Patient Zero

Well, propriety and house rules dictate that everyone gets free passage across the Styx. Now that we’ve sorted that, it’s time to tell the truth about George Herbert Walker Bush. There will be encomiums aplenty from all the usual suspects, and it’s true that Bush the Elder’s reputation has grown immensely in the last two decades, first by comparison to his wastrel son and then by the heir of his party. But how did we get to that point? Bush the Younger would be a happy dry-drunk baseball owner and Trump a faded reality star if not for George H.W. Bush, and the two pivotal figures in his campaign in 1988: Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes.

Yep, that Roger Ailes, the one who went on to found Fox News, and that Lee Atwater, who crafted the core message of Fox News when he ran the 1988 campaign for Bush. He built a world full of scary colored criminals and evil cities and the horror of people who were Not Like You, and flogged it for all he was worth, and Roger Ailes picked up the torch and built a 24-hour news network around it. And from there, you draw a straight line to where we are today.

All because Bush the Elder drew a sharp distinction between governing and campaigning. Governing was important, full of the sort of patrician noblesse-oblige you’d expect from a New England Republican of a certain age. Campaigning was a nasty, brutal, necessary evil, to be gotten over with quickly in as ruthless and definitive a fashion as possible, and therefore anything goes and there is no need to pause or hesitate over the morality of the two. Bush thought he could turn it on and off at election time, and in doing so came across as a phony and a fraud. Lacking the communication skills of his successor or his predecessor, either of whom could sell water to a fish, he recited the words that were put in his mouth and went along with his party’s embrace of Neo-Confederacy, and he paid. It didn’t even avail him that much in the South, where Clinton and Gore won states that haven’t gone blue in the 21st century.

The 41st President, at heart, seemed a decent enough fellow. Most of the time. But like the man said, sooner or later you can’t hide from the things you’ve done anymore. And no appraisal of 41 is complete if it doesn’t acknowledge how he put the GOP squarely on the road to Trump when he decided “anything goes” and pretended that actions don’t have consequences.

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