The Good Fight

Debatable Lives

The legacies of figures like George H.W. Bush are too complex for simple partisan narratives.

George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush
J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images

The costs of polarization are many and they are deep. In a polarized society, politics inspires more hatred than hope. In a polarized society, there is little friendship across partisan divides. And as a result, in a polarized society, the continuation of democratic institutions will always be in doubt because each side will become more and more willing to ignore the key rules and norms of democracy if it helps them win the next battle.

Given the deep costs of polarization, it may seem strange, and perhaps even downright frivolous, to focus on the effect these divisions have on the quality of thought. But for anybody who wants to preserve the space to think about what is actually happening in the world with an open mind, it is difficult to ignore yet another cost of the growing partisan rancor in the United States: It has made many essays published in the pages of the country’s leading publications, and tweets composed by the country’s leading commentators, depressingly predictable.

Take, for an example, the death of George H. W. Bush. One side of my Twitter feed was respectful but monochrome. The Bush it portrayed was a war hero who had ended the Cold War and faced down Saddam Hussein—all the while playing by an imperturbable code of honor encapsulated in the noble letter he left for Bill Clinton in the desk of the Oval Office. The backlash to these remembrances was equally predictable: gleeful attacks on Bush’s record and character. Within a few hours of his passing, critics had reduced Bush to the alleged lowlights of his career. To judge by some of the comments, he was little more than an old, white, male patrician who enjoyed race-baiting and seeing gay men die of AIDS.

What struck me most in this shouting competition was the proud simplicity of it all. Bush was one of the most influential figures of postwar American politics. During his half-century of public service, he acquired both great achievements and serious failings to his name. But instead of struggling to make sense of this multifaceted legacy, the leading intellectual lights of our time immediately pressed his death into the service of our relentless culture war.

This goes for the many commentators on the right who are unwilling to acknowledge the late president’s shortcomings. Bush rose to prominence in Texan politics in the 1960s by seeking to reach an uneasy truce with the far-right John Birch Society. He is responsible for the “Willie Horton” ad, one of the nastier pieces of political propaganda produced by a major party presidential candidate prior to the ascendancy of Donald Trump. And he made a serious error in judgment when he encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein, only to leave the sadistic dictator free to take cruel revenge.

It is perfectly appropriate to appraise the legacy of a deceased president in a forthright manner—warts and all. And yet, those on the left who defy the supposed stricture not to speak ill of the dead, with all the glee and subtlety of a 5-year-old playing with his own excrement, miss something even more important: It is intellectually lazy and morally callous to reduce any person to a malicious caricature—whether they are dead or alive.

This is true of many portrayals of Bush’s substantive political legacy. Yes, he was at times troublingly complicit with the Republican Party’s most extreme. But this does not erase the fact that he prioritized outreach to minority communities from the start of his career; that he defended a reasonably liberal immigration policy as president; or that he oversaw the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is even more true of many portrayals of Bush’s character. Yes, he was an old white man who hailed from a long lineage of privilege. But the all-too-common implication that he never endured real hardship in his life in laughable on its face. Is this sneer a morally considerate way to describe a man who lost his first daughter to leukemia when she was 3 years old? And is it an intellectually respectable way to describe a man who volunteered for dangerous military duties at age 18 because he felt a moral—and yes, perhaps patrician—duty to contribute in the fight against fascism?

When I first came to the United States in 2005, I was amazed by how freewheeling the public discourse was compared to the staid, consensual debates I’d witnessed in France and Germany. There were, of course, very deep political divisions at that time as well. But while the op-ed pages of the New York Times would very rarely laud George W. Bush, and the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal would very rarely criticize him, most topics were not infected by the same extent of partisan rancor. If I wanted to know what stance a magazine took on the latest geopolitical development, how a critic felt about the latest movie, or even what thoughts might occur to them on the occasion of a celebrity’s death, I actually have to, you know, read what they wrote.

Today, by contrast, the vast majority of both writers and publications have become brands that are always on-message. This leaves depressingly little room over for the inherent complexity of the world. And so, instead of grappling with contradictory facts, too many of us prefer to preach to an ever-more righteous choir.

This is a great shame. For attempting to think through the complexity of the world is not just one of life’s great pleasures; it is also a prerequisite for affording our political adversaries the minimal amount of consideration without which we will, sooner or later, come to think of even the most well-meaning and mild-mannered of political adversaries as an evil enemy to be destroyed.