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George H.W. Bush’s legacy: Respect for the presidency, a bellwether for US politics

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, was the last in an “older breed of politicians” who treated the presidency with “the respect it deserves,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Northeastern. Bush died on Friday, at 94 years old.

“He was the epitome of class and elegance,” Panagopoulos said. “He was a very humble public servant who had been taught to appreciate and revere his country and his duty to serve it in different capacities. That kind of deference and reverence was manifest in his actions and his approach to the presidency,” which contrasts sharply with today’s brittle partisan political environment.

Political friends and foes alike made note over the weekend of Bush’s example, especially after his presidency, of a politician who rose above petty partisanship. President Donald J. Trump, putting aside a feud with the Bush family, praised Bush’s leadership and designated Wednesday, Dec. 5 a national day of mourning. 

But the end of the Bush presidency heralded the shift toward a more negative political tone, and more intensely partisan divide in U.S. politics can be traced back to his loss to Bill Clinton in 1992, Panagopoulos said.

Costas Panagpoulous

The surprise of Clinton’s win and Bush’s loss didn’t cause a shift in political tone, Panagopoulos said, but instead coincided with several other factors—including the birth of Fox News and the rise to power of Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House—that, (along with similarly divisive media outlets and personalities on the other side of the spectrum), contributed to today’s political trench warfare.

“I don’t want to ascribe any causal effects, but I will say it had something to do with the intensely partisan environment that has continued almost unabated to today,” Panagopoulos said.

Bush was “one of the most experienced politicians ever to be elected,” Panagopoulos said, having served previously as a two-term congressman from Texas, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, United States envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and vice president, under Ronald Reagan. Bush also served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. His plane was gunned down in the Pacific in 1944.

Bush, a Republican, was in office for a single term, during which Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Still, he was able to score several victories, including signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, ejecting Iraqi militants from Kuwait, helping to end the Cold War, and reducing global nuclear weaponry.

“He was willing to reach across the aisle—and let’s not forget that during his presidency Democrats controlled Congress, so it would’ve been virtually impossible to get anything done were he not willing to compromise—and he did that in a way that was respectful,” Panagopoulos said.

Bush’s presidency was not without controversy.

“For all of this respectfulness and deference, [Bush’s] campaign gave us Willie Horton,” Panagopoulos said.

In his 1988 campaign against Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts (who is now a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Northeastern), Bush’s supporters ran an extremely negative TV ad that featured William “Willie” Horton, a black man and convicted felon. The ad has become a key reference point for the sort of “dog whistle politics” that exploits, in this case, racist ideology and fear to attract white voters.

“[Bush’s] campaign gave us a very negative, racially-motivated political campaign ad that remains one of the classic examples of campaign negativity,” Panagopoulos said.

Overall, though, Bush’s legacy is one of “respect and duty and commitment to serving the U.S. in many different capacities,” Panagopoulos said. “And that can’t be overlooked.”

His legacy includes his sons, George W. Bush, who was 43rd president of the United States, and Jeb Bush, who served two terms as governor of Florida and ran unsuccessfully for president in 2016.

Bush Sr.’s wife, Barbara Bush, also died this year. She received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from Northeastern in 1991 for her accomplishments as First Lady and for her advocacy for causes including youth literacy and civil rights.

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