George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, died on Nov. 30, just hours before the start of World AIDS Day. He was 94.
Bush is being viewed through the lens of the current virulently homophobic, transphobic, misogynist and racist administration as one of the last “moderate” Republicans: A man who would cross the aisle as a brave bipartisan and indeed did so to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 because of his grave fears about Donald Trump’s candidacy.
Bush is known for his landmark 1990 legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which changed lives literally overnight and was the first law of its kind in the world.
In recent years Bush has been known mostly for his deep love for Barbara, his wife of 73 years who died in April, his wild socks and his friendship and philanthropic work with former president Bill Clinton.
Bush is not so much being remembered for allowing people with AIDS to die, for the Willie Horton race-baiting ad that fomented the waves of GOP racism we have today, for vetoing the 1990 Civil Rights Act, for a series of covert wars from Panama to Grenada to Somalia, for instigating the war on women and women’s bodily autonomy, for replacing one of the greatest Supreme Court justices in American history, Thurgood Marshall, with one of the worst, Clarence Thomas, or for the first war on Iraq, which would lead his son, George W. Bush, to “finish the job” by going back — where America still is today, nearly 20 years later.
In the way of American politics, the further one is from one’s former political position at the time of death, the higher the likelihood of hagiography.
Bush 41 has his own icon on Twitter and is being lauded throughout the country as a kind and generous man and a picture of civility.
The videos shown of Bush 41 over the days since his death are those of his valor in the military, his love affair with his wife and his love for his children and grandchildren.
But I and thousands of others who were AIDS activists in the late ’80s and early ’90s remember a very different Bush 41.
We remember the man who continued the silence on AIDS begun by Ronald Reagan, for whom Bush had been vice president for eight years, while thousands were dying. We remember Bush 41, whose face had supplanted Reagan’s on our protest signs with the accusation MURDERER writ large across them.
We remember the ACT-UP “ashes action” on Oct. 11, 1992, on an unnaturally warm day in D.C., where the cremated remains of people with AIDS were thrown onto the White House lawn after a march down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Philadelphia ACT UP was there — a big black banner with a pink triangle on it signaling our presence. Others carried banners that read SILENCE = DEATH. Many wore T-shirts with pink triangles on them. Still others — this was before the AIDS quilt — wore T-shirts with the faces of their lost loved ones on them.
People carried urns and other receptacles, signs with the names of those who had died. It was eerily quiet given the thousands who were there, with a mournful drumbeat along the walk on the Capitol grounds, as people moved toward the Washington monument chanting “Bush and Quayle belong in jail/150,000 dead.”
When only the beautiful and loving moments of a life are shown, it’s easy to get misty-eyed over the loss. The lens through which we’ve viewed Bush 41 elides all the discomfiting parts: The debate in which he asserted that people with AIDS were responsible for their own deaths because of their “behavior;” The Willie Horton ad that pre-dated Trump’s racism by nearly 30 years, but gave birth to the thuggification of black lives; the long, deliberate series of actions from Bush’s years as vice president through his own presidency that demonized women for attempting to control their own bodily autonomy.
As head of both the RNC and the CIA, Bush had a breadth of power over the vision of the Republican Party that no one, with the possible exception of Reagan himself, has had before or since.
Because Trump is so ghastly, it’s easy to soften the focus on Bush 41. But that is not the way history is told, nor should be written. The charm of a beloved grandfather sitting in a wheelchair petting his service dog, Sully, is not the same aura as that under which we lived during the 12 long years of Reagan-Bush.
Laud the civility of the latter years of Bush 41 if you must — certainly he did good philanthropic work with Clinton. But there was no civility in that impatient comment about people with AIDS. Nor was there civility in Bush’s looking at his watch during the final debate with the much younger and more charismatic Bill Clinton.
No one wants to speak ill of the dead, but we must remember that history is a record of what happened. Under Bush’s years, that history included the deaths of 150,000 Americans — mostly gay men and poor black people.
George H. W. Bush loved his wife, his family and his friends. But we will never know how many lives would have been saved if he had treated people with AIDS and their families with the same compassion with which he viewed his own.