We’re now in the full tsunami of presidential mourning-cum-nostalgia for George H.W. Bush. As I wrote a couple days ago, the historical legacy is mixed and complicated, though it does include real achievements. Watching on cable news over the last 24 hours the tributes and praise have, for me at least, become close to overwhelming – almost as though Bush was a saint-like figure who walked the earth in a unique way and was an avatar of civility, goodness and universal affability and rectitude. In some ways, the nostalgia seems greater than it was even for Reagan, who was certainly a more historically consequential President and is embraced as the ideological saint of one of the two national political parties.
But this thing with Bush and the Bush family is not new.
You can see this adoration anticipated in the 2000 GOP convention where George W. Bush received the Republican presidential nomination. The late General Norman Schwarzkopf, commanding General in the Gulf War, was brought on to give a speech where he openly marveled at how wonderful it would be if another member of the Bush family could lead the country’s armed forces. “Recalling back to Operation Desert Storm, I can’t help asking myself: wouldn’t it be great for our armed forces and for America if we could have another commander in chief named George Bush with Dick Cheney on his team?”
Barbara Bush was brought out to give a speech in which she was presented as a kind of national mom, telling convention attendees to “zip-it!” at one point. This came in the aftermath of impeachment and the Lewinsky scandal. So at one level it was hardly surprising that the GOP image makers would play up family and traditionalism. But it wasn’t just about Clinton’s sex scandals. There was a pretty clear theme that Clinton just didn’t come from good people. Not like the Bushes. His failures and disappointments weren’t that surprising after all. He didn’t come from good stock.
The convention was carefully, intentionally framed as a restoration after a Clinton interregnum.
There’s another aspect of the contrast that goes beyond elite social prejudice against Clinton’s background. If you look at Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, to some extent Nixon too, they seemed to come out of nowhere. There’s an immediate nuclear family. But there’s no political lineage behind these men, no intergenerational wealth sustaining vast unfolding branches of a family. They just come out of nowhere and their families fade again into that collective nowhere. Both of Barack Obama’s parents were dead when he entered national public life, even fairly early in life. Bill Clinton’s mother died soon after he was elected. Neither had any history with their fathers. They’re all singular individuals, come out of nowhere and have no familial apparatus that continues as public forces after them.
The Bushes are quite different in this way, not because they have more kids but because like most established families they keep up, chronicle and publicize their collective history. The laggards mainly get helped along with good educations and wealth and inertia. You have ancestors that go back a thousand years just like Queen Elizabeth does. The difference is she has a list of all of their names and you don’t.
A big slice of the country, and particularly the GOP, has long seen the Bushes as avatars of establishment, elite rectitude and order. Intergenerational history, patriarchs and histories of power and wealth are deeply rooted parts of many people’s sense of order, hierarchy and propriety. None of this should obscure for us mourning and remembering a man who had good qualities and played an important role in our history. But it’s this background which bulks so large in this collective moment.