By Amanda Leonard || Copy Writer
It’s customary for the entire country to engage in a National Day of Mourning following the death of a former United States president. Naturally, it’s also customary to remind ourselves of how his policies and perhaps his good-nature ultimately served the country well. In former President Barack Obama’s official statement on the death of George H.W. Bush on Friday, November 30th, he proclaims Bush’s life to be “a legacy of service that may never be matched.”
There’s no doubt that “service” was Bush’s most sincere commitment. He enlisted in the Navy Reserve after the U.S. entry into WWII, deferring a spot at Yale. Later, during his administration in 1990, he passed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, which called for accessible public spaces and protection from employment discrimination. In that same year, he reformed immigration policy, allowing 700,000 individuals to enter the country. Politico Magazine calls on Bush’s “massive success on the international stage,” noting the expulsion of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, while Obama praises his “steady diplomatic hand” that “ended the Cold War without firing a shot.”
The acknowledgement of Bush’s accomplishments in the media following his passing have ultimately served to create the most optimistic view of his legacy as possible. This isn’t just because he was president though: it’s obviously abnormal to discuss a person’s flaws and mistakes in any type of eulogical statement.
When writing an obituary for your great uncle that passed away, sure, go ahead and only include the best parts about him and his greatest accomplishments. It should be a mourning exercise for you and your local community. But I would argue that for a United States president, whose decisions and disregards impact the daily lives of millions of people, it is crucial that his legacy as it is portrayed in the media should cover all sides.
The day following former President H.W. Bush’s death fell on World AIDS Day, which has been held annually on December 1 since 1988. So, what are we supposed to do now? Do we mourn the loss of a former leader of our with a generally favorable legacy, or do we denounce his entire presidency due to his lack of urgency in remediating the AIDS crisis?
Any discussion of HIV and AIDS in a Bush remembrance piece would of course be a hindrance to the way we’ve normalized the portrayal of public figures who’ve died as kind, amazing people who can do no wrong. While the Americans with Disabilities Act did in a sense prevent those with AIDS from being legally discriminated against, and the Ryan White Care Act supported medical care and support systems, deaths from the disease in this country increased exponentially during his administration to over half a million people. While in office, Bush referred to same-sex relationships as “lifestyles that are, in my view, not the normal lifestyle,” indicating that his blatant dismissal of ACT UP activists’ cries for help—and the throwing of victims’ ashes on the White House lawn after the two acts had been signed—was motivated by homophobia.
Urvashi Ali, former leader of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called the Bush administration’s response to HIV and AIDS “mixed at best and marked by calculated indifference at worst.” He may have signed legislation that helped, but only after the tireless efforts of activists. His intent may never have been malicious, but he didn’t do enough. With his influence, he could’ve been a powerful ally and progress could’ve been so much faster and stronger, but it wasn’t.
George H.W. Bush enacted policies that still provide protection to millions of Americans today. He also indirectly caused the death of thousands of people by not standing up and amplifying the voices of suffering Americans. While he may have acted kindly and made some good choices, death did not make him a hero. In this situation, it is the duty of journalists to portray history accurately, which cannot be done without acknowledging his triumphs and his faults. While it may compromise the “honoring” and “mourning” that we’re almost obligated to do when a prominent public figure passes away, the truth of Bush’s mistake deserves justice when it forever deterred the course of thousands of lives.
First-year Amanda Leonard is the Copy Editor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.