My mother taught me not to speak ill of the dead or wish anyone dead. However, it’s not always acceptable to beatify someone just because they died, especially an elected official, a public figure, such as former President George H.W. Bush, who passed on Saturday, December 1.
Various pundits, observers, friends and those who worked for Bush remember him as a dedicated public servant who had the best interests of his country at heart, and someone who was devoted to his family.
But there were things that Bush was involved in that were far from saintly or in the best interests of the U.S. They include:
- The Willie Horton presidential campaign strategy of 1988. To defeat Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who was Bush’s Democratic opponent in the presidential race, Bush campaign director Lee Atwater came up with the case of Willie Horton, a Black prisoner in the state who was serving a life sentence for murder. While on a weekend furlough, he fled to Maryland, where he raped a white woman. The case was magnified and repeated ad nauseum in a Bush campaign ad, terrifying people into thinking that as President, Dukakis would be “soft on crime.” which really meant soft on Black criminals. Bush took advantage of white voters’ unfounded fears, and won on the strength of that ad.
- The faked “drug buy” in Lafayette Park across from the White House. During a live speech to the nation on drug crimes in September 1989, Bush held up a plastic bag of crack cocaine to indicate that drug abuse was so widespread and uncontrollable that drugs were being bought and sold across the street from the White House in Lafayette Park. Turns out that government agents got the bag under false pretenses. Pretending to be drug users, and bought the bag from a dealer who they then arrested. Bush used the bag as justification for harsher sentences and building more prisons. Today, prison inmates, who are disproportionately Black men, are serving inordinately long sentences for drug sales and possession, while whites serve much shorter sentences for the same crimes, if they serve at all.
- Bush participated in the Iran-Contra cover-up. Begun under President Reagan, the U.S. secretly sold arms to Iran — which the U.S. and the world was supposed to be barred by law from doing — and used the proceeds to fund the Nicaraguan “contras” or counter-revolutionaries, attempting to overthrow the country’s popularly elected government. That government happened to be left of center. The Reagan/Bush Cold War mentality claimed that if Nicaragua became Communist, so would the rest of Central America, and the region would provide a home to Soviet and Cuban weapons of war. The Sandinista government wasn’t interested in doing any of that, and found itself struggling to feed and educate its people — many of whom are Black and indigenous or “Indian” — while fighting in a war. The arms sales and the cover-up continued when Bush became President. He refused to turn over any information or documents to an Iran-Contra investigation, and even pardoned some defendants involved in Iran-Contra, among them, Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger.
Among the worst “hits” was the assassination of former Chilean ambassador to the U.S. Orlando Letelier, and his assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, in Washington, D.C. on what’s called “Embassy Row,” a section of the city where many nations operate their U.S. embassies.
Leterlier was a very active and vocal opponent of Chile’s ruling dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, who led the 1973 military coup overthrowing the elected, leftist government of Salvadore Allende. Again, fearing a “Communist takeover” of the country, which would do business with Cuba, the Soviet Union, and other left governments — countries that the U.S. couldn’t control — the CIA played a role in Allende’s overthrow and Pinochet’s becoming Chile’s leader. Bush was the CIA’s director at the time.
Pinochet was incensed that Letelier was thriving in the U.S. and increasing opposition to his regime. He contacted an American expatriate who was working with DINA, Pinochet’s secret police, to stop Letelier. The American DINA operative formed a group of assassins with three Cuban Americans, and two other men, who planted a bomb on the underside of Letelier’s car, which could be detonated by remote control. And it was — on September 21, 1976, as Letelier was driving to his job at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank. What was left of the car is depicted in the above photo. The impact of the bomb was said to have severed Letelier’s legs, and blown off his torso. Moffitt’s larynx and carotid artery were severed by a bomb fragment. She choked to death on her own blood. Letlier also died from his injuries. Moffitt’s husband Michael, who was sitting in the car’s back seat, sustained minor injuries.
After the assassinations, the CIA, under Bush, leaked false information to Newsweek magazine that DINA was not involved in the assassination. But the CIA knew beforehand that something was about to happen when it found that Chilean operatives were headed to the U.S. Those involved in the assassinations were tried and given short prison sentences in exchange for information. All were eventually acquitted.
As a Black woman I am also outraged that Bush was silent during his presidency about the brutal, white, apartheid regime in South Africa — supposedly to give South African President DeKlerk the space he needed to “reform” apartheid before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his election as South Africa’s first Black President.
As a Black woman whose ancestors experienced the terrorism of U.S.-style apartheid and enslavement, I am livid that he allowed another country’s murderers to operate in my adopted city. And I hate that Bush would not hesitate to use Black people and other people of color as “monsters” to scare his base into supporting him and his policies.
I cannot forgive or forget these incidents involving Bush. Any tears I shed this week won’t be in mourning for him. They will be for the people he hurt.