The Slatest

Why Do Political Journalists Think It’s Their Job to Portray George H.W. Bush as America’s Benign, Saintly Grandpa?

A flag-draped coffin in the Capitol rotunda.
George H.W. Bush lies in state at the Capitol on Monday. Zach Gibson/Getty Images

NBC sends out a daily newsletter called “First Read” that’s co-bylined by Meet the Press host Chuck Todd—a first draft of history, if you will, put together by a group that includes the guy with the most prestigious job in political journalism. Here’s how Tuesday’s First Read opened:

For all the talk of honor, dignity and respect as the country mourns and remembers former President George H.W. Bush, the exact opposite of honor, dignity and respect is playing out in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina — reminders of how rotten our politics have become.

The contemporary examples the newsletter went on to describe involve Republican politicians who appear to have suppressed Southern black votes via coordinated fraud and are trying to essentially overturn recent elections by passing absurd and anti-democratic restrictions on the Democrats who just won them. These actions stand in contrast, the newsletter says, with the “honor, dignity, and respect” with which George H.W. Bush conducted his political career.

George H.W. Bush? The George H.W. Bush? The one who denounced the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed public segregation, as a “radical” bill that was passed to “protect 14 percent of the people” at the expense of the white majority? The one who unilaterally ended a federal investigation into the rich tapestry of illegal arms sales and perjury committed by his associates in the Reagan administration by issuing six pardons just before he left office? Yes, that one!

Obviously, those incidents don’t demonstrate “honor” and “dignity.” But that’s also not to say that H.W. Bush was a purely partisan scumbag or a lifelong white supremacist. He supported the cause of civil rights in other contexts, demonstrated nonpartisan political courage on occasion, and was generally committed to a style of public comportment and practical governance that doesn’t exist in today’s GOP. Like almost every public figure and person, he did some things that were obviously good, some things that were obviously bad, and many things whose merits are seen differently by different people.

What I just wrote is, really, a banal observation about human nature that only qualifies as a contrarian claim in the context of a Beltway-TV-pundit consensus that analyzes American history at the level of a toddlers’ picture book about the first Thanksgiving. The political past, in this milieu, is exclusively a place in which one learns inspiring lessons in a state of reverence. At MSNBC, Chris Matthews responded to Bush’s death by celebrating him for having personally charmed Matthews’ parents and understanding that the “office of the presidency” is a “perfect” institution. Former Newsweek editor-in-chief and presidential biographer Jon Meacham eulogized Bush on the Today show as a figure of clergy-like idealism who, in his private moments, ruminated about the essence of service. “As he put it in a prayer he wrote himself,” Meacham said of Bush, a former CIA director who at various points in his career helped provide military support to Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Afghan faction that included the founders of the Taliban and al-Qaida, “his motto was ‘use power to help people.’ “

This kind of powerful selective amnesia doesn’t emerge only when someone dies. On CNN, ubiquitous D.C. media-politics figure David Gergen recently said that 1960s protesters were more “civil in tone” than the woman who asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her Virginia restaurant in June. In reality, civil rights and Vietnam protesters seized buildings, instigated mass arrests, and were involved in violent and even fatal confrontations, as Gergen should remember given that he was alive while it was all taking place. But he seems to have mentally condensed that chaotic era into a nice story about national progress in the same way that Meacham, Matthews, and Todd are now describing George H.W. Bush as a political version of Mr. Rogers. These pundits talk about America as if it’s a sports team and their readers and viewers are the team’s fans—celebrating highlights and big wins, downplaying the losses to rivals, tactfully declining to bring up the coach’s arrest for driving drunk with a 21-year-old marketing intern in the passenger seat. It’s an understandable impulse—for humans to process distant events into positive-trending narratives involving characters we know (and like) personally. But that doesn’t mean historians and journalists have to indulge that impulse. It’s ultimately a disservice to the country we all share, and to the goal of actually improving that country, to talk to us like we’re its fans, because we aren’t. We’re its citizens, and we should be able to handle the whole story.