Articles, Essays & Sermons

The contentious legacy of George H.W. Bush as mirror of our conflicted national soul

by Ken Sehested

        “I’ve slept since then.” That’s my Mom’s go-to line when trying, unsuccessfully, to remember something. After 90 trips around the sun, she says it more frequently.

        “I’ve slept since then” also describes much of the public’s waning attention to the life and legacy of President George H.W. Bush. Given the information overload of our 24/7 news cycles and multiplicity of sources, that marker in our nation’s history is just so yesterday.

        By and large, media arbiters were flush with floral bouquets in their remembrance of the elder Bush. By large consensus, he was a genuinely kind, honest, generous, and loyal man in his interpersonal affairs.

        I understand why heaps of praise were showered. Psychologically, the occasion virtually demanded it be so, given the extreme contrast of past and present political regencies—not to mention the longstanding cultural norm, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, “Of the dead, [say] nothing but good.”

        I haven’t the slightest reason to doubt the witnesses to Bush’s kindly habits. Much has been made of his reluctance to speak in first-person pronouns. You can’t get a more dramatic contrast between this feature of public humility and that of the first-person obsessiveness of the present West Wing occupant, for whom everything is first filtered through his relentless ego and self-preserving interests. He is a man incapable of shame and, in the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, does “not know how to blush” (6:15).

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“Your heart was proud because of your beauty;
you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor.”
—Ezekiel 28:16-19 (see also Isaiah 24:4-6)

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        Rabbi A. James Rudin has written about his experience of the elder Bush’s kindness at an interfaith gathering of religious leaders at the Camp David president retreat center, convened by the 41st president.

        “Just as we began our picnic lunch, the president walked into the room carrying his cheeseburger and a glass of milk. By chance there was one open chair remaining at the large table. The president eyed the empty chair before asking the rest of us, ‘Do you mind if I sit here? It seems to be the only vacant seat.’

        “Again, I was tickled that the most powerful person in the world would seek permission to sit at the table with the rest of us.”

        This is an endearing anecdote. Yet something more must also be said.

        Being kind is not enough. Personal magnanimity—including qualities like civility, politeness—has a way of being manipulated for partisan gain. As an analogy, think of the demand for “patience” made in 1963 by white clergy of eight prominent churches in Birmingham, Alabama, calling on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the city’s civil rights movement to be patient in their quest for racial equity. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was an eloquent exposé of the incredulous use of such calls for civility.*

        The biographies of history’s more ruthless leaders reveal numerous accounts of them being generous hosts (to their peers), nice to children, and not kicking their dog.

        To say it another way, can kindness be segregated from doing justice and walking humbly with God, as the Prophet Micah (6:8) insisted? Or, as Robert McAfee Brown noted, maybe doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly are not three separate statements but one statement said in three different ways. Or, why do we effectively embody a reverse the order of the first two elements in this triad: doing (active tense) kindness but merely loving (passive tense) justice?

        Do gracious personal habits exempt any—especially elected officials—from public pursuit of justice?

        I ask for people of faith, of any faith, or no explicit faith at all. The governance of any public polity even vaguely resembling democracy requires a commonweal commitment embedded in a commonwealth vision. It requires integrity—a correspondence and coherence—between personal and public virtue.

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“Give rulers your justice, O God. May they defend the cause of the poor,
give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
For your glory, O God, shall encompass the earth.”
—selected from Psalm 72, slightly adapted

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        There are more than a few laudatory achievements in George H. W. Bush’s public life, including his four years as president—the first of which was his persevering commitment to public service in various forms. His presidential campaign likely represents the apex, for generations to come, of “kinder, gentler” conservatism. His “thousand points of light” campaign to celebrate small benevolent achievements deserves high regard more than cynical lampooning.

        While a U.S. Congressman, Bush’s vote for the 1968 Fair Housing Act cost him considerable political capital among his Texas constituents. As president, the Clean Air Act, the 1991 Civil Rights Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act were distinguishing accomplishments of his administration.

        He deserves credit for successfully engaging U.S. leadership in navigating the tense, and globally very dangerous, dismembering of the Berlin Wall, with its far-reaching implications for global restructuring. At Bush’s funeral, retired Senator Alan Simpson reminded us that Bush made the hugely unpopular decision to accept a budget deal with Democrats that reversed his campaign signature pledge—“read my lips, no new taxes”—for the sake of the country’s wellbeing (given the massive deficits run up by President Reagan) even though it may have later cost his reelection.

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“By justice a ruler gives a country stability,
but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.”
—Proverbs 29:4

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        Yet there is much in the public record that belies his kindly personal reputation.

        •While campaigning for a Senate seat, he railed against the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act, saying, “The new civil rights act was passed to protect 14% of the people. I’m also worried about the other 86%.”

        •Later, in his 1988 presidential campaign, he paved the way for today’s deluge of racist memes with the infamous “Willie Horton” ad, a sin for which, Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign manager, apologized before his death. Bush never did.

        •In July 1988, the guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 passengers and crew, before realizing it was a commercial flight. Bush said that he would "never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don't care what the facts are."

        •One year into his presidency, Bush ordered an invasion of Panama to capture one man, the country’s dictator, Manuel Noriega, who, ironically, had been on the CIA payroll under Bush’s tenure as the agency’s director. The U.S. invasion killed hundreds, according to the Pentagon . . . or thousands, according to human rights groups, mostly due to the bombing of poor neighborhoods adjacent to Noriega’s headquarters. Twenty-three U.S. troops and 3 U.S. civilian contractors died in the invasion.

        •While president, Bush pardoned six senior Reagan administration officials, most notably former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, for illegally selling arms to Iran (then as now a ranking national enemy) in order to fund a congressionally forbidden “Contra” war against the democratically elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The pardons likely prevented discovery of Bush’s own knowledge of, and/or participation in, the scandal.

        The list could go on: Bush’s callous disregard during the initial AIDS crisis, helping establish the disease-as-homosexual-sin narrative; inaugurating the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison to keep refugees from Haiti’s military coup out of the U.S.; greatly escalating the so-called War on Drugs and its concomitant splurge in prison construction, inflating prison sentences, resulting in what we now know as The New Jim Crow era of mass incarceration.

        Last on my short list of Bush’s political iniquities was the Persian Gulf War, beginning with the August 1990 deployment of some 650,000 troops (the largest since World War II) to the Arabian Peninsula. Beginning in the wee hours of 17 January and continued for the next forty-two days, the goal was to destroy Iraq’s military capacity, especially in and around Baghdad, and to expel Iraq’s invading army from Kuwait. On average, the US and its allies flew one bombing mission per minute during the war.

        That campaign was brokered on lies and half-truths. The worst hawked the war based on the non-scrutinized testimony of a Kuwaiti teen who testified before Congress, saying Iraqi troops had yanked infants from incubators and left them on the floor to die. Only later did journalists uncover the ruse: the testifier was the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the U.S., and her fabricated testimony had been coached by a major U.S. public relations firm.**

        Then began a cascade of unintended consequences, resulting in large part by the crippling of Iraq’s infrastructure—water purification, sanitation, power grid, food distribution—all of which is illegal in international law. Coupled with the U.S.-enforced sanctions, the civilian mortality rate, especially for the young and the old, spiked dramatically. No one can say for sure how many civilians died as a result of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, followed by the sanctions regime, and then the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq (which continues to this day): at a bare minimum, in the hundreds of thousands; quite likely, over one million.

        Saudi citizen Osama bin Laden (an indirect recipient of CIA aid while fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan), outraged at the desecration of Islamic holy land by his native country’s hosting of foreign troops prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, founded Al Qaeda to wage war on the West. His most notorious victory was the terror attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. Which led the U.S. to invade Afghanistan and, shortly after, Iraq; and Pakistan, and Yemen, and Somalia, and a Muslim majority region of the Philippines, and Syria. U.S. special operations forces are currently active in 137 countries worldwide supported by some 800 U.S. military bases outside the United States.

        Congressional authorization of the war in Afghanistan, approved three days after 9/11, has now been used 37 since then. Last fall, when four U.S. troops were killed in an ambush in the West African country of Niger, many in Congress had no idea our military was operative there.

        The thrashing of Al Qaida forces by U.S. troops led to the forming of a vicious splinter group, the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL). The Afghan war is now a generational conflict: Those born after 9/11 are now being commissioned for deployment to continue America’s longest war.

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Speaking against Judah’s King Jehoiakim, son of King Josiah:
Your father “judged the cause of the poor and needy.
Is not this to know me? says the Lord. But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.”
—Jeremiah 22:16

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        I didn’t watch all of the funeral service for President Bush at the Washington National Cathedral. Half of the eulogies, through the recessional. I was genuinely moved by most of what was said. I especially appreciated the younger President Bush’s use of humor—that’s probably what enabled him to (mostly) keep his composure. I went from chuckling to teary-eyes in a brief period of time.

        When I learned, afterwards, that President Trump refused to join the unison reading of the Apostle’s Creed, I was neither surprised nor concerned. The root of "creed"—credo—means "I give my heart to." The only thing to which Trump gives his heart is mercantile exchange. Besides this, though, I also believe that many of the church's troubles began when we first started asking state operatives to say the creed, any creed, alongside us in our sanctuaries.

        I’ve read commentary more than once in the past weeks—from those, like me, naturally suspicious of national churches—as one friend put it: “The idea of a ‘national cathedral’ also ‘blurs the lines’ [between church and state], but at shared moments of our national psyche I somehow don’t find it quite so offensive.”

        It was the funeral’s closing recessional that was shockingly symptomatic of our crisis within the believing community.

        Three young acolytes led the exit, hoisting a cross (in the middle) and two torches (candles). They were followed by the armed forces pallbearers, the flag-carrying honor guard, then the royal families (of current and former presidents).

        The line then were met by an honor guard cordon, composed of members of all branches of the military, standing on either side at the casket slowly, rhythmically, step-by-slow-step in military precision, is carried down the lengthy stairs leading to the waiting hearse.

        At street level a military band is playing. Three robed clergy, including Presiding Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry, stand out beyond the hearse, barely on the camera’s screen. Out of the way.

        Altogether, uniformed troops outnumbered vested clergy by at least 100-to-1. Military choruses and orchestras far and away exceeded Cathedral choir members. The attendees were largely of the class who guide and/or underwrite our military’s prominence.

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“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statues,
to turn aside the needy from justice and to robe the poor of my people.
What will you do on the days of judgment?”
—Isaiah 10:1-3

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        This, I am arguing, is what empires do: Soliciting the authorization of whatever divinity is ascendant, and the succor of that divinity’s early solicitors, to engage in violent engagement which is always identified with redemptive purpose and national/tribal/ethnic salvation.

        As Chief Dan George, of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (a Coast Salish band in what is now named British Columbia), put it: “When the white man came we had the land and they had the Bibles; now they have the land and we have the Bibles.”

        Righteousness—whether conceived in religious or secular terms—cannot be had short of a commitment to truth telling. The habit of severing personal kindness from public justice is a delusion.

        There’s no way around the fact that truth telling will be impolite. Our history as a nation contains both humane and heinous impulses. Because our virtues as a nation are considerable, we tend to think our vices unremarkable. Such is not the case. And if we are to rightly interpret our condition, we simply must take seriously the whole story.

        Gratefully, mercy remains a trustworthy promise, for none would otherwise survive. But mercy’s demands transcend personal kindliness. There is a certain misery that must be faced, a penitential journey undertaken, regarding our nation’s life and legacy. It will involve not only unpleasantry but the tiresome work of repair.

        But as Galadriel, in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, reminds: “Hope remains while the Company is true.”

        How then to live in the shelter of such hope? Find a visionary community that does not segregate personal and public virtue. Invest in its welfare. Practice justice, kindness, and humility in small ways, all the while attending to opportunities for bolder initiatives. Only then will what you need to do be revealed.

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*For more on the “civility” debate, see Thomas J. Sugrue, “White America’s Age-Old, Misguided Obsession With Civility,” New York Times.  https://tinyurl.com/yat4wm6c
**For more see "How False Testimony and a Massive U.S. Propaganda Machine Bolstered George H.W. Bush’s War on Iraq” —Democracy Now

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks (19 December 2018)