The Soft Lighting of a President's Legacy

Embedded in the 41st president’s legacy are tensions about the nature of presidential celebrity.

Andrew Lopez, 12, of Midland, Texas, next to a statue of George H. W. Bush inside the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum
Andrew Lopez, 12, of Midland, Texas, sits next to a statue of George H. W. Bush inside the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on December 1, 2018, in College Station. Bush died at his home Friday night. He was 94. (David J. Phillip / AP)

The Miller Center at the University of Virginia, a nonpartisan organization focused on American presidential history, offers on its website an extensive list of the key moments of George H. W. Bush’s presidency. Included among the many items are the U.S.’s condemnation of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the signing of the START-1 treaty, ushering in the end of the Cold War, and the start of the Gulf War—a listing, all in all, of a series of complicated events that situate the 41st president within the grand sweep of world history.

On Saturday, responding to the news of Bush’s death at 94, the entertainment-news outlet Deadline published a decidedly different assessment of the key moments of Bush’s presidency. This list, focused on video images, includes the broccoli incident: the time, in 1990, that Bush declared his personal distaste for the veggie (“I do not like broccoli … And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it”), spurring a teapot tempest among indignant members of the American broccoli lobby.

It includes, as well, the time Bush (in)famously checked his watch during a 1992 presidential debate against Bill Clinton, who would go on to defeat him in the election. It includes the time that, overcome with nausea but still wanting to represent the United States at a state dinner, Bush suddenly vomited while seated next to the prime minister of Japan—a moment of extreme humanity, and a suggestion that presidents, like the stars that shine in America’s synthetic firmament, are just like us. And it includes video of Dana Carvey, who translated Bush’s presidency into comedy for Saturday Night Live, re-creating the incident on the show as the studio audience howled with laughter.

Two lists, unalike in dignity: one focused on the president as a statesman, the other focused on the president as, simply, a man. They suggest two broad approaches to the American presidency itself—two distinct demands that have, in the decades since Bush turned the Resolute Desk over to his smooth-talking, saxophone-playing successor, merged ever closer: the presidency as an office of political leadership, and the presidency as an office of cultural celebrity. They also suggest, however, two means of memory. How is a president remembered, as a leader and a history-maker and a public figure?

George H. W. Bush, the last of the World War II presidents—he volunteered to fight in the conflict, and began his career in public service as a decorated fighter pilot—was also a somewhat unlikely herald of the modern brand of political celebrity. Often described as aloof and sometimes described as out of touch (one thing the Deadline list did not include was the apocryphal yet persistent story of Bush’s “amazement” at the sight of a grocery-store scanner), Bush was, in many ways, the opposite of the celebrity presidents who both preceded and succeeded him. He wasn’t flashy, in the Hollywood-friendly way of flashiness. He was deeply pragmatic. He blamed his reelection loss to Bill Clinton, in part, on the fact that he hadn’t been, during the 1992 campaign, “a good enough communicator.” Bush was, as Time magazine put it, “a man of action rather than reflection.” His particular gift, as The Washington Post summed it up in an obituary, was “competence.”

The American media, however—accustomed to eight years of Ronald Reagan, and expanding with the rise of 24-hour cable news—found a way to make him a celebrity anyway. And so Bush, the pragmatist, navigated what it meant to be presidential in a Deadline-driven world. Deadline included the broccoli comments in its assessment of him because those comments, trivial as they were, proved to be an indelible moment in his presidency: a relatable and entertaining thing that appealed in part because it served as evidence that the president was also a person, with the indiscriminate tangle of likes and dislikes that comes with the designation.

At the time, The New York Times devoted an extensive article to Bush’s broccoli aversion, using the president’s documented dislike of cruciferous vegetables to report on the foods he did enjoy (pork rinds, beef jerky, nachos, candy, ice cream, cake, assorted selections of fast food). TV news shows offered similar reports. Bringing the incident to a head, a group of broccoli farmers from California sent more than 10,000 pounds of their product to the Bushes, both as a joke and to make a point; the ceremonial presentation of the produce, later donated to Washington food banks, made a new round of news. “Where are you when we’re doing a literacy event?” Barbara Bush, who presided over the Broccoli Presentation on the White House’s south lawn, asked the media assembled to document the moment.

Americans of today ask much more of their leaders than they did in the past. And one of their increasing demands is for intimacy itself: for politicians to prove to the public their authenticity, which is also to say their relatability, which is also to say their humanity. This shift has been the result, in large part, of the technologies that have shaped the presidency, as they have shaped all the other elements of American lives. The radio brought its own kind of intimacy to the presidency. TV brought to it a new form of image-consciousness. And the internet, for its part, has brought about a further flattening: Americans don’t ask our leaders to be better than the rest of us; we ask them, instead, to be one of us. A politician, talking politics while she broadcasts her making of Instant Pot mac and cheese: It’s simply the latest iteration of the fireside chat.

George H. W. Bush—the war hero and career bureaucrat who assumed the presidency during a lurching time of transition, as the Cold War warmed and as the United States’ industrial economy was responding to the entropies of the information age—was the last of the pre-internet presidents. And he was, fittingly, among the last of the presidents whose legacy can be, for the most part, neatly cleaved in its assessment: the political on the one side, the cultural (watches, Carvey, broccoli) on the other. After he left office, those realities would blend, in the public consciousness, ever more indelibly. Bill Clinton’s scandal-ridden presidency would be scandalized with the help of web-driven news sites. H. W.’s son George W. Bush would find himself the subject of memes both celebratory and mocking. Barack Obama would build digital infrastructures that would prove crucial to his election—and, then, reelection—efforts. And Donald Trump, of course, would use the affordances of Twitter to speak directly to the American public, a union of id and idiom that has, very likely, permanently changed what Americans will expect of presidential communications in the years to come.

George H. W. Bush, for his part, embraced a quieter brand of celebrity. He projected authority, remove, and quiet resolve. Competence. He spoke about Desert Storm from the Oval Office, his somber speech—“our military objectives are met”—relayed to the public by a single, distant camera. This weekend, in the short hours that Americans have been mourning and assessing Bush’s legacy, has included a lot of talk about a similar kind of sobriety: his decency. Decency as a form of transcendence, and as its own means of remove, and as its own evidence of humanity. (The longtime political reporter David Gergen, summing up the dominant recollection of the day, noted on CNN that Bush “was highly civil, and it opened doors for friendships across the board.”) There has been much less talk in all this, particularly in televised news, about Bush’s complicated political legacy, which includes, among so many other things, his veto of 1990’s Civil Rights Act, his campaign’s airing of the infamous, dog-whistling ad condemning William Horton, and his handling of the AIDS epidemic. “Is the behavior you’re using prone to cause AIDS?” Bush asked in a 1992 presidential debate. “Change the behavior.”

The obituaries and elegies, particularly on TV, have reflected their moment: They have emphasized George H. W. Bush the human—the husband, the father, the grandfather, the warrior, the sock-wearer, the patriot, the prankster. The letter Bush wrote to the man who had defeated him for the presidency, on the day of Clinton’s inauguration, went viral, presented as evidence of Bush’s bipartisanship, of decency, of grace. CNN, on Saturday afternoon, recalled the time Bush went on Larry King’s show and, when King asked whether the president ever drives, proceeded to produce his driver’s license for King’s on-air inspection (Class C, height 6 foot 1, eyes brown, address 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue): the stuff of meme-making, in the time before memes. Wolf Blitzer noted solemnly that “as we remember former president George H. W. Bush, it’s important to remind everyone just how down-to-earth and funny he could be.” The HLN host Robin Meade shared a memory of skydiving with Bush, as part of his 85th birthday celebrations, in 2009—and then of the time when the former president insisted on answering her phone when her mother called, as a delightful joke. On Fox News, Larry Gatlin, a member of the country group the Gatlin Brothers and a friend of Bush’s, noted that “he was like your favorite uncle, or your grandpa. He had that charm about him, that self-deprecating humor.”

Power, in its soft folds and hard edges, is difficult to discuss in sound bites. Legacies are difficult to tie up with tidy conclusions. It’s much easier to talk about the warm memories and the soft-lit anecdotes, the humanity at the heart of it all. Skydiving, joke-making, sock-wearing, broccoli, humanity: They suggest both the continuation of a long tradition, and the start of something new. George H. W. Bush was the last of the analog presidents. He was, it turns out, in many ways the true bridge to the 21st century. On Saturday, Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who was Bush’s partner in arranging the world into much of its present order, put out a statement of condolence about Bush’s death. “It was a time of great change,” Gorbachev noted of that bygone era in world politics, “demanding great responsibility from everyone. The result was the end of the Cold War and nuclear arms race.” Bush’s fellow former leader concluded, however, with a nod to the man rather than the statesman. He and his wife, Raisa, Gorbachev said, “deeply appreciated the attention, kindness, and simplicity typical of George and Barbara Bush, as well as the rest of their large, friendly family.”