Hagiography of dead U.S. presidents is a long-held tradition (see, e.g., St. Ronnie). But at least we used to have Hunter S. Thompson around as a necessary corrective. His off-the-hook obituary of Richard Nixon is brutal. Here's just a taste: "If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president ... Richard Nixon was an evil man -- evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it. He was utterly without ethics or morals or any bedrock sense of decency. Nobody trusted him ... and honest historians will remember him mainly as a rat who kept scrambling to get back on the ship."
Crucially, Thompson acknowledged that his Nixon obit may have been over the top but insisted that journalists must avoid the urge to paint the recently departed leaders with sentimental, revisionist strokes: "Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism -- which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place."
Which brings us to George Herbert Walker Bush. The white-washing of his tenure and the praise for his decency is getting out of hand. Sure, he appeared to put the good of the country -- at least as he saw it -- above personal financial gain. As far as we know he didn't pay off porn stars. And he was capable of compromise and ideological flexibility on occasion. But that's a pretty low bar.
So before we get too maudlin as we look back on those less vulgar days of bipartisanship, good fellowship and the rule of law, let's talk about Iran Contra.
So before we get too maudlin as we look back on those less vulgar days of bipartisanship, good fellowship and the rule of law, let's talk about Iran Contra. The Reagan Administration sold weapons to Iran, ostensibly to secure the release of hostages, and then used the money from the arm sales to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. However, there was an embargo on arms sales to Iran and legal prohibition against funding the Contras. The ensuing scandal revealed evidence of money-laundering, arms smuggling and drug trafficking. Bush, who was then Vice President Bush, famously claimed he was "out of the loop." But he stonewalled the independent counsel's investigation -- refusing, for example, to turn over his diary -- and when he became president, he pardoned six participants, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Cap was about to go to trial, and the pardon thwarted the ability to determine Bush's role among others in the scandal.
Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel, issued a scathing statement condemning Bush's actions: "President Bush's pardon of Caspar Weinberger and other Iran-contra defendants undermines the principle that no man is above the law. ... The Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed with the pardon of Caspar Weinberger....This office was informed only within the past two weeks, on December 11, 1992, that President Bush had failed to produce to investigators his own highly relevant contemporaneous notes, despite repeated requests for such documents....In light of President Bush's own misconduct, we are gravely concerned about his decision to pardon others who lied to Congress and obstructed official investigations."
Then there's Bush's classic use of dog-whistle racism in his presidential campaign in 1988 -- the famous "Willie Horton ad" used to scare white people into believing that if Bush's purportedly soft-on-crime opponent, Mike Dukakis, won the presidency, black rapists would be let loose on the country. And he repeatedly sought to question Dukakis' loyalty to the United States, using McCarthy-ite innuendo, stating, for example, "I am not a card-carrying member of the ACLU. I am for the people."
Finally, there's Clarence Thomas. In one of the most cynical moves in modern politics, Bush nominated the most anti-civil rights African American he could find to replace civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. Thanks to a condescending bunch of misogynists on the Judiciary Committee, Thomas was confirmed despite light-weight judicial credentials and credible allegations of sexual harassment. And in the close-to-three decades he has been on the Court, Clarence Thomas has arguably been the Court's most conservative member.
In sum, Bush I undermined an independent investigation into government malfeasance by refusing to cooperate while abusing the power of the pardon. He appealed to the Republican base by using racist tropes and questioning the patriotism of his opponents. And he put on the Supreme Court a far-right extremist with a history of inappropriate behavior towards women. Any of this sound familiar?
Fair and Unbalanced