everyone read newspapers — ran a cartoon playing on the theme of Bush’s “manhood problem.” Cartoonist Garry Trudeau had newsman character Roland Hedley Jr. doing a standup outside the White House, announcing, “In a White House ceremony today, Bush will formally place his embattled manhood in a blind trust.”
The legend of Bush’s “manhood problem” had begun. It’s impossible to tally the final consequences of this series of events, but it’s not crazy to suggest that our ongoing bombing of the Middle East three decades later is due at last in part to it. Because of…
2. The “wimp factor”
The Bush family never got over the Doonesbury thing. “He’s been reduced to a cartoon,” fumed son Jeb in a 1987 Newsweek cover story called “BUSH BATTLES THE WIMP FACTOR” that, to be fair, was one of the all-time lows in campaign journalism. The Newsweek piece was one of the worst examples of a type of campaign reporting that involves pundits formalizing the inane Beltway caricatures of politicians.
Bush throughout Reagan’s presidency had been the target of razzing depicting him as a lackey, Reagan’s brown-nosing yes-man, or worse. There were a lot of jokes playing on the theme of Bush “serving under Ronald Reagan,” and some suggested he should add Reagan UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to his ticket to add “machismo” for his 1988 run.
The Newsweek piece formalized all of this. It had some true observations (“His political identity was fuzzy from the start”), but mainly focused on a “problem” that Bush had an “image” of a “guy who takes direction,” a character issue the magazine claimed 51 percent of the electorate heading into the 1988 election believed “poses problems for his candidacy.”
After the “Wimp” cover, Doonesbury doubled down — among other things, depicting Bush as literally invisible, which caused the Bushes to overreact in historic fashion. Bush himself admitted in an interview that he wanted to “kick the hell” out of Trudeau dating back to 1984, and his sons George and Jeb actually reached out to the cartoonist, who was a Yale classmate of W. This is in Poppy’s recollection:
″Trudeau says to our son, ‘Well, I hope your family doesn’t take this personally.’ And George says, ’They don’t take it personally, but my brother (Jeb) wanted to come up and kick your ass all over New York.”
This all seems absurd now, but Bush spent the rest of his political career beating back the wimp/manhood thing.
He made sure the press saw him eating pork rinds on the campaign trail. He had himself photographed in a nuclear bomber. An infamous exchange with Dan Rather in January 1988 was informed by the “wimp” subtext. Rather was pursuing a legitimate line of questioning about why Bush had gone along with the monstrous Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages plan, when Bush lashed out.
“I don’t think it’s fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran,” he said. “How would you like it if I judged your whole career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?”
Bush was referring to Rather’s infamous tantrum-walkout after the CBS Evening News was shortened to finish a U.S. Open broadcast.
After the exchange with Rather, Poppy tore off his earpiece, but his mic was still on. “That guy makes Lesley Stahl look like a pussy,” he barked, nonsensically, referring to the CBS journalist. He seemed to be reaching for some other insult.
Bush went on to get elected, among other things, thanks to the media deciding to launch an even more asinine “wimp” campaign against Mike Dukakis. The Duke’s crime was being a small Greek man who allowed himself to be photographed in a tank.
Without the triple foils of Rather, Dukakis and “Veepette” Dan Quayle (Quayle was often depicted as a Himbo, which might have been part of the reason he was picked), George H.W. Bush might have struggled to get elected.
This was the ultimate example of how the press screws itself with its own phony narratives. Instead of answering questions about Iran-Contra and other serious issues, Bush got to run, successfully, against his own concocted “wimp” image.
In this, he was aided by speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who composed Bush’s hyper-manly 1988 nomination acceptance address. Bush’s speech was basically a long-winded promise to kick more little asses, but with real arms this time.
“Weakness tempts aggressors. Strength stops them,” he growled. “I will not allow this country to be made weak again. Never.”
His image rose with male voters after this address. Then he got elected, and started picking fights all over the place.
3. The “rite of passage”
After Bush’s election, Doonesbury infuriatingly refused to stop depicting him as invisible. What the hell? Wasn’t being president enough to end this intransigence?
In December 1989, Bush invaded Panama, ostensibly to capture former American client/human rights monster Manuel Noriega. The New York Times cheered Bush for going through the “rite of passage” of the presidency, which involved “a need to demonstrate the willingness to shed blood.”
The paper was one of many to describe the invasion as a triumph over both Newsweek and Doonesbury:
For President Bush… a man still portrayed in the Doonesbury comic strip as the invisible President – showing his steel had a particular significance.
The Ottawa Citizen ran a typically Canadian series of articles about the military action, focusing as foreigners sometimes do on things like the deaths of actual people. “Fearful civilians run for cover,” read one December 21st, 1989 headline, describing “women and children” out on the streets fleeing in terror during shoreline bombing. At the bottom of the page there was a blunt picture of Poppy over the caption: “Wimp label gone.”
But bombing a few Panamanians wasn’t enough. People simply refused to forget certain episodes, like the time Poppy was overheard asking for just another “splash” of coffee. His efforts to “rub off” what the New York Times euphemistically called “the Patina” never stopped.
Even within his own party, Bush was still getting it, even after Panama. In 1990, columnist George Will accused the Bush administration of “intellectual and moral flaccidity” and worried about “the sagging of America into a peripheral role abroad.”
George Will using the words “flaccid” and “sagging” is about as profane as country club Republicanism used to get. In a later insult, Will’s brother-by-another-overused-Thesaurus, William Safire, ripped an insufficiently aggressive Bush address about the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “Chicken Kiev” speech.
Bush then invaded Iraq. In an act of breathtaking pettiness and self-involvement, he chose Newsweek as the venue to explain to Americans why their sons and daughters were being sent to get shot halfway around the world. “Why We Are In The Gulf,” was published in November 1990, about 10 months after George Will metaphorically accused him of having a soft penis.
About half-a-year later, the president appeared at the Malibu home of Jerry Weintraub, producer of The Karate Kid. He also played a round of golf that day with his ex-boss Reagan at the Sherwood Country Club, where, as the Times noted, “the tee markers are little brass archers.” After the game, he told reporters he was still pissed about the Newsweek thing.
“You’re talking to the ‘wimp,’” he said. “You’re talking to the guy that had a cover of a national magazine, that I’ll never forgive, put that label on me.”
In the end, Bush finally got some pop culture credit for being a mean dirtbag. The Simpsons had him wrestling Homer in a drain pipe, with Bush saying: “If he thinks George Bush will stay out of the sewer, he doesn’t know George Bush!”
4. Bush vs. crack
Bush once sent a poor black kid to a real prison for real years for the crime of being a political prop.
In the summer of 1989, while vacationing avec speedboat in his Kennebunkport, Maine, estate, Bush came up with the brilliant idea, or at least acceded to one dreamed up by aides. He would do a live address to the country while holding up a bag of crack that had been sold just outside the White House. The idea was to show that crack could “be bought anywhere.”
The problem was, nobody sold crack in Lafayette Square near the White House, which is where Bush aides wanted the crack found. There is a long backstory here that involves administration officials tasking the DEA with securing a bust near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They ended up having an undercover agent contact an 18-year-old named Keith Jackson from a poor neighborhood in southeast Washington. He was asked to bring his wares to the White House.
“Where the fuck is the White House?” he asked.
“We had to manipulate him to get him down there,” a DEA agent later admitted. “It wasn’t easy.”
Bush ended up doing his idiotic address to the nation about the dangers of crack. It had pretty much the opposite effect of what he intended.
Almost immediately, Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live did a mock Oval Office speech that savaged Bush, prefacing the crack tale by telling audiences he’d been “doing loop-de-loops” in his speedboat in Kennebunkport and not catching anything while fishing (“not… the… point!” Carvey quipped). Carvey then pulled out a giant bag of “coke” which, he joked, had been sold “three feet from this desk.”
I had to research this incident for a book about the late Eric Garner called I Can’t Breathe (Garner was also busted for crack dealing around that time), and one of the amazing and underreported aspects of this case was that Jackson, who was clearly entrapped in the most absurd fashion, ended up doing eight years in prison so that Bush could have his stupid photo op.
The federal judge in the case, Stanley Sporkin, wanted desperately to not impose a stiff sentence on Jackson, but — in a problem none of the Bush aides who cooked up this dumb scheme thought of — mandatory sentencing laws handcuffed Sporkin. So the kid was sentenced to 10 years (he was later paroled). Sporkin, a former CIA general counsel appointed by Reagan, suggested Jackson ask Bush for a pardon:
“He used you, in the sense of making a big drug speech… But he’s a decent man, a man of great compassion. Maybe he can find a way to reduce at least some of that sentence.”
Bush blew that off and instead issued pardons to six Iran-Contra defendants on Christmas Day in 1992.
5. The apple
It is absolutely logical to blame George H.W. Bush for the catastrophes of his son’s presidency.
For one thing, Poppy surely helped get Bush The Younger elected, by being part of a narrative that made W look human. A lot of the male campaign reporters liked W because, as a reporter put it to me once in ‘04, “Hey, the guy had a dick for a father.”
If you want an example of how that reality impacted the thinking of even Bush’s harshest critics, watch Oliver Stone’s W. By the end, the film has you rooting for the try-hard cheerleader forced by fate to swim upstream against King Daddy’s sneering disdain over things like not being able to hold down a real job before the age of 40. The opening line of the W. trailer is Poppy’s voice, played by master character actor James Cromwell, sneering at his disappointing heir, “If I remember correctly, you didn’t like the sporting goods job.”
The plot of that underrated movie: “Hey, I can be a crappy president, too!”
As bitterly as W wanted to outdo his Dad — particularly by winning re-election and conquering all of Iraq — he had been even more offended by the “Wimp Factor” piece than his father. When the Rather episode happened in 1988, young W reportedly stormed into his Dad’s campaign headquarters yelling, “Macho! Macho!”
When he himself became president, W basically set fire to the Middle East in defiance of “moderates” like Colin Powell, in order to show everyone how not-flaccid the Bushes were. The fact that Saddam Hussein “tried to kill my Dad” was somehow openly a factor in all of this.
W’s belief that his father’s failure to take Baghdad and topple Saddam had cost him re-election in 1992 — ironically, Bush’s own son believed his Dad to be a wimp about that — was a major reason we ended up occupying the whole country, for years, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives at the very least.
The younger Bush — said to be aggrieved both by the “Wimp Factor” charge and by Daddy’s vacillating stances between gunboat diplomacy and a “kindler and gentler” nation — made being “decisive” the cornerstone of his moronic presidency.
We now know his father disagreed with his son about Iraq. Characteristically he was too passive-aggressive to confront him head-on, reportedly using a Brent Scowcroft editorial to express his doubts about junior’s military misadventures.
Years later, we not only are still in the Middle East, but have a Star Wars-style permanent garrison of bases with which we’ve droned and bombed the region more or less uninterruptedly since the early 2000s.
Poppy’s last act, in death, was to be elevated to icon status by the same Democrat-neocon alliance that turned the funeral of John McCain into something like a national religious rite.
Since one of Donald Trump’s defining characteristics is his lack of reverence for anyone who’s not himself, the establishment-in-exile has made Trump’s lack of public prostration before Poppy’s corpse another unforgivable blow to the dignity of Washingtonhood.
Brian Krassenstein of the flying #Resistance Krassensteins notes that Poppy once cursed at the TV at the sight of Trump, so “I like George H.W. Bush even more now.” (Why did you like him before?)
And the Washington Post went ape because Trump didn’t recite the Apostles’ Creed as part of the interminable Soviet-style funeral ceremonies of this week.
The paper said Trump stood, “lips not moving,” while all the other dignitaries paid homage to the fallen patriarch. This was likely because Trump is an ignoramus and didn’t know he was supposed to read, or maybe he’s not actually religious, or maybe he was thinking about his next cheeseburger — whatever, it became a thing. Once again, Poppy was elevated by a less-popular foil.
Bush the elder had some decent qualities, or at least relatable ones. He served his country bravely and was famous for the thoughtful notes he sent to almost everyone, demonstrating a memory for people that would be commendable in the social director of a cruise liner, or the president of a charity.
Bush’s problem was that he was totally ruthless about pursuing real power without much of a clue why — “the vision thing.” To win an election he sank to Trumpian lows with the Willie Horton episode, even as his reasons for running seemed elusive.
He’s being elevated this week, among other things as a way of taking a shot at Trump by comparison. But let’s not confuse that with George H.W. Bush being a great president. He was kind of a hack, actually. In fact, maybe the most special thing about him was a lack of a sense of humor so extreme, people may have lost their lives to it.
This piece has been updated to clarify that George H.W. Bush reportedly once cursed at the TV at the sight of Donald Trump.