As many Americans watched the funeral services for President George H.W. Bush this week, Isa Leshko found herself tuning out the coverage. Things were missing. Recent events glossed over. It left her feeling sickened, she said.
Shortly after news broke of Bush’s death, Leshko, 47, an artist and activist, took to Twitter.
“Many members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, and women have a hard time praising Bush's memory today,” she wrote, launching a threaded series of tweets.
She touched on Bush’s handling of the AIDS crisis, his veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990. Near the end of her thread, Leshko brought up a more recent controversy that she and other activists have found questionably absent from remembrances and discussions of Bush’s legacy: the groping allegations.
A little more than a year before his death, allegations emerged from eight women dating back to 1992. The details were similar: During a photo op with the former president, Bush touched or squeezed their butts without consent. Some of the women say he made a joke first.
Bush apologized last year through spokesman Jim McGrath, saying he “does not have it in his heart to knowingly cause anyone distress, and he again apologizes to anyone he offended during a photo op."
With attention focused on other men who were still in office or high-powered jobs, involved in severe incidents, the allegations have received little mention since they first came to light in October 2017. USA TODAY, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press did not include the allegations in obituaries. Headlines praised his decency and character and called him a gentleman. Even in Twitter’s liberal bubbles, the topic has been cautiously broached.
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Michelle Nickerson, an associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago who specializes in women and gender and U.S. politics, says memorializations happen with every president.
“The purpose in this case is to recognize ourselves as a nation. So it’s almost like we keep quiet about the mistakes of the dead because we want to focus on the things that we appreciate and we value and the things that we want to honor," Nickerson said. "There are going to be things that we recall and we chose to forget because we are honoring not just Bush but the presidency as an institution."
Yale University history professor Joanne B. Freeman says these remembrances, and presidential legacies, are shaped by current political climates. And in this case, she says, the need for a retort to the increasingly caustic political landscape has been palpable in our eulogizing.
“It feels to me like a very emotionally needy moment that’s making use of Bush’s reputation to serve a purpose,” said Freeman. “It’s become a mourning for decency moment that really isn’t about Bush at all.”
Using a polished version of a president’s reputation for specific ends is "a tradition that goes back to the dawn of the republic,” Freeman says.
Anyone who has seen the musical Hamilton knows the story of the Federalist Party’s attempt to discredit Alexander Hamilton as a co-author of George Washington's farewell address to make Washington, and in turn the party, look better.
But Freeman says this moment is unique in its near-total focus on Bush’s character as opposed to his political impact. A record that includes unwavering support for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Bush’s nominee who was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill in a grueling confirmation process that activists say paved the way for the similarly contentious confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The problem, for activists and survivors of sexual assault, is that the exaltation of Bush as a “gentleman” and “America’s last great soldier-statesman” feels incomplete.
“Which part of him was ‘boy-next-door bonhomie’ when he groped numerous women?” says Elizabeth Xu Tang, an equal justice fellow with the National Women's Law Center, referencing a New Yorker tribute.
“We’ve sanitized the history of so many things,” Tang says. “To start that process immediately, the second they die, is so irresponsible, it's untruthful.”
Tang notes that Bush's last tweet praised Sen. Susan Collins for her “political courage and class” following her vote to confirm Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault; he denies any wrongdoing.
Bush "felt that it was necessary to publicly speak out about [someone accused of] serial sexual assault, and that it was commendable and courageous,” Tang says. “I think that tells you everything you need to know about his thoughts on #MeToo and sexual assault and women’s bodily autonomy.”
Leshko, too, noted the tweet.
“The fact that the Kavanaugh hearing and confirmation is still raw for so many women, and recognizing that his final tweet was in support of Kavanaugh, it just makes it really hard for me to hear people say he harkens back to a kinder and gentler time in our politics,” Leshko said. “If you actually look back on certain periods of history as kinder and gentler, odds are you benefit from privilege you’re not fully aware of.”
An overwhelming response to mentions of the groping allegations, as well as other Bush critiques, has been “not now.” Vox, one of the few media outlets to broach the allegations and Bush’s legacy, was met with derisive replies on Twitter, saying the decision to publish a day after his death was “disgusting” and “uncalled for.”
“We have this powerful cultural belief you’re not supposed to talk badly about people who have died,” said Mahri Irvine, an adjunct lecturer on race, gender and culture studies at American University. “Now that they’re dead we can’t bring up anything bad or shady about their past.”
This extends beyond presidents to celebrities but everyday Americans, as well. It's why stigmatized issues, like suicide, remain rarely mentioned after someone dies and why candid obituaries about drug use go viral.
Part of the reason for glossing over, says Irvine, is that many people struggle with duality.
“You can have men, and you do, who genuinely are kind, compassionate, respectful, care for children and care for their spouses, who are very kind and good to most people," and behave differently around others.
Nickerson said in terms of presidential legacy, it’s important to embrace complexity.
“It’s appropriate to do it as soon as possible lest we fail to recognize all of this as part of a collective legacy, the good and the bad, the warts and all,” she said.
Many people want to ignore complexity, but when that happens with someone as powerful as a president, historians say it can be problematic.
"When something becomes complicated, one rather useless response is 'Oh, we’ll just not say anything about it at all.' Which makes matters worse by erasing it," said Freeman. "There are all kinds of populations and constituencies that get erased that way. Until recently, race was a non-issue for Thomas Jefferson, and ... think of all the people who were thereby erased, all the people who were not included in history."
Irvine says women's voices are often erased.
“Women and girls are taught, even if they have a very valid complaint about something, they need to be polite and respectful,” Irvine said. “By telling Bush’s victims that they need to stay silent right now, or by complaining about reporters who are going to cover the topic, it's reinforcing this patriarchal idea that women’s voices are less important and less valued than dead men’s."
Women are told it's never a good time for sexual allegations, Tang said: When a young woman accuses a young man, it’s not the right time because the boy has his whole life ahead of him. In middle age, it’ll ruin the man’s reputation at the height of his career. When men are old, it’s dismissed as having happened so long ago. And after death, it’s unacceptable to speak ill of the dead.
It's that frustration that inspired Leshko to speak out.
“I have total empathy for the Bush family. They had two major losses in seven months. I understand that,” she said. “But I think expressing these viewpoints is important, particularly while his legacy is being discussed in the public eye. Bush wasn’t my father, he wasn’t my uncle. He was my president and his actions had significant consequences for people in this country and abroad. It needs to be considered part of the legacy.”