Are dead American Presidents beyond reproach?

Is there ever a right time to criticise a dead person? Should a reasonable amount of time pass before critics start eulogies that don’t smell of roses? Are public figures open season whether dead or alive? The same questions arose when Nelson Mandela died. As America and the world says farewell to George Bush senior, the 41st President of the United States of America, who died aged 94 on 30 November, is it timely enough to ask whether it is his Presidency which opened the floodgates to Trump within the Republican party?

It is my daughter, Maelo, who challenged me over this. In my experience, the younger generation seem to have a much higher notion of democratic challenge free from cultural constraints. While I was watching news coverage of George Bush’s death my daughter was reeling off the negatives of his presidency.  I remember George Bush Snr, as the New York Times put it, as being:

‘Tall, at 6 feet 2 inches, with an athlete’s graceful gait, Mr. Bush was genial and gentlemanly, except in the throes of a tough campaign. (Admonished by his mother against self-promotion, Mr. Bush, an inveterate note writer, in his clipped diction avoided the first person singular pronoun.) He represented a “kinder” and “gentler” strain of Republicanism — the often-quoted words he used in his Inaugural Address to describe his vision for the nation and the world — that has been all but buried in a seismic shift to the right in the party.’

This isn’t the whole story though, as Maelo reminded me. George Bush Snr was mocking of civil rights and LGBT people. During his Presidential campaign he was scathing of Michael Dukakis, the Democrat Presidential candidate, who supported the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This ugly episode referred to as the ‘Willie Horton’ affair, cost Dukakis dearly and probably opened the Republican door even further to racial politics. George Bush Snr also didn’t act quickly enough or even act at all over the AIDS crisis during the 1980s. He also refused to lift a ban on people with AIDS entering the USA. Given the level of discrimination against people with AIDS this didn’t help their case. America basically legitimized the discrimination under his Presidency.

With the debate ongoing about his Presidency, I think it’s fair to say that any time is a good time to appraise a public official’s legacy. That is part of a healthy democracy if only because high office legacies leave lasting impacts on people’s lives and lived experiences.

P/S. This post was in part inspired by Caron Lindsay’s post on Libdemvoice.

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