On October 10, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia unironically announced that former vice president Joseph Biden would present Laura and George W. Bush the Liberty Medal “for their commitment to veterans.”
The 43rd president was indeed committed to veterans, just not in a way that typically garners awards. His wars, which are still producing veterans, turned members of the military into mass killers and torturers and then left many homeless or disabled when they returned home. Bush’s “commitment to veterans” manifested itself even before he became president: After not serving in Vietnam himself, he watched silently as the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth repeatedly and mendaciously defamed his veteran rival for the White House, Senator John Kerry.
The Constitution Center’s choice to honor a president who so blatantly disrespected the Constitution and Biden’s decision to help ignore his ugly history show how successful the “character-laundering operation” (to borrow a phrase from my brother, James) of the Trump administration has been. Even Democrats are rehabilitating Bush.
Biden is perpetuating the dangerous fiction that Trump is so outrageous that we should be nostalgic for the Bush presidency—no matter that Bush promoted many of the same racist practices of war, environmental deregulations, and anti-poor tax plans as the Trump administration.
Then, on October 11, the wife of Biden’s former boss also praised Bush. Speaking about a much-discussed moment when he handed her a cough drop, Michelle Obama described Bush as “my partner in crime”—an interesting choice of words, considering Bush was literally convicted of war crimes in absentia by the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission in 2012.
The Bushes have no business receiving an award for liberty or their fealty to the Constitution—this should not be controversial. Abroad, Bush launched two unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The former has now been going on for so long, Americans born after the day that triggered that war are now old enough to serve in it. The latter has left hundreds of thousands if not more than a million civilians dead.
Bush’s wars have sent 3 million Americans into occupied war zones, with about 7,000 of them not coming back alive and record numbers returning injured in body or mind. Bush’s lawyers flouted both the Geneva Convention’s provisions against torture and the US Constitution’s provisions against cruel-and-unusual punishment. But Bush did not only desecrate the ideals of the Constitution in foreign war; he did it at home with queer people, too. Biden—who publicly endorsed same-sex marriage before Barack Obama and was a keynote speaker at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual gala just last month—should think again about bestowing a Liberty Medal upon a man who repeatedly tried to rewrite the Constitution itself in order to enshrine gay bigotry in our nation’s highest legal document. As governor of Texas, Bush also supported the state’s criminalization of sodomy.
Biden’s choice to embrace the Bushes is hypocritical, considering that there might not have been an Obama-Biden administration without Bush’s catastrophes. To paraphrase comedian Chris Rock, Bush’s disastrous military campaigns, his destruction of the economy, his mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, and the chaos these all created were so terrible, “he made it hard for a white man to run for president!” Obama’s prior stance against the Iraq War helped distinguish himself in a crowded Democratic primary field when he was running against Hillary Clinton and Biden, both who voted for the war in 2002.
Still, the process of rehabilitating the Bush White House began with Barack Obama, when he declined to prosecute John Yoo, the author of the so-called “torture memo,” and Bush’s other warmongering advisers. Trump has further helped refurbish their images by being so crude and ignorant that he has duped large swaths of the liberal ruling class in the government and media into a wistfulness for Bush.
“I love him to death,” Michelle Obama said of Bush. “He’s a wonderful man.” But like her bromide that “when they go low, we go high,” the former first lady’s public declaration of love of former president Bush is dangerous politics. For Biden and Michelle Obama’s embrace of the Bushes doesn’t just bring shame upon themselves. Coming so close to the midterm elections, they threaten to discourage would-be Democratic voters who are suspicious that there really isn’t any difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. They are giving evidence to the belief that, at the end of the day, there are no consequences for the powerful.
Biden’s bestowing a medal on George W. Bush is an act of political and moral nihilism. Too often in the United States, we are told to be civil when we should be having robust, impassioned political fights. Biden’s bestowing an award on George and Laura Bush is a civil thing to do. But civility is a poor substitute for accountability, liberation, or informed dissent. Civility is born of colonialism, in which “civil” activities like drinking high tea or eating with your silverware set in a certain arrangement were used by colonialists to mark their alleged superiority and justify the slaughter of nonwhite people.
With an election at stake, leaders of the Democratic Party should not be civil to Republican leaders, nor should they be revising the GOP’s violent histories. Instead, the leaders of the opposition should be highlighting Republican cruelty and offering a genuinely different vision for a more humane future.