In the past ten days, two extraordinarily wealthy and powerful men died. Both of them did and said horrific things over the years. Both of their legacies have been massaged and celebrated. One was the owner of the Houston Texans. The other was the 41st president of the United States. Let’s start with 41.
The hagiographic treatment of George H.W. Bush has come in many forms over the past few days. The intellectual right (my favorite oxymoron) has dubbed him the ultimate American. The objective journalists (my second favorite oxymoron) have tirelessly contrasted his “decency” to our current president’s lack thereof. Democrats like Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have spoken of Bush as an icon, a friend and a shining example of the evergreen beauty of public service. Fellow rich people Ellen DeGeneres, Tim Cook and George Takei have done the same.
Sure, there have been murmurs in the Twittersphere that Bush’s legacy is intimately tied to imperialism, the war on drugs, the AIDS epidemic and white identity politics. There have been paragraphs tucked neatly into the op-eds of America’s premier publications that qualified his untainted excellence. There have been flippant mentions of his role in the promotion of vile racists and his own use of racism in the 1988 presidential election. But nonetheless, the dominant narrative of his goodness has prevailed, and the selective memory of American history has reared it’s oppressive head once again.
Perhaps the most sing-songy of mainstream tributes to H.W. has come from Jon Meacham, the author and historian who recently published a biography of Bush titled “Destiny and Power.” In his Time article on the former president’s legacy, Meacham describes Bush as the ultimate empath. He describes him as a man uniquely emboldened to put his country before anything else (a supposedly acceptable form of dogmatic nationalism).
Meacham paints an image of a young Bush strolling through the gritty heartland of Phillips Andover Academy—the academic equivalent of a Vineyard Vines polo—when word arrived of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In that instant, describes Meacham, Bush was pulled toward some greater cause: “He longed to defend his country—right then, right away, no waiting around” (Time, “George H.W. Bush Believed in the Essential Goodness of Americans,” 12.02.2018).
Meacham sees this sort of self-sacrifice as a product of H.W.’s upbringing. He writes glowingly of H.W.’s father, Prescott, and the effects that Prescott’s worldview had on H.W.’s moral compass: “[George H.W. Bush’s] vision—of himself engaged in what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the passion and action of the times—was as real and natural to him as the air he breathed. It was his whole world, and had been since his earliest days when he would watch his father come home from a day on Wall Street only to head back out to run the Greenwich Town Meeting. It was as simple—and as complicated—as that” (Time, “George H.W. Bush Believed in the Essential Goodness of Americans,” 12.02.2018). If you can find me one halfway decent person who has been steeped in the cultures of Wall Street and Greenwich, I’ll change my name to Chad.
Bush’s mind-numbingly privileged upbringing explains a lot. Unlike Meacham, I don’t think that it explains his supposedly Holmesian “passion and action of the times.” Instead, I think that it explains his hunger for power. I think that it explains why he never seemed all that interested in the plight of the marginalized.
I don’t have the space here to adequately address all the wrongdoings of the Bush presidency, but if you’re interested in calling my broad critiques unfounded, please refer to PopularResistance.org’s “The Ignored Legacy of George H.W. Bush” and Esquire blogger Charles Pierce’s “George H.W. Bush Couldn’t Fight his own Ambition.” Then maybe you can tell me why we should forget about Bush’s Willie Horton ad, his promotion of the mass incarceration of Black people, his veto of the 1990 Civil Rights Act, his penchant for arbitrary bomb-dropping or his cover-up of the Iran-Contra scandal. Then maybe you can tell me why we should forget about his outsized role in the empowerment of two of the most detrimentally impactful perverts in recent American history: Roger Ailes and Clarence Thomas.
And that’s to say nothing of his parenting skills.
Not unlike Bush, the late Bob McNair has recently been celebrated as a philanthropist and community-builder. It’s not worth dwelling on McNair’s professional legacy like it is Bush’s, because his professional legacy can essentially be boiled down to selling the world’s largest privately-owned cogeneration company to Enron for $1.5 billion, and then using that money to become a successful investor and mostly unsuccessful NFL owner.
McNair gave almost $3 million in financial aid to academically aspirational students. He gave $100 million to Baylor’s College of Medicine. He put millions and millions of dollars into programs intended to promote entrepreneurship, science, disaster relief and children’s health. All in all, it’s estimated that he donated $500 million to charitable causes (Washington Post, “Robert ‘Bob’ McNair, businessman who brought the NFL back to Houston, dies at 81,” 11.24.18). If you believe in the unadulterated value of charity (I sure don’t), then maybe we should be celebrating Bob McNair.
Or maybe we shouldn’t be. McNair was Mitch McConnell’s largest donor (Courier Journal, “UPDATED: McConnell’s Biggest Donors,” 10.28.2015). In 2017, in response to the increasingly pervasive, Kaepernick-catalyzed protests sweeping across the NFL, McNair warned, “[The NFL] can’t have the inmates running the prison” (Washington Post, “‘We can’t have inmates running the prison’ Anti-protest NFL owners are fighting a losing battle,” 10.27.2017). After widespread public outcry in response to the statement, McNair apologized. He then reneged on that apology and claimed that critics had taken the original quotation out of context. I’m not going to give a man who donated millions to Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt on race-related issues (New York Times, “Bob McNair, Energy Mogul Who Brought the N.F.L. Back to Houston, Dies at 81” 11.23.2018).
When a public figure dies, it’s important to treat them as a human. It’s important to understand that they have a family. That they have people toward whom they acted kindly.
But that sort of respect for our fellow human should not preclude us from acknowledging and discussing the ramifications of a public figure’s actions. That’s the very nature of being a public figure. That’s the very nature of power.
We have to be able to hold two seemingly contradictory thoughts in our head at the same time. We have to be able to recognize that there are individual people whose lives are profoundly better because of a George H.W. Bush or a Bob McNair…and that the net total of Bush and McNair’s actions made the world—and continues to make the world—a much less just place.
McNair and Bush took very different paths to wealth, fame and power. Bush was the son of a wildly financially successful Wall Street banker, who later became a United States Senator. McNair was a lower-middle-class kid from a small town in Florida. But when in power, the two men behaved similarly: they were warm to those around them, generous in their charity and ruthless in their political reinforcement of income inequality, white supremacy and patriarchy. Their charity, in many ways, only reinvigorated this sort of violence. As we’ve seen in the coverage of their respective demises, their charity is justification for their power.
It should not surprise you that Bob McNair and George H.W. Bush were good friends. How could they not be? These were two men who embodied an era, and helped launch us into a new, even more unequal one. These were two men who embodied so much of what’s always been wrong with America.
May they rest in peace. And may their likeness rest in peace, too. After all, lives like those of Bush and McNair should never have been lived in the first place.