To demonize or canonize: The postmortem treatment of politicians and presidents

Scott Rainey

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, died on Friday.

Statesmen, politicians, presidents, close friends and family shared their memories of him following his death. Many heralded him as “the last gentleman,” a selfless patriot, a pragmatist and a great leader. Others criticized his traditionally conservative ideology, his use of Willie Horton in a campaign ad, his poor record on civil rights, his foreign policy decisions that violated international law and led to the deaths of Iraqis and Panamanians, and his negligent actions

that perpetuated problems in the Middle East following his presidency.

While it’s easy, we must not demonize or canonize the politicians and presidents who die, instead, we must humanize them. We must understand that they had hopes, dreams and accomplishments — they’ve helped many in their country and state. We must also understand that they have made huge mistakes — they’ve hurt people, demonized people, used others as political means and set forth bad policies that stem from misguided ideologies.

If we only focus on one or the other, we won’t get the full picture. When we don’t get the full picture, how can we learn from the accomplishments and mistakes of those who came before us? This is why history is such an important teacher. Just like you can learn something from everyone if you’re looking for it, you can also decide someone is evil if you’re looking for it.

If we, as Americans, really want to see the country and the world become a better place, then we must make sure to humanize everyone, especially those we disagree with.

Bryan Stevenson, a wonderful and renowned civil rights lawyer who represents inmates on death row, said in his TED Talk that he believes “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” This is an incredibly important thing to consider when choosing to demonize a public official for their actions.

Do we deserve to demonize them? After all, we have never violated international law, but we’ve also never been the president. We’ve never had to face the decisions that our presidents have to face each day. We also don’t have to directly deal with our own political and military history in the way that presidents and other politicians do while they serve their time in office.

We have, however, made decisions that were bad for us and bad for others. Does this make us bad people? I don’t think it does.

You can decide that everyone is inherently bad, and live a life where you’re constantly scared by what others might do to you or what evils lurk in our country’s statehouses and Washington, D.C. You can also decide that humans are amazing, interesting and deeply complex creatures who are basically trying to do good for one another when they aren’t swept up in the politics of hate and fear. Choosing the latter will allow you to lead a richer life.

 Scott Rainey is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].