Is History Too Kind to George H.W. Bush?

eorge H.W. Bush has died and our national media have begun the familiar rituals of presidential passings: round-the-clock pieties on cable news, fond tributes from associates, the inevitable softening of the rough edges. This isn’t surprising. There’s ancient wisdom in the Latin aphorism de mortuis nil nisi bonum (speak nothing but good of the dead). The urge to prettify a politician’s legacy upon his demise is understandable and in some ways reflects our finer selves. Bush’s family, friends and admirers deserve comfort in their grief.
But when it comes to presidents and historical actors of consequence, we also need critical dissent. When writing my first book, Nixon’s Shadow, about that president’s endlessly protean image, I found myself grateful that at the time of his funeral—a whitewash that minimized his constitutional crimes—sober, serious historians like David Halberstam and Garry Wills stood up to provide corrective reminders. Had they not done so, future readers might have believed that Nixon’s attempted comeback had succeeded when in fact it did not. Respect for the dead must coexist with respect for the historical record.
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