Don’t romanticize Bush now that he’s gone — learn from him

He’s “the incredible shrinking president. ... He’s off fishing and golfing instead of being in the White House, taking care of the country.” His “theory is keep the taxes low on the rich and the corporations and everything will be fine.” He’s “a toothache of a man” who “was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” He “was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” 

These are not attacks against Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMarine unit in Florida reportedly pushing to hold annual ball at Trump property Giuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it MORE but slurs once launched against his “kinder, gentler” predecessor, currently being eulogized from left to right. Time magazine, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrump sues to block NY prosecutors' subpoena for his tax returns Most voters say there is too much turnover in Trump administration RNC spokeswoman on 2020 GOP primary cancellations: 'This is not abnormal' MORE, Jim Hightower and Ann Richards all ridiculed America’s 41st president.

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And it wasn’t just them. In 1992, the talk show host Arsenio Hall trash-talked him as “George Herbert, irregular-heart-beating, read-my-line-lipping, slipping-in-the-polls, do-nothing, deficit-raising, make-less-money-than-Millie-the-White-House-dog-last-year, Quayle-loving, sushi-puking Bush!”

Bush wasn’t wholly innocent either. In 1988, he approved the infamous “Willie Horton” attack ad against Michael Dukakis, while spitting out “liberal” like a curse word. In 1992, Bush dismissed Bill Clinton and Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreGinsburg calls proposal to eliminate Electoral College 'more theoretical than real' Difference between primaries and caucuses matters in this election Emma Thompson pens op-ed on climate change: 'Everything depends on what we do now' MORE as “bozos,” nicknaming Gore “Ozone Man.” 

Clearly, George H.W. Bush wasn’t very good at partisan name-calling. He didn’t like it much either. But playing hardball was part of his job.

As Americans mourn this decent man, these indecent exchanges are instructive. They highlight the noble American tradition of burying the partisan hatchet when burying ex-presidents. And they demonstrate that politics is rough: neither for the feint-hearted nor the thin-skinned.

It’s perfectly patriotic for Democrats who bashed President Bush to praise him now. But it’s dishonest to downplay how vicious the attacks were. It’s equally misleading for Republicans to pretend that Bush hovered above the fray, to demonstrate their own party’s traditional virtues.

And it’s disingenuous to romanticize Bush’s presidency now as a bipartisan love-in, to bash Donald Trump by comparison.

Reducing leaders to black-and-white stick figures obscures the more subtle lesson from George H.W. Bush’s all-American life: In politics, because unapologetic boorishness constantly beckons, hypocrisy is a virtue. Better to bash, brake, regret, than to just bash away shamelessly. And better for all of us — especially the incoming members of Congress— to learn history in all its messy complexity than to feel crushed because we cannot measure up to our heroic, overly mythologized predecessors.

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Bush governed in the great presidential tradition of transcending politics whenever you can, but going partisan when you must. Stretching to be a statesman occasionally is better than never stretching at all. He taught a valuable lesson: how to play politics at its fiercest while still appreciating people at their nicest. In his lifetime of sharp-elbowed politics, despite the wounds he caused and scars he carried, Bush knew how to befriend political adversaries as fellow patriots.

"I'm an old-fashioned guy," Bush explained. "I still think politics is a noble calling. I believe most people in politics are honorable people that are serving for the right reasons."

America’s greatest presidents toggled between rank partisanship and transcendent leadership. Abraham Lincoln championed “charity for all” after winning a brutal Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt forged bipartisan majorities to pass the Social Security Act and other reforms, but growled self-righteously that “our old enemies … are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.” Ronald Reagan charged that Democrats would “weaken our defenses, endanger our security,” while still cautioning his supporters that he wasn’t elected to be president of the conservatives or the Republican Party but the United States of America.

Similarly despite Bush’s demagogic “Read My Lips, No New Taxes” vow, which flummoxed Democrats in 1988, as president in 1990 he raised taxes with a five-year, $482 billion deficit reduction package. The bill helped trigger what would be called the Clinton boom. “By breaking his promise,” the journalist Jonathan Rauch notes, “Bush put out Reagan's fiscal house fire, and he enabled Clinton and the strong economy to rebuild. Bush thus made two presidents' reputations and unmade his own.”  

Bush’s greatness stemmed not from avoiding battles completely but trying to transcend them consistently. Because he played rough, George H.W. Bush can serve as a realistic role model. When his patriotism trumped his partisanship, Bush united America; if the incoming congressional class masters that two-step, we will all benefit.

Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of 10 books on American history, including “Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” and “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.” Follow on Twitter @GilTroy