This weekend, I had planned to watch a holiday special or movie with my son—an annual viewing of some classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, or It’s a Wonderful Life. The Christmas special is a beloved genre of magic, tears, and most of all, the power of Christmas to turn the Scroogiest among us into gift-giving saps. I was surprised to find among them this weekend a new holiday classic, not from Disney or Hallmark, but the Washington press corps: A Holiday Farewell to President George H. W. Bush.
It’s based on a real story, too: George Herbert Walker Bush, forty-first president of the United States, died late last Friday at age ninety-four. He was born into remarkable circumstances—the son of a wealthy Connecticut Senator, Prescott Bush—and he did that rarest of things among the scions of wealth and power: he surpassed his father’s success. During World War II, he did not wait to be drafted but enlisted in the Navy on his eighteenth birthday; he became a fighter pilot and got shot down while on a combat mission. He came home, graduated from Yale, moved to Texas to work in the oil business, made a fortune, and went into politics. Although Bush was elected to Congress in 1966, his adopted state turned him down twice for the Senate. The core of Bush’s political career was holding down high-profile appointed posts. He was Nixon’s chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ford’s envoy to China and then head of his CIA, and Reagan’s pick to run as his VP, before going on to his own one-term presidency—because while powerful people liked him, most of us didn’t. We do now, though, and it’s a Christmas miracle.
To be sure, the well-connected story of Bush’s life and political career doesn’t exactly teem with the stuff of Dickensian fable. To turn it into the teary Christmas special it became this weekend, a little holiday magic was needed. A lot, actually. A shit ton, if the scale I’m looking at is accurate. For any Christmas special to work, it needs its Tiny Tim, its Rudolph: its lovable innocent adrift in a cold, Christmas-hatin’ world. Since there isn’t one of those readily available in the actual George H. W. Bush story, it took some of Zuzu’s petals. Fortunately, the D.C. press corps is well-stocked with them.
While powerful people liked him, most of us didn’t. We do now, though, and it’s a Christmas miracle.
“George H. W. Bush, who died on Friday, had an irreducible niceness to him, an appealing mixture of noblesse oblige, parody-begging goofiness, and boy-next-door bonhomie,” tweeted The New Yorker’s official account. Thomas Mallon, who wrote the story for the magazine, added, “George H. W. Bush is likely to be remembered as the last President of the republic not to have been intensely despised by a significant portion of its population.”
“Intensely” is the key word, there, because Bush was most certainly despised by a significant portion of the population, which unceremoniously dumped him in 1992. To turn Bush Sr. into George Bailey this weekend, his niceness became mythic, the bright red nose he would use to lead our country through the end of the Cold War. We heard about his friendship with Bill Clinton, his long, loving marriage to Barbara Bush, and his loyal service dog, Sully—if not so much about, say, his shrugging off of the AIDS epidemic and its tens of thousands of victims during his presidency.
Now that we have a Tiny Tim, every Christmas special also needs a Scrooge, a Grinch, a Burgermeister Meisterburger to take away the childrens’ toys—someone who not only doesn’t like Christmas, but doesn’t like niceness. Let’s let Chris Cillizza, that bluntest of blunt edges, spell it out for us: “George H. W. Bush was the exact political opposite of Donald Trump.”
Again, you have to add some holiday magic to make this trick work. I mean, both Trump and Bush Sr. allegedly liked to grab nearby women in very inappropriate places, and both understood the value of mean, nasty hardball politics. For exact political opposites, their presidential campaigns both sure relied heavily on Roger Ailes, and for largely the same reasons. Ailes had a genius for stoking the grievances, imagined and real, of white voters. Bush Sr. did it with his infamous Willie Horton ads and stump broadsides questioning Michael Dukakis’s patriotism by more loudly embracing the Pledge of Allegiance than the faithless Massachusetts liberal ever could. The same tactic that worked for Bush worked for Trump. But Bush did it while saying, with irreducible niceness, that he also wanted a “kinder, gentler” America. Trump did it while saying that he’d supplant American carnage with, well, more American carnage.
All weekend long, Bush was painted as the nice guy among generations of hard-right GOP Heat Misers and Snow Misers. He was George Bailey, running with mounting alarm through the debauched Pottersville of American politics. True, he did have a more obvious, congenial nice streak in him than Nixon, Reagan, his son George Jr., or Trump. Kindness is a sign of political weakness to Republicans, and to his credit, at least in Republican circles, Bush was able to tame his kind streak when it mattered and work with the worst elements of the GOP. While running for Senate, he came out against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, even though that’s not really where his heart was. He ran those Willie Horton ads while genuinely embracing his own mixed-race family. He was pro-choice, but as the GOP went stridently anti-choice, so did he. When he ran against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Republican primaries, he rightly called Reagan’s supply-side financial policies “voodoo economics.” But when Reagan offered Bush the VP slot, he took it back, becoming a voodoo candidate. Bush Sr. even believed in climate change and global warming, but if he ran today, he’d be the first to sneer at profiteering alarmists and the need to protect jobs in his beloved oil industry.
So another dollop of holiday magic, a large one, please, to make a lifetime of far-right hackery go away. Washington Post politics scribe Dan Balz cheerfully obliged. Balz credits Bush’s honest decision to raise taxes in 1990 with “providing the catalyst that changed the Republican Party into an aggressive and hard-edge brand of conservatism that would hold sway for two decades.” True, the elder Bush’s betrayal of his no-new-taxes pledge energized a new breed of dark elf Gingrichites on the hard right. But in 1990, the GOP had already been weaned on a decade’s worth of supply-side mania, with Bush giving the centrist East Coast establishment Republican’s seal of approval. Bush doing an honorable thing may have cost him his job, but that alone hardly transformed the GOP; he had been transforming it for decades to rise up in it.
Another dollop of holiday magic, a large one please, to make a lifetime of far-right hackery go away.
And lose his job he did, to Bill Clinton. That’s a lousy way to end a Christmas special—George Bailey jumping off the bridge without Clarence diving in after him, or Rudolph getting lost in the fog with all the kids’ toys. And unfortunately, the post-presidency of George H. W. Bush also got lost in that fog, overshadowed by his son’s two-term presidency, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the 2008 economic collapse.
As a rule, Christmas specials end with Christmas miracles or they’re not Christmas specials. Niceness is nice, but unless it’s a Jerry Lewis movie, that’s not a miracle. So a Christmas miracle arrived Saturday afternoon via cartoonist Mike Luckovich and instantly went viral. It was a drawing of Bush arriving at the pearly gates, finally reunited with his late wife, Barbara. In the cartoon, Bush’s wheelchair sits empty. God has given him the strength to walk again, but in His infinite wisdom, left him a frail and careworn ninety-four.
The Bushes kiss under three of the most famous words Bush ever spoke: “Read my lips,” from his cynical campaign promise, “Read my lips. No new taxes!” That’s the power of Christmas for you: where even voodoo economics can be transformed into a passionate kiss between a man and a woman separated for an eternity of, well, six months. But reunited they are, in an impossible magical ending—just the kind of Christmas miracle that this D.C.-produced Hallmark special needed.
It does not matter who or what President Bush really was, not yet. It does not matter who or what John McCain or Billy Graham really were when they died earlier this year because we live in a time when genuine heroes are few. We live in a lowlife age of constant lies, deceit, pettiness, sleaze, stupidity, and vitriol. It does not matter who they really were, because with his presence, President Trump elevates all of them. We cling to a fantasy of who they were because of the reality of where we are.