I like the tributes to George H.W. Bush, the man. But I think there’s a lot missing in the tributes to his presidency. When I think of those four years, I see a rather astonishing, revelatory time in American life…that Bush probably should receive a little more credit for.
I see Bush getting credit for “managing the end of the Cold War.” But that’s both too much and not enough. Weeks after the Berlin Wall fell, when Time magazine anointed Mikhail Gorbachev the Man of the Decade (Time never gave out a “Man of the Decade” before or since), Bush didn’t raise any objections in the way that, uh, our current President might.
When Gorbachev dies, I hope that they will tell you that part of his legacy was destroying received wisdom and questioning long-held binaries. What if the U.S. and Soviets didn’t have to be at war? What if the Soviets didn’t even have to be Soviets? And Bush was gracious, or tactical, enough to respond with, yeah, what if?
Reading this week’s encomiums to Bush, you might think that NAFTA and the Americans With Disabilities Act dominated the covers of Time and Newsweek. Uh, yeah, at the time they were barely mentioned. The big stories were toppling Noriega in Panama, challenging Saddam in Iraq, the Gulf War, Bush’s 90% approval ratings, the Rodney King beating, the Rodney King uprising, a recession that cut that 90% approval rating in half, and Ross Perot. We’re not talking about those things this week because 26 years later, we’re still not sure what to make of them. I’ll tell you what to make of them: nuance. Complicatedness that didn’t exist in the artificial sunlight of Reagan-world. And in that nuance, chances for voices that couldn’t be heard under Reagan.
The spillover effects of this could-we-try-something-else?-ism were everywhere, not just in politics. Take music. I don’t mean Jesus Jones’ 1990 song with the chorus that went, “Right here, right now, there is no other place I wanna be; right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history.” (Hard to imagine that sentiment in a hit now.) No, I mean Tracy Chapman, Public Enemy, Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, and many others like them…it’s true that these musicians were working during the Reagan administration, but they became much bigger and more important during the Bush administration, and I believe that’s partly because Reagan and Reaganism and a certain overpowering cultural conservatism left the building in January 1989.
Starting in 1988 and for every year of the Bush presidency, “Roseanne” was the #1 show in America. “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld” began during the Bush years. Yes, these probably would have happened under a Dukakis presidency, but I can’t really imagine them happening in 1984 or so. “Roseanne” and “The Simpsons” were working-class reactions to Reagan’s decade of war against the working-class. Instead of just being used as props as Reagan used them, we were finally getting to know their interior lives. And the leads of “Seinfeld” were at least very ordinary people by New York standards. Their problems were far more quotidian than, say, the New Yorkers on “Perfect Strangers” or “It’s a Living.” Somehow, Bush enabled this new edgy authenticity. Maybe because, compared to showman Reagan, Bush was more authentic?
After an often-fallow 1980s, movies started getting a lot better in 1989, beginning Do the Right Thing and sex, lies, and videotape, whose success basically validated both Sundance and Miramax, two engines that would make 1990s cinema a lot more interesting. Also under Bush, David Lynch and the Coen brothers won back-to-back Palmes D’Or. But even mainstream films got better. Could the 1991 films The Silence of the Lambs, Thelma and Louise, andTerminator 2been made under Reagan? No, because under Reagan they were Manhunter(1986), Desert Hearts(1986), and The Terminator(1984). (This is grossly unfair, by the way.) Like Scorsese making Goodfellas(1990), everyone seemed to step up their game and get just a little more realistic and hardcore.
College campuses became more inclusive during the Bush administration: this was when half of America’s ethnic studies departments were founded, and this was the beginning of attempted redistributive justice through language that became known as “political correctness.” Would these have happened under a Dukakis presidency? Maybe, but Bush gave them urgency (must counter Republicans!) and broad latitude (if this guy has authority, why not others?).
It also helped that we were changing decades into the 90s. The 70s had been SO 70s and the 80s had been SO 80s, it was nice to be able to move into a yet-to-be-defined 90s that, for all anyone knew, could be about Lollapalooza and Burning Man and Frank Gehry and hip-hop and who the hell knew what. We haven’t been able to move into such a decadey decade since, although we should be able to in the 2020s. Anyway, transitioning into the 90s was like casting off repression and somehow, Bush was part of that. Maybe in some weird way, he permitted it. Maybe his strange way of speaking (“read my lips” and such) made it seem like, well, if he’s going to govern with sound bites, we may as well contribute some prose?
I am aware that the early 1990s weren’t unicorns and rainbows. I think about the scourge of AIDS amongst the LGBT community and the scourge of gang violence amongst the black community. Bush didn’t help. But…he also didn’t get in the way of local solutions in the way Reagan had. Both of those situations were a lot better in 1992 than they were in 1988. On the other hand, they’re both related to the drug war, and that pretty much continued apace, so…
I don’t forgive Bush for nominating Clarence Thomas and pretending that he was just as qualified as Thurgood Marshall. That may have been the most disingenuous thing Bush ever said during a press conference. In a twisted way, though, that weakness on Bush’s part somehow facilitated Anita Hill coming forward, which led to America knowing what the hell “sexual harassment” is. By getting out of the way at the right time, Bush at least didn’t actively thwart justice for millions.
Or maybe it just goes back to Gorbachev and the Berlin Wall. Whatever it was, possibilities were alive in the early 1990s. For four years there, we saw chances for new ways for long-neglected Others. We saw what you might call an Other Way. And in death, Bush deserves a modicum of credit for looking (at) the Other Way.