Herman: The George H.W. Bush dilemma

Nov 21, 2017
LBJ Library Photo by Jay Godwin
Journalist John Avlon, left, and author Mark Updegrove at a Nov. 16 LBJ Presidential Library program about Updegrove’s new book about George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. LBJ LIBRARY PHOTO BY JAY GODWIN

Sadly, there’s much to be sad about as we’re fixin′ to fix the fixings and preparing to check off what we have to be thankful for as we celebrate Thanksgiving 2017.

On a micro basis, most of us have much good stuff for which to be thankful. On the mega basis, as always, there’s good for which to be thankful and bad for which to be concerned. The two sometimes overlap.

It’s bad that there is so much evidence of men behaving badly. It’s good that there are victims courageous enough to force us to deal with something somehow ignored for far too long. (I’m in mind these days of a long-ago female colleague who used to say, “If they can send a man to the moon, why don’t they send all of them?”)

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Is anybody surprised that there has been bad behavior in show biz? And I doubt anybody is surprised that there has been bad behavior in politics as well as the media and business worlds.

But is there anybody not surprised by the allegations involving former President George H.W. Bush, allegations that have tarnished his reputation?

The elder Bush occupies a special place in our political consciousness. Will we ever again see a high-level politician who doesn’t draw hatred and vitriol from people who disagree with him or her politically? Bush earned respect, regardless of your political leanings, through a lifetime of public service.

You’ve seen the recent allegations against the elder Bush. Initially, they involved fairly recent incidents in which he told a bad joke (about how his favorite author and magician is David Cop-a-feel) and grabbed three women by the buttocks as he was photographed with them on different occasions. One woman accused Bush of groping her buttocks in 2003, when she was 16 years old. More recently, a Michigan woman, now 55, told CNN Bush had squeezed her buttocks during a 1992 fundraising event for his re-election campaign. In all, seven women have accused the former president of groping them while posing for photos.It’s improper and offensive.

Bush spokesman Jim McGrath has said, “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.”

I waited for the topic to come up Nov. 16 when Mark Updegrove, former director of the LBJ Presidential Library, returned for a program about his groundbreaking and newsmaking new book “The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.”

This is the book in which the elder Bush blasts then-candidate Donald Trump as a “blowhard” and the younger Bush expresses deep concern about Trump’s readiness for the presidency. The comments came in 2016 interviews after Trump had clinched the GOP presidential nod.

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Updegrove was interviewed at the recent program by journalist John Avlon, editor in chief of The Daily Beast, who did a great job of focusing on the highlights of the book. Avlon waited until the end to ask about the recent news about the elder Bush, which that day included the new allegation dating back to when Bush was the 41st president.

“I don’t want to end on this, but I feel I’ve got to ask it,” Avlon told Updegrove, “because 41 is such a father figure to so many and he is so revered and so respected. Some of the allegations coming out now about inappropriate grabbing … is so counter to the impression we have of him as a person, let alone a president.

“How do you reconcile those things? How do you understand them? Simply a man of different era and time?” Avlon asked.

I had asked Updegrove essentially the same question prior to the program.

“It sounds very uncharacteristic,” he told me, adding he believes the allegations about Bush in his recent, health-challenged years. “In the earlier stages, it’s hard to know.”

Here’s how Updegrove responded to Avlon: “If you look at the character of George Herbert Walker Bush, this doesn’t square at all. He’s an older man when we heard he had done things like that. Frankly, it was a bad joke. I think if he believed he was really offending somebody, he probably wouldn’t have done it.

“But there might be other revelations that come out. The man we know now is not the man of yesteryear. He sits in a wheelchair and poses for a lot of pictures. These are all people who have posed with him in quick meet and greets, grip and grins. And he sits (in the wheelchair) and, often, it’s kind of awkward where his hands are. So I think we probably have to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

A few years ago, as Bush faced a serious health challenge, I wrote a column to run in case he died. It reflected what I think many Americans think of the elder Bush.

“He was from another time,” I wrote. “A time when war heroes became president, when men wrote long, emotional letters and when Americans who didn’t necessarily like the president didn’t necessarily hate the president.”

That was in 2012. Perhaps you’ve noticed that things have gotten worse with respect to that last phrase.

So where do we find hope as we sit down for Thanksgiving dinners at which politics might be even more out of bounds than it usually is at such gatherings?

I found some in Updegrove’s closing words as he talked about LBJ as a “flawed character” who “subordinated his own concerns for those of the nation.”

“That kind of service above self, that kind of thinking about the greater good, that sort of ethos is what makes America exceptional. I don’t think we’ve lost that,” Updegrove said. “But I’d like to see it return to the highest office.”

That would be something for which to be thankful.

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