The world overflows with affection for the man long known as Poppy—that clubbable, slightly daffy avatar of decency. But the encomiums for George H. W. Bush are coated in thick, water-beading layers of nostalgia. On the surface, obituaries for 41 carry the longing for a time when American politics was ruled by men of “high character” and a sense of “public duty,” the very antithesis of the present partisan era’s coarseness.
What goes unstated, however, is the subtext of that yearning. All the florid remembrances are packed with fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it weren’t.
When George H. W. Bush passed, so did the last true WASP. In appearance, he embodied what The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley once called “The Presidency by Ralph Lauren.” The evocation of the legendary fashion designer was a sly bit of sociology—the old American aristocracy was already in decline, since its aesthetic had been commodified (by none other than Ralph Lifshitz) and made accessible to all in the democracy of the shopping mall.
But George H. W. Bush came from an elite cluster; Harvard President Charles W. Eliot described them as the “superior families.” Bush’s ancestors did business with Rockefellers and Harrimans. In places like Newport and Kennebunkport, these families existed in an inbred world that for many decades self-consciously segregated itself by race, religion, and class. Old Money was superior to New Money, because those born into their wealth had been groomed to have perfect manners. The sons of the American aristocracy were sent off to Wall Street, the Foreign Service, and the Senate.
One of the facts of this establishment is that it always worried about its imminent death. In his canonical memoir, Henry Adams, the descendant of presidents, worried that people like himself were disappearing in the tradition of the Indians and the buffalo. And there could be little doubt what a Brahmin such as Adams believed threatened the extinction of his kind. In 1907, he wrote about the worrying presence of immigrants; in particular, he described a “furtive Yacoob or Ysaac still reeking of the ghetto.”
George H. W. Bush had traces of this sense of superiority, with his relentless pursuit of dynastic governance. One can read this instinct as laudable: a father cultivating love of public service in his progeny. But there was a dangerous undercurrent, too. The nation needed the Bushes because of their breeding. Here was a family intent on preserving its place at the high table of American life.
The sociologist who coined the term WASP was a professor from the University of Pennsylvania with the perfect name, E. Digby Baltzell. In the early 1960s, he wrote one of the great books of his discipline, The Protestant Establishment. And he noted how the old-stock Protestants were in the process of committing class suicide. He predicted that with their prejudice and insularity, the members of this old aristocracy would find themselves in abeyance, pushed aside by more talented members of minority groups. He heaped praise on the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and the presidents of universities who understood the imperative of democratizing their elite, opening it to groups unlike themselves—an act of beneficence and a means of preserving the institutions and privileges of their own cohort.
I don’t mean to dismiss the WASP sense of duty. It was real, and quite often a force for good in the world. George H. W. Bush acquired a certain wisdom through his years of service: He showed a steady hand at world-historic moments and a tenacious commitment to diplomacy, and he displayed remarkable grace in defeat and often dealt with his political foes in uncommonly good faith. But sometimes nobody seemed to believe in George Bush’s best intentions more than himself—which meant that he couldn’t understand when people failed to forgive his most odious mistakes.
Take his record on race. Bush comes from a Yankee tradition that prides itself on its liberal attitudes. His father, a senator from Connecticut, sponsored legislation desegregating schools, protecting voting rights, and establishing an equal-employment commission. George H. W. Bush seemed to accept this as his patrimony. At Yale, he led a fund-raising drive for the United Negro College Fund. When he moved to Midland, Texas, he made a point of inviting the head of the local NAACP to his house for dinner. As the chairman of the Harris County GOP, he put the party’s money in a black-owned bank.
Once upon a time, the Republican Party had served as one of Old Money’s favorite clubs. But by the time George H. W. Bush joined the game, the party was changing. It was reconstituting itself as the stalwart of the American South, defined by its reaction to Democrats’ embrace of civil rights. To thrive in the new Republican Party, Bush needed to get with the zeitgeist. When he ran for Senate in 1964, he thrashed Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to advance equality: “The new civil-rights act was passed to protect 14 percent of the people. I’m also worried about the other 86 percent.” The notorious Willie Horton ad of 1988, which crudely stoked racial fears, is often dismissed as the handiwork of the consultant Lee Atwater, not an expression of George Bush’s heart. But really it was a plot point consistent with the narrative of his career: A man who wanted to be lauded as a force for racial progress frequently positioned himself on the side of abject racism.
George Bush’s foreign policy was famously realist: Moral values were worth defending, but not at the expense of the national interest. The same could be said of his own career. After so accurately decrying “voodoo economics,” he joined the administration that enshrined them. He stood by Reagan as he opposed sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime, and as the administration mounted a crusade against “reverse discrimination,” an effort to undo affirmative action.
One of the great counterfactuals of American history is pondering what would have happened if George Bush had exerted greater control over the destiny of the Republican Party. What if the moderate Republicans of the late 1950s and early ’60s had aggressively owned the civil-rights agenda—and rendered the cause of racial justice a bipartisan concern? If the Old Money Republicans could have mustered that leadership, and stood firm against the flow of segregationists into their club, it might have precluded the invention of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” and the generations of racialized politics that followed.
Obituaries present George H. W. Bush as the last of the Republican moderates. In reality, he was an archetypal representative of the modern party, a man whose sense of duty failed him when it came to resisting the rise of racially revanchist, libertarian forces. He embodied an Establishment that wrote very nice thank-you notes. But good manners are hardly the same as moral courage; prudence is sometimes hard-hearted. Those who are mourning the passing of the old Establishment should mourn its many failures, too.