Speaking Ill of Premature Beatification — George H.W. Bush Wasn’t Perfect. And That’s OK.
Speaking ill of the dead is universally accepted as poor form. And the origin of this etiquette dates back 3,000 years before antiquity. But this long taboo norm is slowly shifting, according to Ben Guarino: “Those taboo enforcers rallied around an ancient custom. In the early 3rd century, biographer Diogenes Laërtius attributed the phrase “do not speak ill of the dead” to philosopher Chilon of Sparta, later popularized in Latin as De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. But that custom may be changing.”
It’s ok to tell the truth. And it’s ok to not tell the whole truth. But it is definitely not necessary to beatify mortals like the saints they never were.
Recently I wrote an obituary for a man I didn’t always get along with. We worked together in a quasi-professional capacity and his stubbornness and “harmless” sexism frustrated me for the entire ten years we worked together. But he was also a dedicated man whose generosity and open-mindedness truly made our community better. Yes, he was open-minded and sometimes sexist — people are complex. In addition to trying to task me with “women’s” work at events he also single-handedly helped me make a decision that literally changed my life. No hyperbole. He thought I was smart and capable. He was easy to praise with sincerity and it was an easy obituary to write. But I didn’t need to crown him King of Everything to tell the beautiful truth about a good man with human flaws.
Too many public figures immediately get beatified in the afterlife and this synthetic halo casts a pall on the truth — always more complex and nuanced than what we proclaim from the pulpit. But we can respect someone’s life and legacy without the superlative. No one has to be the most or best of everything in order to earn an honest and respectful send-off. Nor do we have to pretend that a “lifetime dedicated to public service” was without fault and outright failures.
Hedonist Hugh Hefner, for example, was the president of his own pleasure palace. He brought an underworld into the mainstream, Poseidon in silk pajamas. While not a politician his life and work were enormously political in their cultural impacts. As was one of the best eulogies I’ve ever read. In Speaking Ill of Hugh Hefner journalist Ross Douthat did something amazing. He told the truth. This piece stands as one of the finest pieces of journalism I’ve ever read. There was no fawning about the deceased deity of American male hedonism.
“Hef was the grinning pimp of the sexual revolution, with Quaaludes for the ladies and Viagra for himself — a father of smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis, a pretentious huckster who published Updike stories no one read while doing flesh procurement for celebrities, a revolutionary whose revolution chiefly benefited men much like himself.”
Douthat also wrote an uninflated piece about the late George H.W. Bush. But this time he wasn’t the only one. So did Jeff Shesol and Franklin Foer and Megan Garber. And it’s not a lack of decorum or morality that they write with. It’s just journalism. Remember when that used to involve telling the truth? A great op-ed piece is more than just opinion.
So for #TBT I repost this article from last year in which we acknowledge the elder Bush’s habitual impropriety toward young women, quaint by comparison to other public figures, but as equally silenced and sanitized as the habitual violence of someone now reviled like Harvey Weinstein. This is a reminder that a man is the sum total of his deeds — good and bad. And our morality doesn’t require us to pretend any man was any more or less than what we knew him to be. We are as free to tell the truth after his death as we were during his lifetime.
You could almost hear the red herrings flapping out of water as George Bush Sr.’s PR team scrambled to slap away accusations of sexual harassment for instances of — you guessed it — sexual harassment.
The spin team is flinging out explanations like little kids with a loose grip flying off a spinning merry-go-round. But sometimes you just can’t hang on any longer.
And so go a number of explanations flung outward at the women who “misunderstood his attempt at humor”. The dizzying kaleidoscope of distraction spin is as storied and colorful as it is absurd. An elderly and wheelchair-bound World War II veteran was just trying to be funny, according to his spin doctors and far too many commentators. But as Dr. NerdLove put it when dissecting a similar “misunderstanding” on his outstanding blog: “The mind scarcely has the courage to boggle.”
Where to begin? In a no-shit, I-wish-this-weren’t-necessary nod to equality — the disabled, the elderly and veterans are all people. These groups have long fought for the equality and respect they deserve because they are — get this — people. And all people in civilized society are expected to follow the same rules as everyone else. Bush’s handlers need to be reminded of what they already know — being disabled, elderly, military or any combination therein doesn’t preclude you from knowing and doing what is legally and morally right. Equality cuts both ways. And being a decent person should prevent you from grabbing anyone’s ass without their permission. Regardless of your credentials or your disabilities. Accomplishments do not endow you with opportunities to commit transgressions against others any more than disabilities would exempt you from consequences for doing so. Long story short, disabled people can be assholes too, elderly people aren’t inherently wise nor exclusively kind and Veterans are just eminently capable of sexual harassment as anyone else.
Make no mistake, George Bush Sr. is capable of abiding by social norms. So perhaps the larger problem is the very norms that make these transgressions “misunderstandings” or attempts at “humor”. The reality is that he grabbed ass because he wanted to grab ass.
“At age 93, President Bush has been confined to a wheelchair for roughly five years, so his arm falls on the lower waist of people with whom he takes pictures. To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke — and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner. Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate. To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.”
There are a number of things wrong with this explanation given to The Washington Post by spokesman, Jim McGrath. Not least of which is the fact that it was issued by Jim McGrath. Of The Washington Post. Not the person who habitually ass-grabs attractive women under 40. Don’t call it goosing. It’s not cute.
1.) His age is irrelevant and bears no mentioning. 2.) Where his arm falls bears mentioning only to his doctors if he is experiencing pain or unnecessary discomfort. And if that’s a medical explanation for ass-grabbing it would’ve happened when unattractive men were posing for pictures with the former president. 3.) He is not invited to any event to be a court jester or put people at ease. He is invited to events as a former president of the United States— an office which used to imbue a solemn dignity. 4.) he could’ve “David Cop-a-feel”ed (I don’t know how to spell this or make a lame pun into a verb) any of the men at any of these events or photo shoots. But he doesn’t. So this “joke” explanation doesn’t hold water — as it never does because it is so patently not the real reason. 5.) “What he intended” does not matter. Intentions are irrelevant and apologies should not be suspended from them. 6.) Trying to imply that the spectrum between innocent and inappropriate is as long as “the moral arc of the universe” implies that the problem here is the interpretation of the action. No. The problem is the action itself. Attempting to hang that action between two differing interpretations shifts the conversation to how “others”, undefined by Mr. McGrath, view it — a good-natured pat on women’s rears or sexual assault. It is classic divide-and-conquer. I find myself even hesitating — wasting time trying to decide between the words assault and harassment.
As more accusations amount to a pattern, it is the same joke, the same pervy reach-around during a photo shoot and the same pile of divergent explanations-as-apology.
So as a third woman reports being groped while posing for a photograph, ignore the sounds of red herrings slapping and flopping about. Ignore his steaming horse shit explanation of “trying to put people at ease.” Fat men are people too yet this only seems to happen to pretty women.
Do not get distracted by the commenters and commentators who veer off topic by proclaiming that rape is worse. It is. But rape is not the topic here. Unwanted ass-grabbing is. Rank-ordering degrees of offending behavior — touching is worse than lewd comments, violence is worse than touching, rape is worse than groping — creates the implication that anything less than what the particular commenter deems “too far” is ok. This is a sliding scale of bullshit when the only true metric is consent.
Pay attention to the fact that *she* was told to be discreet after *he* grabbed her ass. As though she was more responsible for stewarding his image and reputation than he is. Pay attention to the fact that she was told this by a handler and the fact that this David Cop-a-Feel is apparently a well worn favorite joke of his.
Pay attention to the fact that *if* an apology is issued it is always couched in *if* any offense was taken. Despite the fact that they are responding to a statement of an offense being taken. The apology, which is always diluted through a third party, is never “I’m sorry *that* I offended Ms. Lind, Ms. Grolnick and Ms. Kline. It is grammatically passive in every way. The subject becomes third person as it is issued through a spokesperson. The verb becomes passive. It is rarely active in these statements. And the object becomes even more passive by being removed altogether.
The fact that the damage control is as passive and normalized as the ass-grabbing is the insidious issue here. The responsibility to do the right thing is not on the women he targets. The onus is on him, at any age, any ability level, any military status, to not touch people without their permission.
Originally published at heathermedwards.com. October 27, 2017