Some things improve in afterlife

Reading the press accolades for the late President George H.W. Bush, it was difficult to reconcile today’s “revered statesman” with the “wimp” label the media pinned on him in office.

As vice president and then president in the 1980s and early 1990s, Bush was portrayed by the press as an out-of-touch bumbler, a national joke on late-night TV and in newsrooms. White House correspondents delighted in catching Bush in gaffes and in pointing out what, in their liberal view, were his wrong-headed policy positions, which was just about all of them.

Bush’s call for a “kinder, gentler” nation was mocked at the time, as was his “thousand points of light” statement. His Iraq War victory was condemned for not going far enough. His speeches and debating skills were panned. Nearly everything he said or did came up short as viewed through the liberal prism of the mainstream press.

Only in death did the press grasp Bush’s “uncommon decency and kindness,” his “greatness.” Part of that, of course, is the natural inclination to speak well of the dead. Plus, the better Bush looks, the worse the media can make President Donald Trump look by comparison.

Besides, the recent media praise touched mainly on Bush’s character, not on his politics and positions, which the press still finds as repugnant as ever. In fact, the press didn’t care much for Bush’s character in office either.

The same thing happens to all Republicans. They don’t get their due until they’re long out of office or in the grave — that is, when it no longer matters politically. You don’t praise an adversary while you’re battling him, only when he’s put out to pasture or laid to rest.

Bush’s Republican predecessors were all widely disparaged in office. Only years after serving did their true abilities and qualities come to light. Turns out they were all more engaged, eloquent and concerned for the common good than the working press ever gave them credit for when they were in the arena.

Dwight Eisenhower was in far greater control than reported during his two terms in office. Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon turns out to have been the right move. Ronald Reagan was a more introspective thinker than the amiable dunce he was portrayed to be. Even Bush 41 began to take on an elder statesman air in recent years, a far cry from his media reputation while in office.

But if the post-White House and posthumous accolades for Bush and the others are accurate, what does that make the consistently negative coverage they received while in office? To use today’s term, a lot of it was fake news.

Despite what the left tells you, fake news is not defined simply as whatever the Trump administration dislikes. Nor does it just mean factual inaccuracies. It also includes partisan journalism that paints a consistently inaccurate or incomplete picture of a person, an idea, an agenda or an action.

It is because of partisanship that the left calls Fox News faux news. It’s not Fox’s factual errors, although it makes its share, but its obvious right-wing slant that makes Fox fake, false, fabricated in the eyes of the left and the mainstream press.

But that works both ways. The liberal bias in the mainstream media is just as pervasive as the conservative bias at Fox. Right-wing leaders never receive kinder, gentler treatment from mainstream outlets until it no longer matters. Right-wing agendas never do. That is why so many conservatives consider the mainstream press an adversary if not an outright enemy.

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Democrats have to really mess up in office before they get condemnation in the mainstream press. A figure like Barack Obama, no matter how many lies he told or mistakes he made, was treated in and out of office as a god. Even Bill Clinton, who did mess up in office, was always treated by the press as a statesman, a political wunderkind whose ideas were embraced, not condemned. Bush 41 was years out of politics before he began to see any sort of respect.

Of course, to do other than praise Bush as he lay in state would have been unbecoming and drawn tremendous criticism of any news organization that did so. Americans do like their pomp-filled state funerals and presidential send-offs. Thus the press became less divisive for a week. That could continue going forward, but don’t count on it.

When Donald Trump’s time comes, even his death coverage might be milder than the raging insanity that passes for coverage of him now.

Then again, maybe not. Trump would be lucky to get Nixonian consideration in the casket. At least Nixon had diplomatic skills and a wide knowledge of issues.


Mark Godburn is a bookseller in Norfolk and the author of “Nineteenth-Century Dust-Jackets” (2016).