The custom of saying only good things about the recently departed is well-established and mostly harmless in everyday life, but it should be rooted out of our public discourse. The death of a major political figure is and should be an occasion for us to reflect on his or her significance in the life of our republic. If that reflection is bound by the obligation to speak no ill of the dead, we are liable to distort history and ignore what it can teach us.
The foregoing is of course prompted by the death of George H.W. Bush and particularly the media’s treatment of same. Skimming the long, friendly obituary in the NY Times, I found a number of points on which a more probing, critical perspective on Bush’s political life would have been warranted, but what stood out most for me was the cursory, unenlightening allusion to Willie Horton. Remember him? He was the black convict who raped a woman while on a furlough from a Massachusetts prison. Bush’s infamous campaign strategists, Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, turned Horton’s scary visage into the single most omnipresent image of the 1988 presidential campaign, targeting Bush’s opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, as Horton’s enabler. I’ve always felt that the Republicans’ success in 1988 marked an important milestone in the degradation of American politics, a milestone for whose responsibility George H.W. Bush has never been properly recognized. Bush, Ailes and Atwater waged the most vicious, the most blatantly racist, and possibly the most dishonest presidential campaign in the 20th century, and it worked.
Of course, in this age of Trump, it’s easy to wax nostalgic for a time past when civility, geniality and graciousness could be attributed to the man in the White House. But let’s not forget how George H.W. Bush got there. Let’s not forget Willie Horton.