BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. If you're a person who has TV news on all day in the background, your occasional upward glance would have marked this week's biggest small screen story as the funeral of a 94 year old man–who was once president of the United States.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He fancied himself to be a good bass singer.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He was not. We'll sing for our president.
CROWD: [Singing Amazing Grace]. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He was born to power and spent his life wielding it. But if not for those four years in the White House, the cameras would never have fixed so firmly all week long on his body in transit. Flying up from Houston to D.C., lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, gracing the Washington Cathedral, lifting off from Joint Base Andrews, landing at Houston's Ellington Field and traveling still.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Halting at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, rolling by motorcade to the Union Pacific Railway facility, rumbling by special trains from the small towns to College Station, pausing at Texas A&M University and finally, dropping anchor at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum for eternity.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seemed to go on for a long, long time. But it was not unusual. I'm guessing that the endless stream of short, sharp shocks delivered by the news the last two years has left us too frantic for the measured pace of such events.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is a pattern to these presidential launches into the here after–each with its own theme variations. The theme of this weeks was summed up by Bush's Secretary of State and lifelong friend, James Baker.
JAMES BAKER: His wish for a kinder, gentler nation was not a cynical political slogan. It came honest and unguarded from his soul. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That view from the podium was echoed by the pundits.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I think President Bush embodied this concept of being a gentleman.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: We'll talk about the need for decency, that's exactly what this man was.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The strong silent type, brave–even lethal if necessary but not a braggart.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: What George Bush reorganized about America, which makes him to me the last gentleman in Washington, was that our political opponents aren't opponents at all. Their friends whom with whom we differ. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Consider the letter the 41st president left in the White House for the 42nd. It was a presidential tradition he carried out with true grace. Read here by the recipient.
BILL CLINTON: Don't let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be a president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success is our country's success. I'm rooting hard for you. One of the stations of the crossing of a president to death, is the tone and the timing of the summing up. Candid or kind? Now or later? Is it now the best time to be forthright, when more people actually care? Or do we delicately delay to spare the bereaved? Television awash with pictures of veneration and tributes from the late president's admirers, made its choice long ago. And the timing has made it even easier in the case of George Herbert Walker Bush. [END CLIP]
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: I think any historical figure, the way that they are remembered is so contingent upon what historical moment they pass away in. I think it's tethered to what he is not. And what he has not is Donald Trump.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anne Helen Petersen is the senior culture writer and Western correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: So what George H.W. Bush Is been remembered for, its echoes of how John McCain was also remembered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's nostalgia, wrapped up in eulogy. The c word is used a lot.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Civility.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Watching these things, you saw the recurrence of the Clinton letter. The civility theme, you are disturbed by it.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Do we remember those in power through how other people in power remember them? Or is it also important to think about, OK how did the least of these, how were they affected? You know, the day that I was seen those, Saturday, was also AIDS Remembrance Day. December 1st, every year. And so that juxtaposition led to a lot of people who were commenting on, 'oh well, here was George H.W. Bush's legacy on AIDS,' which is that, much like Reagan, he did not do enough. He did not act soon enough. What prompted him to act was not the suffering of gay men but, you know, when it became associated with a young boy whose association with AIDS was not through sexual activity. So people who either were directly involved in that or are mindful of you know the actions of ACT UP, dumping ashes on the White House lawn during H.W.'s tenure.
CHANTING: Bring the dead to your door. We can't take it anymore
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The purpose of these people coming here is because George Bush and his administration has done nothing with our lives. So we bring our debt to you. And they were determined to deposit the ashes of their loved ones on the White House steps.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Part of AIDS, it's one of the few diseases that behavior matters. And I once called on somebody 'well change your behavior. If the behavioring you're using is prone to cause AIDS, change the behavior. Next thing I know, one of these ACT UP groups is out saying, 'Bush ought to change his behavior.' You can't talk about it rationally.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Petersen observed that, to the overwhelming majority of citizens without power or direct acquaintance with the deceased, a president is not a person but an event. One with vast and potent consequences for good or ill. So when assessing a presidency, kindness simply doesn't apply.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: If you were talking about World War II, right? And you only talked about the good things. You talked about victory in Europe and you never talked about dropping the atomic bomb. We would say that that is not accurate to the historical record. You wouldn't say you're being mean to World War II.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what voices would you have included if you had to write the historical record of President George H.W. Bush?
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: A soldier who served in the first Gulf war. Someone who lost a loved one to the AIDS crisis. Someone who was sentenced under the War on Drugs. But then also, you know, someone whose life was really changed by the Americans With Disabilities Act. Or who after, Bush signed the Ryan White Act into law, that made receiving AIDS treatment possible to them. So there's a full cornucopia that's not just people who have covered them or other presidents or senators and that sorta thing. The piece that I saw that really did a good job of this is David Greenberg's piece in Politico.
DAVID GREENBERG: Well, I think obituaries are often the first place that we turn when we want to learn about a historical figure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Greenberg is a professor of history, journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and contributing editor to Politico Magazine.
DAVID GREENBERG: You know, we're not engaged in a discourse with the Bush family right now. We're engaged in a discourse with the American people and new generations who may be learning about President Bush's presidency and career for the first time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: OK, you wrote a book about President Nixon. You watch the obituaries. You read them, you saw them when he died. He's about as complex a character as you could encounter.
DAVID GREENBERG: With Richard Nixon, even more than with George Bush, you know, there was, I would call almost a whitewash at the time of his funeral.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We're now with the chief news editor for Newsweek in Washington. Richard Nixon didn't like you very much. Give us your first thought of when he died. You knew it was overcoming.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Sadness, Peter. Richard Nixon accomplished a lot in his political career, opening the door to China easing the tension with the Soviet Union, peace in Vietnam and brought a lot of good to the world. On the domestic front, he was very successful as the president. And the tragedy of Richard Nixon, that most of all, he's going to be remembered for Watergate. [END CLIP]
DAVID GREENBERG: It was sort of hard to imagine from hearing some of the eulogies, why this man has gone down in history in disgrace as the first president ever to resign–as someone who committed constitutional crimes and abuse the powers of his office. It was almost as though it's just one part of the story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what was the main story in the eulogies of George Herbert Walker Bush that you think was left out?
DAVID GREENBERG: The story we have been hearing is a man of great decency and bipartisanship. But in fact, but decency, which no doubt was part of who Bush was, most of the time lost out to political cynicism. When he wants to win in the Texas Senate race in 1964, he is denouncing the 1964 Civil Rights Act which is one of the great achievements of modern politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He embraced supply side economics that he had called voodoo economics during the campaign.
DAVID GREENBERG: That's right. And he also threw aside his support for abortion rights because Reagan wanted him to. He dropped his support for the Equal Rights Amendment for women because Reagan wanted him to. So I see a pattern of repeatedly subordinating what we might call his nobler impulses, or at least his more liberal or moderate impulses, to political expediency.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I won't even bother mentioning the low of the Willie Horton ad during the campaign. It's probably been played ad nauseum at this point.
DAVID GREENBERG: Bush liked to say, 'oh yeah during the campaign I could get nasty but once I was elected, you know, it was all pure governance from there on out.' Well, it's never like that for Bush or for any president, that the pressures of politics weigh on particular decisions. He wasn't standing up for this older strain of Republicanism. He was sacrificing in the short term in the hope, perhaps, of being able to implement it in the long term. But that long term never came. What happened instead was the concessions that he made to the far right ended up only empowering the far right.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greenberg notes that such vaunted Bush achievements as the Americans With Disabilities Act and amendments to the Clean Air Act were concessions. Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate. He wrote that 'George H.W. Bush often slunk aside to create space for far right ideologues and practitioners of personal destruction.' And that it shouldn't surprise us to see that others made a far more malignant stuff than he have now taken over that space. Where does a president or a powerful politician leave us? That is the essence of a legacy. And in this particular case, the role of eulogy. An event, like a president, is not a subject for public eulogizing like a film star. He, so far he, no longer belongs to his family or friends. A president by dint of the power he wields belongs to us all and especially, as Peterson says, 'the least among us.' Anything less betrays history, our chance to learn from it. Choose better and do better.