George H.W. Bush died at his home in Houston, Texas, on Friday night, launching a blizzard of obituaries praising his legacy and successful stewardship of the country as a one-term president. But it is not too soon to talk about the accusations by eight women that Bush Sr. touched them inappropriately.
Sexual harassment or assault can’t be bracketed off as part of a politician’s private life. It’s an important part of the story of their leadership, their use of power, and their policy. The same is true for Bush.
Relatively little has been made of the accusations against Bush since they emerged last year. A woman initially accused Bush of groping her and telling her a dirty joke as she stood beside him, seated in a wheelchair, for a photo op. The family responded, suggesting the aging former president might be slipping a bit. “President Bush has been confined to a wheelchair for roughly five years, so his arm falls on the lower waist of people with whom he takes pictures,” a spokesperson, Jim McGrath, said on Bush’s behalf.
But then the story changed. More women came forward describing incidents that took place before Bush was in a wheelchair and even while he was in office. One woman described a credible story dating back to 1992, when she says that Bush, then the president, put his hand on her rear end while taking a photograph at a reelection fundraiser. Another woman described an incident from 2003, when she was 16 years old — and Bush was still spry, zipping around Kennebunkport, Maine, on a Segway.
“All the focus has been on ‘He’s old.’ OK, but he wasn’t old when it happened to me,” the woman, now 55 told CNN. “I’ve been debating what to do about it.”
The same spokesperson offered up a new version of the behavior, admitting, yes, Bush has done what he’s accused of, but it was innocent — he “has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner.”
The women who spoke out feel differently. In each case, the accuser was excited to meet a political figure, someone who’s supposed to represent them; then, they said, he groped them. In that moment, they became second-class citizens. While their brothers or husbands or male friends might have gotten a handshake and a thumbs-up from this powerful man and walked away feeling good about themselves and their relationship with their government, these women were put in their place.
Bush Sr.’s damage went beyond the individual interactions. One of his most consequential decisions as president was to nominate and then stand by Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court in 1991, despite claims by several women of sexual harassment. Bush declared “I have total confidence” in Thomas as the saga unfolded.
The Thomas confirmation battle could have been a turning point in American history, one where women’s rights in the workplace and in the public square vaulted forward. Instead, Bush chose to side with a man whom multiple women described harassing them. He sent a message to America that women should not be believed.
The legacy of the Thomas confirmation has persisted right up until this year when Brett Kavanaugh survived a Supreme Court confirmation hearing where a credible woman described how he attempted to rape her when they were high school friends. The current president, who has also been accused of abusing women, followed in his predecessor’s footsteps and stood right by Kavanaugh too. He embraced the precedent.
As we struggle with what comes next in the #MeToo movement, we need to think big — that means not just how we punish individual bad actors, but how we change our culture and the systems that work against change. Seismic change like this requires leadership. It requires new policy, of course, but it means changing hearts and minds too.
Those we entrust with power need to stand up for all of us. Bush could have in 1991. He could have each time he met a woman who wanted to participate in public life.
Bush’s record on domestic and foreign policy is laudable in many ways, and it deserves the praise it’s receiving now. Even on women’s rights, he can take credit for the nomination of David Souter to the Supreme Court and for signing the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to track and disclose sexual assaults on campus. But accusations about how he allegedly used or abused his power to diminish women should be as much a part of our assessment of his legacy.
It’s right to remember
There’s always a debate in moments like this about whether it is appropriate to “speak ill of the dead.” Discussing Bush’s alleged behavior is not speaking ill of him. It’s not a slight or a smear. It’s part of his legacy, whether or not we like it.
This is a moment to look at the legacy of a man who held the most powerful position in the world and assess how he used that power. The rights of women (and men) to participate in public life without fear of harassment or violence is fundamental. It’s how we make our country greater. The more contributions from the more people, the better we become.
Bush’s accusers describe a pattern of behavior that did the very opposite. They describe excitement to meet a public official, only to feel disgusted, embarrassed, or angry.
“He knows the power he has, and the reverence he deserves, even while sitting perhaps somewhat senile in a wheelchair,” said Jordana Grolnick, who said that Bush told her a dirty joke (that several other women independently said he’d told them too) and put his hand on her rear end while taking a photo a few years ago.
Another woman, whose father was in the CIA, said she was 16 when her parents took her to an intelligence event in Texas and was looking forward to meeting the former president, until he groped her.
“My initial reaction was absolute horror. I was really, really confused,” Roslyn Corrigan told Time about an encounter she said happened when she was 16 and Bush was 79. “The first thing I did was look at my mom and, while he was still standing there, I didn’t say anything. What does a teenager say to the ex-president of the United States? Like, ‘Hey dude, you shouldn’t have touched me like that?’”
Bush was entrusted with power. As we assess his contributions, it’s worth remembering he chose to use that power against half of us.