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Pierce writes: "Taking the oath of office did not abracadabra all that away."

George H. W. Bush. (photo: Terry Ashe/Getty)
George H. W. Bush. (photo: Terry Ashe/Getty)

George H.W. Bush Campaigned as a Demagogue. Twice.

By Charles Pierce, Esquire

07 December 18

Taking the oath of office did not abracadabra all that away.

t was during Jon Meacham's paean to our civic religion over the casket of the late George H.W. Bush that I was struck by the thought that, even if you think we need a "civic religion," which I don't, the state of our current civic religion is very much the same as the state of Christianity was in Paris at the end of August in 1572. So I began running down the alleged elements of the creed of this civic religion people talk so much about, and I ran aground on one of them that has been getting quite the workout over the past two weeks.

Nobody with any longterm memory at all doesn't realize that, in 1988 and 1992, the late Mr. Bush ran for office in campaigns thick with calumny and deceit. In 1988, for political gain, he engaged in the personal destruction of Michael Dukakis, using the most poisonous tactics available to any American politician—racism and accusations of disloyalty. (Remember all the stuff about the Pledge of Allegiance?). In 1992, late in the campaign, his people—on the taxpayer's dime, I might add—scoured various passport files to prove that Bill Clinton had become a secret Communist on a visit to Russia, and also went through Clinton's mother's file as well. My own personal gripe is that Bush hired the dirty work out to some godawfully terrible people, without whom American politics would have been infinitely better off. This, I might add, was typical of the way the WASP elite had done business for centuries.

Anyway, apparently, our civic religion requires that we confess our belief that there is some sort of bright line between "campaigning" and "governing." (The gang at MSNBC seems particularly devoted to this part of the creed.) That is all my bollocks, and it's goddamn dangerous thing to accept as axiomatic, as has been demonstrated to the country on a regular basis since January of 2019. (It is the profession of faith that underlies all that hopeful whimpering about how the president* may one day pivot to being president.) The poison injected into the bloodstream during a campaign doesn't magically get cleansed as soon as somebody puts his or her hand on the Bible.

The Reagan-Bush years were years of profound racial reaction and social backlash in this country. Because it was the easiest and surest way to get elected, both men pandered to those forces. Those forces did not dissipate just because, at one point, each of them became president of all the people. Ask the families of the people with AIDS who died of neglect. Ask the black folks who saw the gains of the civil rights movement chipped away, brick by brick. The dumbest thing Mario Cuomo ever said was that thing about how you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. There's an unspoken corollary to that. If you campaign in slander, you govern that way, too. You have no choice.

Demagoguery has been recognized as a mortal threat to democracy as far back as Aristotle. (He took a demagogue named Cleon to the woodshed because Cleon "was the first who shouted on the public platform, who used abusive language, and who spoke with his cloak girt around him, while all the others used to speak in proper dress and manner." Bad hair, too, in all likelihood.) And drawing a distinction between what a politician says while campaigning and what he does while governing demands an ongoing offer of proof rather than a hand-wave of denial. Without that offer of proof, the demagogue cannot help but triumph.

George H.W. Bush campaigned as a demagogue, twice. He was not transformed by his oath of office, which is neither a magic spell nor a religious incantation.

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+20 # lotuslover 2018-12-07 11:02
Nor should we forget H.W.Bush's lasting legacy in the person of Clarence Thomas.
0 # johnescher 2018-12-07 11:06
I once heard that Prescott Bush was the best guy, George H.W. was less of a guy, and George W. Bush if I got the middle initial right was worst of the three.

Well, I watched a TV speech by George H.W. one time that impressed me enough to threaten this three generation formula that implied a steady diminishing.

Then I read stuff about the Prescott Bush connection to pre-World War II Nazi Germany, which was partially undone by his honoring of a request by Ralph Nader's mom to build a dam behind Winsted, Connecticut.

Also, I came to remember Willie Horton as a writing student of mine in Walpole Prison. His huge and frightening size was perfect for Lee Atwater's hence George H.W. Bush's campaign use.

Horton sat in the back row one day with another huge guy as both slammed their fists over and over into their palms. But that was the only trouble he gave me. He would depress me, however, by coming to class with self-inflicted razor cuts all over his face.

He got out through the accumulation of good time some of which he earned by taking my class. So I guess I was complicit in some poor woman's rape and murder.

They brought Horton back to Walpole but not to my class. I broke the rules by walking back through the bowels of the prison to his cell in solitary and handed him his diploma since he'd done the work like anybody else.

Then I lived on a mountain in Virginia just below Lee Atwater. He jammed all night with B.B. King so he wasn't all bad either.
+1 # economagic 2018-12-09 21:55
Almost every human does small acts of goodness and small acts of evil every day. We tend to see them as balancing out, and in the end say the person was good, or not so good.

Some people do great good and little evil, so we tend to overlook those small faults. But some people do great evil that no amount of good can undo. We may forgive them or we may not, but in general we do not write off that evil in proportion to whatever good that person may have done.

It goes without saying -- so I will say it -- that the most debased member of the human species should still be treated as a member of the species. To do otherwise is itself to do great evil in refusing to acknowledge our cousin, even if s/he must be sequestered to prevent harm to others or to her/himself.

There is of course an exception: When a person commits a great evil early in life, recognizes and acknowledges it, makes reparations insofar as that is possible, then spends the rest of his or her life doing good for others or for society as a whole, we speak of redemption.

And then there is Lyndon B. Johnson, a rare bird (sic) if ever there was one. He did great evil, and also great good, simultaneously. What are we to make of that? Probably best to treat him as a unique case, both very good and very evil in comparable degrees.
0 # economagic 2018-12-09 22:01
I neglected to add that the human status of the most debased is the very definition of grace, the unearned relief that is bestowed nonetheless. Who among us has not been accorded a gift of that sort?
+2 # HenryS1 2018-12-07 13:30
"as has been demonstrated to the country on a regular basis since January of 2019"

0 # tclose 2018-12-19 09:31
I think Charles meant January 2017 - typo.
+16 # Salus Populi 2018-12-07 13:32
Indeed. His governance included such gems as his pardon of all his fellow-miscrean ts in Iran-Contra; his nomination -- twice -- of one of the shadier characters in the security services to head the CIA; the awarding of the presidential medal to the captain of the USS Vncennes, which shot down an Iranian passenger plane flying in commercial airspace in a normal manner, killing almost 400 innocent civilians; maneuvering Saddam Hussein into attacking Kuwait, to the Emir of which [and his business partner, as it happened] his his Defense representative secretly promised the U.S. would militarily defend, even as his Secretary of State testified to Congress that we had no position on the dispute between Iraq and Kuwait, and his Ambassador, April Glaspie, assured Hussein that we had no dog in that race, and recognized that he had a good case against the Emir for both oil thef and fraud; had his troops use Rome plows to bury alive the draftees sent by Hussein to defend Iraq from the attack by the "coalition of the killing" that the U.S. cobbled together -- with 95 times the military strength of the Iraqi army, which he lied and claimed was the strongest in the Middle East; approved the "turkey shoot" fon the road of death" back to Baghdad; approved the carrying out of war crimes against Iraq, as well as the blowing up of a civilian air shelter, killing well over 600 huddling civilians -- a crime against humanity; and ... need we go on?
-13 # BKnowswhitt 2018-12-07 13:52
All campaigning is dirty .. look at the crybaby Dems today on Trump same exact stuff .. that is the nature of our beast .. however system does not allow demagogues .. they have to get elected .. all politicians lie .. every single one of them ...
0 # economagic 2018-12-09 20:10
-4 # janie1893 2018-12-07 13:57
It is so refreshing to hear the truth!
-15 # BKnowswhitt 2018-12-07 14:01
Blaming Reagan for aids .. why don't you just stick with policies .. demogues .. you demonize well your self ..
+6 # economagic 2018-12-09 20:12
Not "for AIDS," but for his response to that scourge, or rather his absence of response.
+23 # PABLO DIABLO 2018-12-07 15:27
Everyone is proclaiming the Bush is going to heaven to be with "Bar" and his long lost daughter. The people from Central America and the Iran/Contra (war) don't think so.
+8 # ktony 2018-12-08 11:18
If one plays along with the mythology, HW should be in the ice of the Ninth Circle with all the other traitors.
+14 # NAVYVET 2018-12-07 21:10
It's about time someone stopped slavishly praising this Petroleum-drunk rich man. Thanks.
+5 # jazzman633 2018-12-09 20:37
What exactly was this guy's talent? He moved effortlessly from one job to another, the ultimate apparatchick, demonstrating that you can be successful just by following orders and writing nice notes. If there was a skill set that was completely transferable, that was it.

Process and procedure were his for-te, as he would say. He professed a lacking in "the vision thing," but maybe that's for the best. We should be very wary of politicians with "visions." Just run the government and defend the Constitution.

So yeah, if you love government and bureaucracy, there was much to love about this faceless, clueless functionary.

Really, Bush showed that anybody, if born to sufficient wealth, can be a politician, even President. No special talent required -- as Trump has abundantly demonstrated.

HW always had a problem stringing grammatical sentences together (as did W, The Decider, who once said that he knew "how hard it is to put food on your family").

Good thing he had Peggy Noonan to write his speeches, though I'm sure he didn't have a clue as to what "kinder and gentler" or "thousand points of light" actually meant.

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