Saturday, December 1, 2018


Also, as he receded in very old age into inoffensiveness, whether jumping out of airplanes in his 80s or wearing Bill Clinton socks in his 90s, he became truly cute in spite of everything. Photo via Associated Press.

I don't usually stop to commemorate the deaths of old people about whom I don't have a lot of positive things to say, but the contemplation of George H.W. Bush could lead somewhere interesting:
Dick's getting his Hemingway on here, isn't he? It's that, though, the "real sense" of being a conservative, which I think for the real Nixon might be what this anonymous Redditor suggested a couple of years ago:
I've always thought of Nixon as a Gaullist or Disraeli type of conservative with a small-town American strain in him rather than a Reaganite conservative or a "closet liberal". He was conservative in the real sense of the word--his major domestic and foreign goals revolved around order and structure, not ideals or justice--but a different kind of conservative. Makes a lot more sense, and that's what Nixon himself thought.
I don't know if he thought it or not, but I think he might have been pleased by having the description applied to him alongside the patrician George Herbert Walker Bush, emphasizing the calm "realism" of his views once he achieved the presidency, and papering over the noise and squalor of the dirty fighting and deceit that got him there up from early poverty and rage.

Because Nixon makes such a weird example of that sort of conservatism, doesn't he? Compared with old Bush. Because it's upper class, somehow tied up with an ideal of old-fashioned rectitude, of being in it for the "service", because that's what one does. What the Obamas called the "legacy of service":
and Dr. Dean refers to as "classy". Liberals give their lives to "service" because of their "ideals", some kind of strenuous secular belief system they picked up, in college or wherever. Conservatives do it because it's a "legacy", like the silver service or the place in Maine, and you don't really question the sincerity of it, or if you do, then you're not being very classy yourself. Noblesse oblige, belonging to the aristocracy confers obligations on the aristocrat, and that's what GHWB, with his undeniable personal modesty, exemplified, the willing acceptance of his obligations. But it's service to an order in which, for the most part, those who serve are the ones placed at the top at birth, like the son of Senator Prescott Bush.

It may be that the worst things GHWB did were submitting to things that were beneath his dignity: from his devotion as vice president—and in the first place as candidate—to Ronald Reagan and what Bush knew very well was "voodoo economics", through his willingness to live with the tawdry schemes of the Iran-Contra mess, to his acquiescence in the filthy and racist strategy of his own campaign. Though judging from the former CIA head's own maddeningly vague account of his role in Iran-Contra, where he might as well have been saying, "I was only the coffee boy"—

Mr. Bush says he felt excluded from crucial meetings and had only a hazy grasp of the Iran arms sales as an arms-for-hostages exchange, but records show he attended meetings in which the affair was discussed....
In the weeks immediately after Attorney General Meese's disclosure of arms-sale money having been diverted to the contras, Mr. Bush adopted a confessional tone, saying he had supported the Iran initiative.
But within weeks he carefully distanced himself from the policy. His support for it, he said, had not prevented him from voicing "reservations" about some aspects of it.
No document has ever been made public noting Mr. Bush's misgivings.
—I believe he must have played a much less passive role than he wanted us to think; but he managed to sound as dishonest as any punk Republican.

The most conservative things he did as president in that order-and-structure sense were the things, as it happens, that I'm most willing to admire: his refusal to send the troops to Baghdad at the end of the 100-hour war against Saddam Hussein, and his willingness to let taxes go up in 1990, in spite of the pledge ("Read my lips!") Peggy Noonan wrote for him for his 1988 convention address. Of course these are the the things Republicans have most reviled him for, for the last three decades.

As Scott Lemieux writes, George I was certainly by far the best Republican president since Eisenhower, for whatever that's worth. It just isn't worth much. On the other hand, I'm less and less able to condemn people like the Clintons and the Obamas for hanging out with him, or even with his dim son George II, who was a much more harmful president (not least in his reckless disregard of his father's example on Baghdad and taxes alike); let them go to the funeral and talk about "decency" and "civility" all they want—they're good things, even if GHWB did manifest them in his public appearances. I think if we're going to reject the Great Man theory in favor of a more sophisticated understanding of history as driven by systemic factors and the operations of pure chance, we might as well be a little less judgmental on the individuals who preside over it, though I probably wouldn't feel comfortable around George I or George II myself.

I kind of like the idea of GHWB as a cudgel to beat conservatives up with when they fail to live up to their self-conceit: when grave Orrin Hatch utters scatologies on the Senate floor, or wonky Paul Ryan and Ben Sasse espouse voodoo economics for real, or urbane Lindsey Graham acts rawer and more resentful and paranoid at the Kavanaugh hearing than Dick Nixon himself ever did even at the last. The fact is that old George was in a sense the only conservative American politician in the sense we're talking about. Not the way conservatives used to be in the good old days, but the way almost none of them, from Warren Harding through Robert Taft to Newt Gingrich, ever came close to being: somebody who really didn't hate anybody on ideological grounds, and who really did believe in restraint and good taste, and who really did try to be a kind and understanding person in his personal life.

Update: Excellent post on cynicism as the mainspring of Bush's conduct as vice president and president, from David Greenberg/Politico.  

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