Just after midnight on December 1, World AIDS Day, I learned that President George Herbert Walker Bush had died. And I was dismayed not just that the hagiography afforded dead presidents would overshadow Bush’s own appalling legacy on AIDS, but that his death would eclipse the tens of millions of lives we should be remembering today.
When I teach AIDS history, I always show a clip of ACT UP’s October 11, 1992, “ashes action” at the White House, in which brave activists took the cremated bodies of loved ones who had died of AIDS and hurled them onto Bush’s lawn. (If you’ve never seen it, I dare you to watch without crying).
The ashes action is brilliant not just for how raw it was but also for how it held a powerful man to account without civility. (ACT UP had also gone to Bush’s vacation home in Maine, and they hounded him up until the night he lost reelection, when they marched the dead body of Mark Fisher to his campaign headquarters.) For in life—and, sadly, in the first obits, in death—Bush dangerously hid the vast nature of American violence beneath the seductive cloak of civility, that opiate of mass media that gets journalists and readers to let violence go unremarked.
But at a presidential debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot the day after the ashes action, journalist John Mashek asked Bush:
Mr. President, yesterday tens of thousands of people paraded past the White House to demonstrate about their concern about the disease, AIDS. A celebrated member of your commission, Magic Johnson, quit, saying there was too much inaction. Where is this widespread feeling coming from that your administration is not doing enough about AIDS?
Looking annoyed, Bush listed what his administration was doing before saying, seemingly irritated, “I can’t tell you where it’s coming from. I am very much concerned about AIDS. And I believe we have the best researchers in the world at NIH working on the problem.” But then he added:
It’s one of the few diseases where behavior matters. And I once called on somebody, “Well, change your behavior! If the behavior you’re using is prone to cause AIDs, change the behavior!” Next thing I know, one of these ACT UP groups is saying, “Bush ought to change his behavior!” You can’t talk about it rationally!
Bush’s words are not just cruel; they fundamentally misunderstand what causes AIDS and how to effectively address it. Sex—yes, even gay sex—is a part of being human, and the people who died of AIDS did so because of societal neglect, not because of their human acts. And while he was nominally better than his predecessor (a very low bar) at addressing the consequences of AIDS, he’d been unforgivably quiet as Reagan’s vice president.
But as director of the CIA, vice president, and then president, Bush exacerbated the material conditions that allow AIDS to flourish in the first place. For what causes AIDS? And why has it always so disparately affected black people? Medical research and pharmaceutical interventions are important in dealing with the consequences of seroconversion and limiting onward transmission of HIV. But AIDS is caused by broader social problems: homelessness, inadequate access to to health care, political instability, racism, homophobia, and the violence of capitalism. And on these fronts, Bush is guilty; his “behavior matters.” As a former head of the CIA, Bush created political instability in nations around the globe where AIDS would thrive. He hyped up racism with his Willie Horton ad, by replacing civil-rights titan Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court with Clarence Thomas, and by vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1990.
And, of course, in starting the 1991 Iraq War, he set our country on a nearly three-decade-long disaster which has left millions sick, disabled, and dead—many of them LGBTQ soldiers and civilians.
Sadly, gay journalists have been among the worst to immediately whitewash this part of Bush’s legacy. Frank Bruni published a gushing New York Times column on World AIDS Day (“George H.W. Bush’s Uncommon Grace”) without mentioning the words “gay,” “homosexual,” AIDS, or HIV. Meanwhile, over at the gay magazine the Advocate, Neal Broverman headlined his insipid revisionism “George H.W. Bush, No Ally But No Enemy of LGBTQ People, Dead at 94.”
The American desire for civility is so strong that many liberals who were enraged that Trump nominated and stood by Brett Kavanaugh have been silent that Bush nominated and stood by Clarence Thomas. Even in the Me Too era, many seem to be eliding that Bush was recently accused of groping women (while allegedly declaring “I’m David Cop-A-Feel!”).
On World AIDS Day, it would be an unforgivable injury to those who died of AIDS because of Bush’s actions and inactions to let him off the hook. Instead, look at what drove grieving lovers and friends to pour ashes onto Bush’s lawn—and really sit with the violence of American empire embodied by George Herbert Walker Bush.