I caught part of a special on George H. W. Bush on Saturday night — not the whole thing, as I’m not particularly a Bush fan. But it was hard not to compare and contrast former President Bush and all of those who spoke in memory of him with the current occupant of the Oval Office. By comparison, what a sad, diminished, venal man we now have in the White House. And that extends to the families of each: the extended Bush family, who spoke with grace and love for their grandfather, compared to the icky Trump clan.
Peter Beinart, writing for the Atlantic, has an interesting perspective on Bush 41:
“Since George H. W. Bush’s death, many observers have noted that he embodied a less rancorous, less polarized political era. But underlying that civility was something deeper: Bush was the last person to occupy the Oval Office whose opponents saw him as a fully legitimate president.
That’s because in the contemporary United States, presidential legitimacy stems from three sources. The first source is democracy. Although America’s system of choosing presidents has many undemocratic features, many Americans associate presidential legitimacy with winning a majority of the vote. The second source is background. Throughout American history, America’s presidents have generally looked a certain way. They’ve been white, male, (mostly) Protestant, and often associated with legitimating institutions such as the military, elite universities, or previous high office. Americans are more likely to question the legitimacy of presidents who deviate from those traditions. The third source is behavioral. Presidents can lose legitimacy if they violate established norms of personal or professional conduct.”
Bill Clinton won a plurality of the vote, not a majority, and never served in the military. George W. Bush lost the popular vote and entered the White House via a dubious Supreme Court decision ending the recount in Florida. Barack Obama was a black man with a Kenyan father; many white Americans never accepted the legitimacy of his presidency. And Trump violates the criteria for legitimacy on all counts. That we have to go all the way back to Bush 41 to find a president widely accepted as legitimate does not bode well for our democracy.
Underneath the patrician exterior Bush 41, he of the Willie Horton ad, could be as politically underhanded and race-baiting as any other white Republican of modern times. But as president, Bush 41 did have the capacity to put the country first in important ways, and he respected the institutions of democracy. Sad to say we have none of that emanating from the Oval Office now.