I’ve been sitting here watching all of America lose it’s mind for the past five days, extolling the virtues of former President and World War II Navy Hero George Herbert Walker Bush, who passed away peacefully last Friday at the age of ninety-four surrounded by loved ones and family. Pundits, historians, former aides and journalists have paraded across the networks, the newspapers, the internet lauding his elder statesmanship, his humility and kindness, the love and devotion to and of his family, his dog, his Secret Service detail, and that kid he shaved his head for. And I’ll admit that I got suckered for a second, too, tearing up like some pro-America fanboi reading the Times’ piece on the unlikely friendship between Bush and Dana Carvey. I can’t tell you how fucking ashamed I am at that. That assumes, though, that normal rules apply, here. But we’re living in Dump Truck Donnie’s America where everyone is starving for something decent, for some sign of humanity in our politics, so I’m cutting myself a break.
I saw an interview air this week with his Today show special correspondent granddaughter in which the elderly President scoffed at the word, “legacy,” and humbly professed that it was for someone else to determine such things. Some have said it’s his signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Ryan White CARE Act, both in 1990; some have pointed to his being a World War II President; a shrewd diplomat. For me, the legacy of President George Herbert Walker Bush is the North Lawn of the White House and what occurred there in October 1992.
Much is made of the body after death and the rituals performed around it that commemorate our lives. It’s one of the few things we can claim in common across every continent, across every culture and all beliefs, a bond of our humanity. Some of us want to be able to spread our loved one’s ashes over a cherished meadow or mountain vista, leaving our loved ones a place to visit. Some want to have the option of having the casket open, their face reflecting a drifting off, enveloped in love and in care, having lived a full life. Just like George Herbert Walker Bush did. Reality, though, is likely to be a different story — affected profoundly by one’s class, race, one’s membership in certain demographic groups.
Now consider the level of anger, of desperation, it must take a person to ask their parents, or their siblings, or the lover they’re about to leave behind to inter their remains in such a manner.
Then consider now, the amount of love as a parent, as a sibling or friend, as a lover left behind you would have to see your loved one’s final wish to fruition.
These were people that, more often than not, died young. And, more often than not, they were people likely to be abandoned by their families, by their doctors, employers. They would not die peacefully at the golden age of ninety-four, but ravaged by Kaposi’s Sarcoma in their twenties, intellect melted in dementia, wasted into living skeletons, shunned by the greater world around them — all results of the inaction and inadequate policies of both the Reagan and Bush Administrations.
I came out the year the Ashes Action took place and it wasn’t an, “oh, by the way…” sort of thing. I sat down with people, one by one — mostly folks I knew from my Catholic church, the moms of the kids I knew from choir and babysat. And it wasn’t just for myself, it was for my brothers and my sisters that were sick. It was the political act begun in the seventies by Harvey Milk. You came out to the people you knew from home, from the suburbs we grew up in, to show regular people that we were, you know, human. Human beings worthy of understanding and love and respect. This was the world George H.W. Bush left us to navigate.
I was lucky I wasn’t alone. He’d come out to me first and then I took my turn in the next breath. He would be dead five years later and now he is twenty-seven forever.
So if you ever happen to be in Washington, D.C., walking past the North Lawn of the White House, know that there are souls resting there, souls who didn’t have to be but who gave their bodies to be laid at the doorstep of the house of the people. This is the legacy of George Herbert Walker Bush.
ashes action, act up, october 1992; archival footage here.