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Examining George H.W. Bush's Legacy, Flaws And All


Presidential historian Jon Meacham eulogized his friend President George H.W. Bush on Wednesday.


JON MEACHAM: Strong and gracious, comforting and charming, loving and loyal, he was our shield in danger's hour. An imperfect man, he left us a more perfect union.

GREENE: Imperfect man. So is that imperfection something that has been lost in the conversation around Bush's legacy in the past few days? Historian and Rutgers University professor David Greenberg seems to think that is the case. He wants the president to be remembered for both his achievements and his shortcomings. And so I asked professor Greenberg, did President Bush actually leave us a more perfect union?

DAVID GREENBERG: On the world stage, it's probably fair to say that Bush left things in better shape than he found them. I don't think as a union, domestically speaking, that's really a supportable statement. You know, a lot of the division and acrimony that we complain about today, you know, actually has its seeds in that period. So it was a tough time. You know, Bush in 1992 was rejected as resoundingly as any president since Herbert Hoover. So it was not all such a beaming, happy time when he ran for re-election.

GREENE: It's interesting that you tie some of the acrimony of today to him. I was speaking to George Mitchell - you know, who was the top Democrat, the Senate majority leader, during Bush's time - this week. And he said that he wishes that we could reintroduce some of the humaneness, integrity and bipartisanship that Bush contributed to during his time. Why is he wrong?

GREENBERG: Well, look, this was a time when the Democrats controlled the House and the Senate. And it was sort of pre-Mitch McConnell. So the notion of just forcing gridlock and just refusing to cooperate wasn't really on the table, but there were a lot of conflicts. Bush vetoed something like 40 bills. He vetoed a civil rights act, which was seen at the time as quite controversial. He then, under backlash pressure, acceded to a revised civil rights bill the next year. But there was a lot of back-and-forth, and it's not to say there wasn't conflict.

GREENE: You wrote about sort of his interesting relationship with civil rights acts over the years. You know, he later talked about regretting that he opposed the Civil Rights Act when he was running as a Senate candidate in Texas in the 1960s. So looking broadly, what do you see as his legacy when it comes to race relations?

GREENBERG: I think it's maybe a tragic story. Here's someone who came out of a family and a tradition of liberal Republicanism that really isn't with us anymore, where the fight for racial equality was actually an important part of it. And yet, when he makes his career, he does it in a place, Texas, and at a time, starting in the '60s, when the party is moving rightward on race.

And not too many people today would look back on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, you know, a landmark in our history, and say, well, that was really all about protecting states' rights and so forth. He acceded to the political pressures then. And it was something that I think - as blacks moved away from the Republican Party and toward the Democrats, Bush ceased to be primarily concerned with their well-being because the political dividends weren't going to be there.

GREENE: So, you know, as we get farther away from his death, how do you believe history books are going to remember him and judge him?

GREENBERG: I think Bush will really be seen as kind of a footnote to the Reagan presidency. I think it will be Reagan's presidency that looms large in the history books. I think Bush was kind of the last gasp of this older form of Republicanism. But instead of standing valiantly and fighting for it, he very often moved aside in order to let the conservative ideologues take over the party but also the sort of nasty campaigners and the Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes-types, who after all - it was not just the 1988 campaign that people have talked about where he was unfair and rough on Michael Dukakis.

It was also 1992 where he accused Bill Clinton of doing something unsavory and going to Moscow as a college student or as a graduate student. So that strain of the politics of personal destruction was also there in the genteel George Bush. And too often, I think, Bush put his principles aside and let this new angrier brand of conservatism take over.

GREENE: Professor, thanks so much for talking to us.

GREENBERG: Sure. My pleasure.

GREENE: That was historian and Rutgers University professor David Greenberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.