After former President George H.W. Bush died at the age of 94 on Friday, tributes poured in from leading political figures across the country. Prominent newspapers ran obituaries detailing in length a presidential legacy that, compared against the bombastic form of modern Republican politics, has been burnished over time. When he lost his bid for a second term in office to Bill Clinton in 1992, some critics blamed his “wimpiness” and old-fashioned brand of politics. But the remembrances today laud the 41st president’s foreign policy triumphs and his genial and measured approach to partisan conflicts and domestic affairs.
The obituaries probed his personal life, too, with a focus on his marriage to Barbara, his wife of 73 years, who died less than eight months before him. They mention his privileged upbringing, his mother who urged him to avoid the pronoun “I” in his writings, the tragic death of his 3-year-old daughter Robin, his pride for his sons George and Jeb in their political careers, his tendency to run between holes on the golf course, and parachute jumps he made to celebrate his 75th, 80th, 85th, and 90th birthdays.
But for the most part, the obituaries failed to mention something significant: the allegations of inappropriate touching that arose in the final two years of his life.
In October 2017, the actress Heather Lind wrote in Instagram that Bush “touched her from behind” and “told a dirty joke” while the two were standing together for a photo-op. The next day, actress Jordana Grolnick detailed a similar story in an interview with Deadspin: “We all circled around him and Barbara for a photo, and I was right next to him,” she says. “He reached his right hand around to my behind, and as we smiled for the photo he asked the group, ‘Do you want to know who my favorite magician is?’ As I felt his hand dig into my flesh, he said, ‘David Cop-a-Feel!’”
Later that day, a Bush spokesperson blamed the two incidents on the president’s Parkinson’s disease. “At age 93, President Bush has been confined to a wheelchair for roughly five years, so his arm falls on the lower waist of people with whom he takes pictures,” the spokesman said. “To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke—and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner. Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate. To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.”
One day later, author Christina Baker Kline wrote in Slate that she experienced a similar groping accompanied by the same “David Cop-a-Feel” joke at a 2014 event and said that a driver for the Bush family asked her to be “discreet.”
Then Amanda Staples, a former Republican state Senate candidate, wrote on Instagram that Bush had groped her in 2006. A retired Pennsylvania journalist wrote on Facebook about a similar incident in 2004. Finally, Roslyn Corrigan told Time in November 2017 that Bush had groped her buttocks in during a photo in 2003, when she was 16—bringing the number of accusers up to six. These last three incidents would have occurred before Bush was in a wheelchair.
In its long and thorough obituary, the New York Times made no mention of the allegations. Nor did the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, or the Associated Press. Slate’s obituary, written by historian Tim Naftali, who wrote a book on the elder Bush, mentions the allegations near the end, in a paragraph comparing Bush positively against Donald Trump and emphasizing his good character:
Even those who disagreed politically with George H.W. Bush admired him for his sense of decency. Yet Bush was not perfect. Some fault him for a campaign that at the very least used racial dog whistles in 1988. And at the end of 2017, the #MeToo movement prompted credible allegations that he had inappropriately touched women in public since 2000—though he, unlike the current president, apologized.
George H.W. Bush spent decades in political office and guided the country through a difficult time in world affairs. Few would argue that the allegations of inappropriate touching should dominate the remembrances of the late Bush during a time of grieving. Nevertheless, it seems noteworthy that those remembrances didn’t mention the allegations at all.
Update, Dec. 4, 2018: After publishing its obituary, the New York Times has added a paragraph addressing the allegations. It reads: “As Mr. Bush moved into the final years of his life, there were signs that time had left him behind. A handful of women accused him of inappropriately touching them as they were having their pictures taken with him. Mr. Bush’s office said the gestures, he patted them on the rear, were meant in a good-natured manner, but said: ‘to anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.’”