George H.W. Bush’s Complicated Legacy

While most news orgs have treated Bush as either a Saint or Satan, we're treating him like a human. Here's our brief breakdown of his complicated legacy.
George H. Bush, February 5, 1984. (AP Photo)

George H. Bush, February 5, 1984. (AP Photo)

World leaders and politicians gathered at the National Cathedral to pay their respects to President George H.W. Bush. Much like John McCain before him, he leaves behind a complicated legacy. Here’s a breakdown.

The good:

  • Bush was an apt statesman throughout his political career. He was a steadfast multilateralist and strong proponent of the UN. This approach helped guide the world through the Cold War’s transition. Bush sought to welcome Eastern bloc countries, then newly formed former Soviet Union republics into the international community after the Berlin Wall fell. This made the world safer, not least because of denuclearization agreements that prevented nuclear arms from falling into nefarious hands.
  • Bush led what was probably the US’ most legitimate and efficient military conflict in the Gulf War. The war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi invasion had a clear UN mandate, a well-coordinated coalition, and fulfilled its objectives without dragging the US into a prolonged conflict. Bush’s call for Iraqis to overthrow Saddam without providing the needed military support did cause a slew of death in the country, but a subsequent no-fly zone in the north of Iraq allowed the Kurds to establish a semi-autonomous enclave there.
  • On the domestic front, he signed into law the American Disabilities Act, which prohibited discrimination of disabled persons and increased accessibility in public, private, and workspaces.
  • Bush was a steadfast proponent of bipartisanship, in a way that might seem unrecognizable to many today. This was most evident in his decision to support a bipartisan budget deal that raised taxes, despite promising during his presidential campaign that he would never do so. This may have cost him his reelection bid, but both sides of the aisle agreed that it was the right thing to do to address the deficit.

The bad:

  • Bush continued the Reaganomics of his predecessor, the conservative holy grail reducing regulations for the wealthy and corporations. This policy is largely responsible for expanding inequality in the US, particularly on racial and ethnic lines. By the end of his term, it also helped lurch the economy into a downturn, something every Republican economic plan has done since.
  • His record on protecting the civil rights of Americans is similarly abominable. He came out against civil rights protections during his presidential campaign, supported criminal justice policies (like the Drug War) that disproportionately targeted minorities, opposed federal funding and protections for abortion rights, and failed to provide funding for resources for people with HIV/AIDS during while the epidemic was still highly prevalent.
  • Bush also failed to stand up to the most heinous of his right-wing base. He was largely of the mind that placating the bigots and religious extremists in his own party was necessary to maintain power and realize Republicans’ more moderate policies. This capitulation gave rise to hyper-partisan conservatives who, over the course of the next quarter century, would lurch the party further rightwards, eventually giving rise to Donald Trump.

Moreover, the death of the 41st president symbolizes the death of the traditional conservative in the US. The values Republicans used to stand for – fiscal conservatism, conservative morality, respect for the rule of law, and hostility towards totalitarian regimes like Russia’s – are largely gone and buried with Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican party. Bigotry, economic populism, and a fondness for autocratic tactics have sprouted in their stead.

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News // George H.W. Bush / Politics / Republican Party