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Why Do We Speak Ill of the Dead?

For people who exercise great power, accountability after death is a small price to pay.
Former President George W. Bush walks past President Donald Trump to speak during the state funeral for his father, George H.W. Bush, at the National Cathedral on December 5th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Former President George W. Bush walks past President Donald Trump to speak during the state funeral for his father, George H.W. Bush, at the National Cathedral on December 5th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Former President George H.W. Bush was buried earlier this month in an extravagant and lengthy service. His funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., began on the morning of December 5th, and the service stretched well into the afternoon. I was a child of no political consciousness during the era of George H.W. Bush's presidency, but I've come to realize that the narrative of a politician's life, work, and legacy shifts aggressively once they leave power.

I first learned this lesson in the years after President George W. Bush left office. The tenure of W. Bush was riddled with notorious failures, including his response to Hurricane Katrina, and was marked indelibly by a disastrous war, which remains a stain on the country. In the years since his presidency, the story of George W. Bush had been reframed: He's now a painter who depicts foreign potentates, but also American veterans. W. Bush and Michelle Obama have forged a lasting bond, and the former first lady has said: "I love him to death. He's a wonderful man, he's a funny man."

There is a softening that happens around presidents when they leave office. Some of it is simple enough to explain away: The minute a public servant becomes a private citizen, there is naturally less scrutiny around how that person moves through the world. But with W. Bush, there was a special and widespread enthusiasm behind the impulse to rebrand him at the dawn of the Donald Trump era, when suddenly both Bushes got to benefit from not looking as bad by comparison. (It does bear mentioning that H.W. Bush voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. W. Bush apparently left his presidential ballot blank.)

Earlier this year, John McCain passed away after a long life of military and political service. In the hours after his passing, while waves of tributes rolled in, there were those who felt it vital to remind the public of moments when McCain had been less than noble: How he had endorsed or enabled harmful policies, or how he sometimes hadn't used his power to protect people from obvious harm. I sometimes find myself wondering if this real-time reframing in opposition to memorials does as much to serve the public as it does to detract from the dead.

Accordingly, when the news of George H.W. Bush's death began to spread, the common impulse was to eulogize his grandest moments; in less than a week's time, two op-eds were written bemoaning Bush as the last of the WASPs in the White House, and wondering if or when another worthy WASP might return. At the same time, it made sense to see immediate pushback from writers and activists, asking people to remember where Bush Sr. had failed the country: his inaction on the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early '90s, for example. Critics do this type of corrective work so that history isn’t lost in the immediate moments of emotion that follow a death. It occurs to me that perhaps there is no greater tribute than naming someone as who they were—their whole self—before laying them to rest.

There is no way to govern a country founded on violence without taking on and enacting some of that violence yourself, be it structural violence, or literally directing a war. No president, no member of congress, no Supreme Court justice walks away from their post unscathed by lasting complicity in various national shames. But in our current era, past politicians are now measured in relation to Trump's very particular style. In this way, even the least celebrated of Republican presidents before Trump will get a leg up on their legacy, simply by having demonstrated the decorum that Trump so famously lacks. And so, a form of resistance is to push back on the idea that everyone who is not Trump is inherently good, or that death lets you off the hook for the way history should see and talk about your full self.

Death is complicated. It is easy to unfurl a scroll of the departed's worst moments and share them on social media, where, most of the time, you won't have to face their loved ones, who knew them differently than many of us did. But that's the whole point of it all. Most of us have to live in the world that Bush and the rest of them made. Accountability and honesty beyond their living years is a small concession to grant.