After George Herbert Walker Bush died, Grit Post’s editors were admittedly hesitant to write an article about the more problematic elements of his presidency, given the expected backlash for “speaking ill of the dead.”
HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg pointed out the absurdity of the establishment media’s coordinated attack on any outlet that doesn’t dutifully canonize deceased politicians.
imagine what we'd say about any other country where, after a former leader died, people were too scared to say anything even bordering on negative because they'd get pummeled by the media for not falling in line
— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) December 1, 2018
We’re told not to speak ill of the dead. This is intended to apply most strictly to so-called pedestrian deaths, but it applies as well to public figures.
“To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth,” said Voltaire.
Put another way, we have a habit of making the dead “top blokes.”
And when someone like Bush dies, two different conversations take place in the same space at the same time. Some people are mourning. Some people are reflecting on the lives of the famous dead. Some whitewash to never speak ill of the dead. Some have no problem speaking ill.
“A person’s death is an opportunity for onlookers to sound magnanimous, sensitive and profound. But also stupid,” wrote Tom de Castella.
Castella traces both the attitude of treating celebrity death as a personal loss and crushing dissent around a dead public figure to the death of Princess Diana. Those who said anything that wasn’t glowing were deemed deficient in empathy.
Since then, thanks in part to the Internet, celebrity deaths have become more risky and polarizing for those looking back on a legacy. But it isn’t just people in mourning who magnify people in death. The media does it too.
What People Say
Some of the retrospectives on the life of George H.W. Bush focused on the strange. From his socks to his baseball career, mourning took some unusual forms in the media. But it also took some more conventional forms.
Media called him a kinder and gentler kind of Republican, a consummate public servant, and marveled at his grand bipartisanship. Far from not speaking ill of the dead, politicians and members of the media couldn’t stop throwing superlatives at him.
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) December 4, 2018
Writing a glowing retrospective for The Hill (among quite a few glowing retrospectives from The Hill), Mike Purdy wrote of a war hero. A man who hated broccoli. The last Republican statesman.
“Despite his stellar GOP credentials, he would never have made it in today’s political vortex. He was too reasonable, too moderate, too kind and gentle,” wrote Purdy.
The kind and gentle soul too pure for today’s politics was also director of the Central Intelligence Agency that oversaw Operation Condor — a brutal operation to prop up right-wing dictatorships in Latin America. This included facilitating the assassination of Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier.
Who Bush 41 Was
George H.W. Bush died on the eve of World AIDS day. This is particularly ironic because he was not exactly a hero of the AIDS crisis, but the opposite.
“It’s one of the few diseases where behavior matters,” he once snipped.
By the end of Bush’s tenure in the Oval Office, 110,000 Americans were fighting HIV, and globally, the numbers were worse, with 1.5 million battling the disease. Keep in mind, that’s just reported cases, which made up as little as one tenth of all cases, due in large part to the “behavior” stigma Bush himself cited.
It’s World AIDS Day.
So let’s remember what George H.W. Bush did about that:
– banned HIV+ people from entering the U.S.
– reduced research funding
– favored abstinence education over actual sex ed including safer sex practices
– over a 100,000 died of AIDS on his watch
— Racheline Maltese (@racheline_m) December 1, 2018
Bush also was mourned by President Juan Carlos Varela of Panama, which seems surprising considering Bush invaded Panama to combat former CIA asset Manuel Antonio Noriega.
Noriega was a fast friend to Bush, largely because he was on the payroll of Operation Condor. Noriega helped Reagan and Bush navigate tensions with Cuba over the American invasion of Grenada. But that soured when America accused Latin America of flooding streets with cocaine. Reagan even warned about a familiar-sounding ominous invasion force from the south.
“You have to create a problem in order to solve it,” said Noriega, who denied vehemently sending cocaine to America.
Noriega was apprehended after an operation called “Just Cause” in which hundreds of Panamanian civilians died. Panama didn’t, and couldn’t, put forth a meaningful resistance to the millions of dollars America spent bombing and invading them.
George Bush’s son, also, had a penchant for invading foreign countries.
But the kinder, gentler Republican was a product of his environment, to an extent. Prescott Bush, a former U.S. Senator from Connecticut and Bush’s father, was instrumental in Hitler’s rise to power. The business connections between Bush and the Nazis were characterized as treason by an American war crimes prosecutor.
Prescott Bush was on the board of one of a number of front companies Hitler financier Fritz Thyssen used to move money around the globe. And he took part in the “Business Plot” that sought to overthrow Franklin Delano Roosevelt in order to install a government willing to do business with the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy.
Maybe it’s nothing but a family thing.
Why It Matters
There are two conversations: Mourning and reflecting. When we don’t acknowledge the other we become confused and, reasonably, offended. Things get heated.
“You’re ending up with people who are talking to each other who don’t understand they are in different conversations,” said Jed Brubaker, a University of Colorado information scientist who studies the intersection of death and online culture.
Both conversations are important. There can be no doubt that the death of a president, any president, is a tragedy all America suffers together. But to magnify someone in death does a disservice to history, and even to the person magnified.
Remembrances are for the living. They are how we parse and understand what has, sadly, come to an end. And, perhaps, they’re about having “the last word.” But when we omit things that aren’t kind from these remembrances, we effectively lie to ourselves and to others.
That may be a practice a person in mourning should engage in, but it is not a business journalism has any right to take part in. We seek the truth and report it. That is our duty, and the cornerstone of the understanding the media has with the public.
To that end, we remember George Herbert Walker Bush as a man — one who led a complicated life with remarkable socks — one who carried a spirit of working across the aisle longer than most, one who was among a very small number of people through history to know what it means to have the weight of the world on his shoulders.
But also a man who was cold and callous to Americans suffering a plague. One who enriched right-wing dictators and later took them down all for political advantage. One whose fortune was built off the greatest atrocity in human history.
We remember humanity in George Bush. Flawed and ugly as that can be, because to the dead we owe only the truth.
President Trump has declared Wednesday a day of mourning.