George H.W. Bush made many mistakes. America must talk about them.

Grappling with the complicated legacy of an imperfect president

George H.W. Bush conceding his election
(Image credit: BOB DAEMMRICH/AFP/Getty Images)

Upon the news of former President George H.W. Bush's death, tributes and discussions of his legacy quickly emerged. It didn't take long, however, to notice a dichotomy in these remembrances: One narrative told the story of a politician who prized decency and manners, one who could and did reach across the aisle to get stuff done, and who even made friends with the Democrat who took the White House away from him: This was the story, mostly, that led the front pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times.

And then there was the other narrative, about a politician who used racism to gain office, who failed to take a stand against the extreme elements that took over his party — and who, among his many other sins, was embarrassed in his final years by allegations he'd groped young women.

One narrative made Bush a kind of civic hero. The other, a villain. Both versions were true.

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There was a time when the death of a president was treated mostly respectfully, even worshipfully: Former President Herbert Hoover led the country as it plunged into the Great Depression, but that extremely salient fact wasn't mentioned until the eighth paragraph of his New York Times obituary in 1964 — and only after the piece first praised him as an exemplar of "rugged individualism."

This kind generous white-washing of a late president's sins in office doesn't really happen anymore; their mistakes and downfalls are laid bare for all to see and scrutinize. But that's not a bad thing.

"It seems more than appropriate that we remember politicians for the totality of their public life," the writer Clint Smith tweeted on Sunday. "It's not a matter of slandering someone after they've passed, it's a matter of being honest about both the good things they might have done in addition to the real harm they caused."

The stories we tell ourselves about the past, he added, influence how we shape our future. "Failing to tell the full story of those in public life once their lives have ended leads to revisionist history," Smith wrote, and "that has a material impact on the way we construct public policy."

Still, we live in a culture where it still feels taboo to speak ill of the newly dead. So why are we so willing to do it in the case of a former commander in chief?

There are two answers. The first is that being president of the United States involves making moral compromises, even on the best day. Throw in the ambition it takes to attain the office, and nobody comes out of the process unmuddied. Especially since the end of World War II, the United States has essentially been an imperial power — possessing both the ability and the will to reach around the world to affect events and attempt to bend history in its favor. It doesn't always work out the way we'd imagined: In Vietnam, Iraq, and numerous other countries, we've helped create disasters that killed hundreds of thousands of people and harmed the lives of countless others. As president in these circumstances, it's hard to be a hero when you're the most powerful human on Earth and yet you muck it up so badly and so frequently.

Even the best-intentioned presidents go awry. After George W. Bush's failures, Barack Obama came into office promising a more modest approach to the world. He ended up ordering drone attacks that killed civilians, oversaw the assassination of an American abroad, used mass deportation to try to bargain immigration policy with Republicans, and was in charge of the National Security Agency apparatus that vacuums up huge amounts of personal data from people all over the world. Obama is a hero to many American liberals, but for many others still, his presidency was a horror show.

The second answer is that these days, the sins of a world leader are much harder to hide than in the past. Everybody has a megaphone. History used to be written by and for the elites, but thanks in part to the internet, we can see more than ever how the actions of "Great Men" affect people at the bottom of the power pyramid — and, if we're listening, are made to understand why it matters. Thirty years ago, for example, AIDS activists had to chain themselves to the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange to draw attention to how the government under Bush and Ronald Reagan was failing them; these days, that narrative is a headline on HuffPost.

Nobody, not even a relatively kindly president, gets to escape this truth. Mostly, that's a good thing. We can't begin to fix our collective mistakes,'s Will Bunch writes, "until we start telling the truth about our history."

But the danger is that we too heartily embrace cynicism. The most famous intellectual case to elect Donald Trump, after all, suggested he might well destroy the country. In the absence of heroes to lead the country, some folks have opted to vote for outright villainy. That's a horrible idea.

Where does that leave us when it comes to the legacy of George H.W. Bush? Well, he was the Willie Horton candidate — and the leader who signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. He helped cover up the Iran-Contra scandal — and was the last Republican president to take environmental concerns seriously. The list of pros and cons is endless. There are a lot of truths about George H.W. Bush, and we need to hear all of them.

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