41: What does a former president owe?

A month or two ago, Jon Meacham released his biography of George HW Bush (41). Accompanying that book was a fascinating New York Times article, which detailed some of the most newsworthy aspects of the biography. The most prominent bit was 41’s criticism of George W. Bush’s (43) cabinet, targeting Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld in particular. Here is an excerpt:

Mr. Bush said that Mr. Cheney had built “his own empire” and asserted too much “hard-line” influence within George W. Bush’s White House in pushing for the use of force around the world. Mr. Rumsfeld, the elder Mr. Bush said, was an “arrogant fellow” who could not see how others thought and “served the president badly.”

I got angry when I read the article. But not because I disagreed with the assessment. Anyone who was paying attention during the lead-up to the Iraq War and its aftermath was probably aware of these things. No, 41 is spot-on in his criticism, even as he shies away from directly criticizing his son. I got angry because of this:

The younger Mr. Bush was also shown a transcript of his father’s remarks. “He certainly never expressed that opinion to me, either during the presidency or after,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Meacham. “I valued Dick’s advice, but he was one of a number of my advisers I consulted, depending on the issue.”

His father, he added, “would never say to me: ‘Hey, you need to rein in Cheney. He’s ruining your administration.’ It would be out of character for him to do that. And in any event, I disagree with his characterization of what was going on. I made the decisions. This was my philosophy.”

As for his “hot rhetoric,” the younger Mr. Bush said: “It is true that my rhetoric could get pretty strong and that may have bothered some people — obviously it did, including Dad, though he never mentioned it.”

Quote: “He never mentioned it.

These criticisms are largely worthless now. They are largely part of a battle for history and how it judges the men who served in office. 41 has decided it’s time to let his true feelings be known about people who he felt served the country badly, knowing the level of damage done to the country in the aftermath of the Iraq War. And his true feelings might have actually meant something in 2002, or 2003, or even in the few years after while the targets of his criticism were still in positions of power. Perhaps it’s with an eye for history that 41 “has seen his reputation rise again with the passage of time” and has now decided to speak up more bluntly.

I can’t help but feel angry that these criticisms were not at least spoken directly to his son, who would conceivably be open to getting advice from his father, a former president with significant foreign policy expertise as president, vice president and CIA director. But he never tried. “He never mentioned it.” It was his son’s administration, in the end, and 41 was going to leave it at that. Still, the thought keeps coming back to me: there are issues of family, and I can understand publicly supporting your son in his presidency. But as a former president, and someone who had offered up his life to his country in World War II, it’s difficult to fathom that 41 would not have even broached the topic privately.

I worry about “Meacham’s largely admiring biography,” in this context and in others, as I fear it will appreciate public service in a cloud of nostalgia without holding it fully accountable. Another recent article details 41’s reactions to the current battle for the Republican presidential nomination:

No one, it seems, is more perplexed than the family patriarch by the race, and by what the Republican Party has become in its embrace of anti-establishment outsiders, especially the sometimes rude Mr. Trump.

Yet his son George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent he himself (both as presidential candidate and vice president to Ronald Reagan), benefited from tactics that are now being used openly by the current crop of anti-establishment candidates. Paul Krugman writes in a recent column that “this ugliness has been empowered by the very establishments that now act so horrified at the seemingly sudden turn of events [. . .] [I]n the U.S. it’s the cynicism of Republicans who summoned up prejudice to support their electoral prospects.”

Quoting the NYT article: 

the elder Mr. Bush was fuming at the news of the day: Mr. Trump had belittled Sen. John McCain of Arizona for being taken prisoner in Vietnam.

“I can’t understand how somebody could say that and still be taken seriously,” said Mr. Bush

Was it not his own son who stood by silently as outside groups assaulted John Kerry’s record as a war hero in his 2004 re-election campaign? And it was George W. Bush and his advisor Karl Rove who had mastered the tactic of race-baiting (or letting others do the race-baiting for you) in the nomination battle against John McCain in 2000. There appears to be no direct proof of their involvement, but in South Carolina there was an orchestrated campaign to tell primary voters that John McCain had fathered a black baby out of wedlock. 

There are fewer differences between Trump and the other Republican candidates than one might expect based on the elder Bush’s outrage. His son Jeb, after all, is proposing massive tax cuts (which as a corollary would require massive cuts to the safety net), just like Trump’s tax plan. The party isn’t what it used to be, but that’s thanks to George W. Bush and the Republicans that came before him. George HW Bush is not so innocent in this regard either.
Sources:

PETER BAKER. New York Times, Nov. 4, 2015, “Elder Bush Says His Son Was Served Badly by Aides.”

JONATHAN MARTIN and MATT FLEGENHEIMER. New York Times, Oct. 24, 2015, “Bush at 91: Irritated and Invigorated by ’16 Race.”

PAUL KRUGMAN. New York Times, Dec. 11, 2015, “Empowering the Ugliness.”

 

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