It’s no surprise that after the death of former president George H.W. Bush we’re seeing media pundits, advocates and popular historians promote a rosy view of his tenure as president. In the era of Donald Trump, there’s a tendency to portray every Republican leader of the past in a nostalgic, sugar-coated way.
The first thing that caught my eye was a report on CNN’s website that included a tweet from the president of Covenant House, a charity that runs shelters across the U.S. for homeless youth and which has a historical connection to the Catholic Church. The tweet included photos of the former president and the late first lady Barbara Bush hugging children, implying that Bush was an important advocate for people with AIDS.
Then I saw a tweet from Yahoo News with a quote from the well-known historian Jon Meacham, describing Bush as a man who “believed that he was not a Republican president — he was a president,” noting that “there’s something very old-fashioned about that.”
Perhaps that was what Bush “believed,” but it was far from the truth. Bush was as captive to the evangelical right on social issues — and thus a decidedly Republican president — as was his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, who cultivated religious conservatives as a potent political force and bowed to their anti-LGBTQ agenda as the AIDS epidemic mushroomed in the 1980s. Reagan’s history of callously ignoring the epidemic while thousands died is well-documented. Bush, at the outset of his term, promised a “kinder, gentler” presidency than the man he’d served under as vice president. He even gave a speech on the AIDS epidemic in 1990, which was long on compassion but short on strategy and commitment to funding. During the speech, in fact, Urvashi Vaid, an invited guest and then the executive director of the prominent National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, now the National LGBTQ Task Force, took the unprecedented and heroic act of standing up and holding a sign, “Talk Is Cheap. AIDS Funding Is Not.”
Bush, in the end, bowed to the same extremists Reagan did when it came to AIDS and LGBTQ rights. As The Washington Post noted, Bush allowed evangelicals to mature as a movement within the GOP after Reagan brought them in, rather than pushing back.
Bush did sign the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protected people with disabilities against discrimination, including people with HIV. And he signed 1990′s Ryan White Care Act — after it passed overwhelmingly in Congress — which federally funded treatment for AIDS for people with little resources. But it took years of work by the indefatigable Democrats Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Henry Waxman, and was too little, too late. By that point, nearly 10 years into the epidemic, 150,000 cases of people with HIV had been reported in the U.S., and 100,000 people had died due to AIDS.
Bush’s administration still dragged its feet on drug treatment and refused to address prevention to the most affected community, gay and bisexual men, which it could have done by simply promoting and funding critical safer sex programs and condom distribution. When ACT UP, the AIDS activist group, targeted Bush in actions at the White House and at his Kennebunkport, Maine, summer retreat, Bush said “behavioral change” was the best way to fight the disease.
Infamously, Bush had said in a television interview that if he had a grandchild who was gay he would “love” the child but would tell the child he wasn’t normal. And like Reagan, he stocked his Cabinet with anti-gay zealots. Health Secretary Louis Sullivan, also protested by ACT UP for his terrible response to HIV, joined forces with evangelical leaders to cover up a government-funded study on teen suicide that found LGBTQ teens were at much higher risk.
While Bush signed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act in 1990, which allowed for collecting data on anti-gay hate crimes in addition to other hate-motivated crimes, and signed a measure that struck “sexual deviation” from an immigration law used to ban LGBTQ immigrants, he took a hard turn to the far right when conservative commentator and former Reagan aide Pat Buchanan scared him with a strong challenge in the 1992 Republican primaries.
And after Buchanan, who Bush offered a prime slot at the Republican National Convention in Houston, gave his infamous “culture war” speech, declaring there is a “religious war” in this country, and attacking, among others, the “militant homosexual rights movement,” Bush refused to denounce the speech and instead publicly denounced same-sex marriage, which was nowhere near a reality at the time. This prompted even the Log Cabin Republicans, the largest gay GOP group, to refuse to endorse him.
Meanwhile, the GOP platform that year condemned anti-discrimination statutes protecting gays and lesbians, and, responding to Democratic nominee Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to end the ban on gays serving in the military, adopted a plank banning gay service.
The military issue is instructive in defining the legacy Bush left and the direction he took the GOP on LGBTQ rights. In 1991, I wrote a controversial article for The Advocate, revealing that the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, Pete Williams — the face of the Gulf War, on television every day during the conflict— was gay while not public about it, even though the Pentagon was ejecting gay men and lesbians from the military, claiming at the time that they were susceptible to blackmail (even, illogically, if they were openly gay).
A policy that dated back decades, the gay military ban was coming under scrutiny in the Bush years because more and more people were coming out of the closet — and being thrown out of the military. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who had hand-picked Williams as his loyal aide, was put on the spot about my Williams revelation in an interview with Sam Donaldson on ABC News. Cheney responded by distancing himself from the anti-gay policy, saying he “inherited” it, confirming his aide would not be made to resign and stating that government employees have a right to keep government from intruding on their “private lives.”
This was seen by many as a positive indication that the Bush administration was chipping away at the gay military ban, especially as Cheney in that same week had called the policy an “old chestnut” when asked about it by openly gay Rep. Barney Frank. These actions are what inspired candidate Clinton to promise to overturn the ban, courting gay voters during the campaign.
But the Bush administration took no concrete action to change the policy, and a year later, as Buchanan threatened Bush, the president went in the complete opposite direction, doubling down on the demonization of LGBTQ people.
If Bush had come into office with perhaps a vague ambition that he might move away from the harsh Reagan years, with its religious morality crusade, he left the presidency having paved the way for his own son’s even more anti-LGBTQ administration, firmly ensconcing religious conservative power within the Republican party.