Jon Meacham inspired this piece.
The story was almost over even before it had fully begun. When Keith Jackson, a black eighteen-year-old from Anacostia, heard where the men wanted to do the deal, he grew skeptical. “Where the fuck is the White House?” he asked. Yet the buyers persisted. They got Jackson to Lafayette Park on September 1, 1989, purchasing three ounces of the drug off him for $2,400. “This is crack cocaine,” President Bush told the nation evenings later, flashing the bag the teen sold, “seized a few days ago by drug enforcement agents in a park just across the street from the White House.”
Only the bag was part of a set-up. Presidential aides, vacationing at Bush’s Kennebunkport compound, dreamed up the plan. Buying crack near the White House would show how bad the drug problem was, would justify Bush’s escalating Drug War. But DEA agents failed to find dealers lurking in Lafayette Park. So they focused on Jackson some distance from downtown.
Ensnaring the young man was not easy. “We had to manipulate him to get him down there,” one agent admitted. Jackson was soon deemed guilty—hearing the verdict, he wept so violently “federal marshals subdued him with a straitjacket”—and serving a ten-year prison term. President Bush was unmoved. He felt no weight of responsibility for the teen’s fate. And he never wept, as far as we know. But the story, Bush’s and ours, would go on by God’s grace.
Through the following years, President Bush would frequently prove, nearly daily, that his ruining Jackson was no accident. In a sense, the rest of his presidency was a perennial effort to prove his callousness, to intensify human suffering. There were always more armies to fund, more countries to bomb, more lives to terminate. And what a headlong race he made of it all. He never slowed down.
From the Oval Office once, he justified his Iraq blitz, describing his dream of a world where “no nation will be permitted to brutally assault” another, “where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations.” You can hear the voice, can’t you? As Dana Carvey said, the key to a Bush 41 impersonation is Mr. Rogers trying to be John Wayne.
Imagine, say, the Duke’s drawling defense of Washington’s illegal, brutal assault of Iraq. Hear Mr. Rogers dismiss the UN report on the attack’s “near-apocalyptic” aftermath; the wrecking of “the economic infrastructure of what had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society;” the damnation of Iraq back “to a pre-industrial age.”
A master of what Allen Dulles called “brain warfare,” George Herbert Walker Bush believed that to whom much was given, still more was due. Even though life gave him so much, he took more for himself—for his class—again and again and again. He stood in the breach against Haitian democracy. He stood in the breach against the Vietnam Syndrome, the electorate’s aversion to U.S. aggression abroad. (He considered Vietnam a moral war.) He stood in the breach in Washington against AIDS activists. And on his watch, U.S. forces razed a Panama slum; Washington transformed Andean militaries into weapons targeting Bolivian, Colombian, and Peruvian citizens; and prison doors countrywide slammed on more and more blacks.
And his heart was steadfast. His life code, we might say, was “Lie. Deny anything but virtue governs Washington’s conduct. Never apologize.” And that was and is the most American of creeds. George Washington calling this country an “infant empire” and George H. W. Bush’s “what we say goes” are companion verses in America’s national hymn. For Washington and Bush both called on us to choose aggression over peace, to fear rather than to hope, and to heed not our best instincts, but our worst impulses.
As President, Bush never visited a hospital in Baghdad—or in Basra, Irbil, Karbala, Kirkuk, or Sulaymaniyah. “Children are dying of preventable diseases and starvation as a direct result of the Gulf crisis,” the Harvard Study Team concluded in September 1991, stressing that “destruction of the infrastructure,” from bombing, yielded “devastating long-term consequences for health.” Severe malnutrition, epidemics of gastroenteritis, typhoid fever, and cholera plagued Iraqi children.
To the country earlier that year, at the Gulf War’s end, the President said: “This is a victory for the United Nations, for all mankind, for the rule of law and for what is right.”
That was the real George H. W. Bush, a chauvinist with a small, listless, all-neglecting heart. And so we ask, as we commend his soul to God, “Why him? Why did he lead?” The workings of providence are mysterious, but this much is clear: that George Herbert Walker Bush, whose presidential run thrived on naked racist appeals, made our lives and the lives of nations meaner, poorer, colder, and lower.
That was his mission. That was his heartbeat. And if we listen closely enough, we can hear that heartbeat even now. For it’s the heartbeat of a scion, the real estate scion occupying the White House. In Trump’s mendacity, in his bigotry, in his bellicosity abroad, he is Bush’s heir.