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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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