It often seems as though the elderly die at the very moment when their life story is most meaningful, as though everything within the story of their lives culminates with their moment of death. Here’s just one example of the life-cycle’s ironies:
One of my Zaydies was born in 1917, the year the Soviet Union was founded. He died in 1985, the year Gorbachev came to power and the Soviet Union ceased to seem like an existential threat. He was the intellectual son of a communist intellectual, and he became an arch-conservative in adulthood. Every experience in his life seemed to indicate that his own father was colossally wrong about communism and socialism. To Zaydie, everything about communism was was a horrible lie from beginning to end, and the slightest quarter given to it would result in millions of lives lost. He died in the very year that notion was disproven (on September 11th no less) – spared a dotage in which he just might have to concede to his liberal son-in-law (and eventually his liberal grandson) that he might have overestimated the threat communism posed to the world.
As I thought of the increasingly quixotic legacy of George Bush (as he used to be known), that irony of Zaydie’s life and death was in the back of my mind. Had Bush lived to the same age as my grandfather, he would have died shortly after Clinton defeated him. He would have been spared the agonizing irony of seeing that he facilitated the destruction of the kind of Republican party whose continuity he was groomed to preserve more than any other public figure of his generation. After a quarter-century of watching the destruction he wrought, he is now celebrated as a hero of the old Republican bulwark against authoritarianism which he destroyed himself.
Republicans of his generation were groomed by Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in a manner not unlike how the Chinese Central Committee groom their most promising leaders. Just four years as a congressman, then two years as UN Ambassador, two years as chairman of the Republican National Committee, two years as a special envoy to China (basically ambassador for America’s most delicate ), then two years as CIA director, then two years during the Carter Administration as director of Foreign Policy for the Council on Foreign Relations. Then, of course, eight years as Vice President. By the time Bush became President, he was almost overqualified. He was the perfect embodiment of what Republicans were supposed to cultivate in their politicians. A dull, cautious WASP, thoroughly committed to preserving the status quo and making politics as boring as possible.
But anyone with knowledge or memory of the of the ’88 presidential campaign’s viciousness knows that there was another side to this man. Like so many seemingly dull and nice rich people, Bush’s integrity and decency could fail him spectacularly when his position was threatened. When Bush was 17 points behind Dukakis, he became for one brief period the precise opposite of everything he now embodies because conservative principles are, by their nature, incapable of standing up for themselves. In order to defend the status quo, you have to do things which no one of truly cautious temperament would ever do.
Of course, no one will forget the Willy Horton ad, a moment worthy of the worst of Trump and Nixon, but less commented upon now is the sheer hypocrisy of the attacks on Michael Dukakis – attacks for being a northeastern liberal from the ‘Harvard Boutique’, which is especially ironic considering that the Bushes were the Yalie Wasps whose eminence goes back to the founding of the country (Barbara Bush’s family was even much moreso). Bush’s father, Senator Prescott Bush, was the very embodiment of what used to be known as the “Liberal Republican” during a period when such a term didn’t sound utterly absurd. Prescott Bush was treasurer for the first national campaign of Planned Parenthood, chair of the Connecticut branch of the United Negro College Fund, and was even involved in the promotion of birth control. Prescott Bush spoke out against Joseph McCarthy during the height of McCarthyism, he was beloved of President Eisenhower, and for a time was thought of as nothing short of President Truman’s closest ally. If anyone came from the ‘Harvard Boutique’ it was his son, who in 1988 sold out both his principles and his father’s to become President. Meanwhile, Michael Dukakis was the son of a poor Greek immigrant who fled the genocides of the Ottoman Empire. Bush’s campaign chairman Lee Atwater, from whom Karl Rove and Steve Bannon learned everything they ever knew, spread rumors that Dukakis had (god forbid) seen a psychiatrist, and made Bush give speeches alleging that Dukakis was (GASP!) “a card carrying member of the ACLU!”
There is no moral excuse for Bush’s behavior, but Presidential campaigns are a dirty business at the best of times. Like Jimmy Carter before him and John Kerry after, Dukakis’s unwillingness to fight dirty in return (and there is plenty of dirt against a 1970’s CIA director) does not speak volumes about his moral character, it speaks volumes about his unwillingness to do what was necessary to protect the people whom he’s supposedly defending – not just militarily, but in all the causes for civil liberty and social justice for which liberal politicians are our most effective line of defense. Even Obama was not above underhanded moments in the campaign against Mitt Romney. If Bush’s attacks against Dukakis for being a feckless northeastern liberal stuck, it’s because, to at least an extent, they were true. George Bush, meanwhile, like any true conservative, stuck to his principles until the moment his position was threatened, at which point he became precisely the sort of demagogue Donald Trump would recognize.
George Bush was no Abraham Lincoln. He wasn’t even an Eisenhower or a Teddy Roosevelt. He was a generally decent man, and a thoroughly decent President (much better in fact than Jimmy Carter), but to say that George Bush was more than that is to grade on a steep curve. He was ferociously competent in everything he touched, and miles more intelligent than any Republican president since Nixon; he supervised the transition of the Soviet Union away from communism, cooperated with Democrats to prevent a serious fiscal crisis, and thankfully broke his promise to not raise taxes. But in a properly functioning society, we’d accept this as the bare minimum of competence and character we expect from our public servants. A conservatism that subordinates everything to the maintenance of the status quo and just enough improvement in the lives of less fortunate citizens to unassailably preserve the rulers of the country in privileges they would allow to no one else.
Yes, George Bush was a conservative, not a moderate. Any country not spoiled by being the world’s only superpower would realize this. Conservatism is supposed to be cautious, it’s supposed to believe in responsibility, respect, service, skepticism, and its supposed to be lacking in illusions about the mendacity of human nature. It does not believe, as President Reagan did, that humans are inherently good so they don’t need to be regulated. It does not believe, as the second President Bush did, in the efficacy of transformative projects to change authoritarian regimes to democracy. And it most certainly does not believe, as President Trump does, that everyday appeals to the most animal and hateful urges in human beings is anything but grotesquely destructive to its country. Those are not conservative beliefs, they are reactionary, radical, revolutionary, they seek not to preserve society but transform it. They are no more conservative than any Marxist.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a conservative, it means you have a cautious temperament, you believe in decency, respect, responsibility, service, you’re rightly skeptical about the good intentions of human beings and the ability of idealists to fulfill possibilities that run contrary to human nature. You’re probably an extremely responsible member of your community who volunteers for all sorts of community institutions, and real conservatives often make the most wonderful parents who are deeply beloved by even their liberal children.
But conservatism is, by definition, a reflexive, reactive ideology. As it has the status quo entirely on its side, it will always be quite well equipped to retain power, but it is anything but well equipped to deal with dissent within its own ranks. There are many, many people who subscribe to a conservative ideology who are not of a conservative temperament, many of them are of a downright radical temperament. Unlike liberalism, proactive in its very definition, the inherent reserve which conservatism dictates has no weapon in its arsenal of dealing with radicalism within its ranks without yielding to radical right-wing extremism. The ideology of a conservative party cannot help but get more conservative – think of what happened to German conservatism after Bismarck, think of the descent of the British Tories from Churchill’s iconoclasm, to Thatcher’s Reaganism, to Brexit’s nationalism; think of how Latin America went from proud democratic traditions to 20-35% support of military dictator after military dictator. On the other hand, no matter how much radical leftists agitate and agitate, they still haven’t achieved a single Presidency in the entirety of US history, and the only people who deny that fact are radical authoritarian reactionaries who call themselves conservatives. If Bill Clinton and Barack Obama seemed like radical leftists to them, can you imagine their apoplexy if an actual leftist like Bernie Sanders took office, or a truly radical one became President in twenty years time like Tulsi Gabbard or someone even to the left of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Meanwhile, just in the last forty years, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump were all elected to be right-wing reactionaries, the latter two in circumstances that were not entirely democratic.
The paradox of conservatism is that it’s an ideology that can retain its power in near-perpetuity, but it is an utterly self-defeating ideology that can’t even stand up for its own principles. So as liberals, we have a duty to do their work for them. We have to embrace these kinds of conservatives and work with them wherever there’s common ground, because the alternative to having conservative opponents is reactionary authoritarian ones. The most productive sorts of conservatives usually are born into privilege and therefore feel duty-bound to serve the public under them – a public they often love but never understand. A George Bush, a John McCain, a Teddy Roosevelt, a Charles Foster Kane, love the American public the way an owner loves a beloved pet. These conservatives at least understand that the welfare of the public has to be provided for, lest the public rise up and their position atop the American hierarchy be overthrown. They’re far from ideal, but this is the kind of Republican party, the only kind, which can be worked with to increase people’s well-being.
Not having conservative Republicans in this country is not an option, not having them sometimes become President is not an option either. Since 1920, tapping into the worst impulses of Americans is a large part of the definition of being a Republican president. Even Eisenhower had moments of demagoguery, perhaps much more serious ones even than George H. W. Bush. Eisenhower barely lifted a finger on civil rights and not once spoke out against McCarthyism. As Democrats, our two options are these: we can either have Republicans who go all the way into authoritarian reactionaryism and put the entire world in mortal danger, or you can encourage the relatively much better impulses of Republicans toward prudence, duty, and respect, however much conservatives sell out their own principles at times. We all have people who embody impediments to what we want out of life, but to a certain extent, but if we’re smart, we keep our enemies closer to us than our friends. If you don’t celebrate your opponents who weren’t so bad, it becomes much more likely you’ll get the opponents who really are that bad.
So four cheers to George H. W. Bush, the enemy we want. May his memory be a thousandfold the blessing it already is. Long may we cherish his conservatism, a real conservatism, the most effective, sometimes the only and indispensable, bulwark against so many things we all should hate.