Since his death on Friday at the age of 94, former President George H.W. Bush has been praised repeatedly as the antithesis of President Donald Trump.
“Bush was an ambitious politician, but he also was self-effacing and reluctant to personalize the achievements of his administration,” wrote Michael McGough at the Los Angeles Times. “For Trump, everything is about Trump.”
Bush’s “currency of personal connection was the handwritten letter — not the social media blast,” wrote Karen Tumulty at the Washington Post, a clear dig aimed at Trump’s love of Twitter.
The 41st and 45th presidents may have differed greatly in their approach to politics. But when it comes to their legacies, one thing is exactly the same: Both nominated men to the Supreme Court who would be accused of sexual misconduct, and both stood behind those men in their confirmation battles.
Clarence Thomas has now served on the Supreme Court for 27 years, his decisions affecting Americans long after Bush, a one-term president, left office. Brett Kavanaugh is also likely to serve on the Court for decades, long outlasting Trump’s presidency no matter what happens in 2020.
For anyone who doubts the importance of Kavanaugh’s appointment, now is a time to remember that a president’s Supreme Court a lifelong appointment to the Supreme Court is one of the most consequential decisions a president can make. And its impact is a lot more enduring than the manners — or lack thereof — a president displays while in office.
Bush defended Clarence Thomas after he was accused of sexual harassment
Bush’s nomination of Thomas was controversial from the beginning. When Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice on the Supreme Court, announced his retirement in 1991, “Bush could have honored his legacy by naming a respected African-American judge or legal scholar such as Amalya Kearse or Leon Higginbotham,” wrote David Greenberg at Politico in a remembrance of Bush published after his death. “But he selected a staunch conservative in Clarence Thomas—served up with the implausible assertion that he was the most qualified person for the job.”
Bush had previously appointed moderate David Souter to the Court, Greenberg notes, so he might have been expected to replace Marshall with a centrist. Instead, Bush picked Thomas, who today is known as the most conservative member of the Court, perhaps even to the right of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
After Thomas was nominated, news broke of Anita Hill’s allegations against him: She said that when the two worked together at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission he had repeatedly subjected her to unwanted sexual comments, including a joke about a pubic hair on a Coke can.
Bush was undeterred. On October 9, 1991, he declared that he had “total confidence” in his nominee, Politico reports. And on October 11, after Hill and Thomas testified before the Senate, he called Thomas’s statement “very powerful and convincing” and said the nominee had been smeared, according to the Associated Press.
“In my view, he will be confirmed,” Bush said. “And in the end, he will get his good name back.”
Hill, meanwhile, was mocked and criticized in the press and in the Senate, famously called “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”
As Vox’s Laura McGann writes, “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 who multiple women described harassing them.” Of course, Bush would later face sexual misconduct allegations of his own.
Thomas was confirmed on October 15, 1991. He went on to vote consistently against abortion rights, in such cases as Gonzales v. Carhart, which in 2007 upheld a ban on so-called “partial-birth abortions.” In a joint opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in 1992, he wrote that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided.
He also voted with the majority in 2010’s Citizens United v. FEC, leading to an explosion of Super PAC spending and dark money in elections, as Vox’s Andrew Prokop has noted. And in 2000’s Bush v. Gore, his vote helped George H.W. Bush’s son become president of the United States.
At 70, Thomas likely has years left on the Court. (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the oldest justice, is 85.) And while Thomas is not necessarily considered influential — famously, he has written few opinions — his vote continues to matter. Now that Kavanaugh and Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch sit on the Court, anti-abortion advocates believe they have enough votes to overturn Roe. Perhaps the surest of those votes is Thomas, a staunch opponent of abortion throughout his career. Without him, opponents of abortion on the Court might still be one short of a majority.
When it comes to the Supreme Court, Trump’s legacy might look a lot like Bush’s
Many have commented on the similarities between Thomas’s confirmation process and Kavanaugh’s. Those similarities extend to the role of the president.
Bush, as many obituary writers have pointed out, is more polished than Trump. But Trump’s defenses of Kavanaugh in many ways mirrored Bush’s defense of Thomas.
“A man’s life is in tatters. A man’s life is shattered,” Trump said of the allegations against Kavanaugh, echoing Bush’s claim that Thomas had been smeared and should be allowed to clear his name.
Trump also publicly mocked Christine Blasey Ford, who said that Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were in high school, making fun of her for being unable to remember certain details of the evening she described. Bush didn’t do the same to Hill, but he may have had a role in the way she was mocked by others.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who covered the Bush White House, lays some of the blame for Hill’s treatment on the late former president in a remembrance published Sunday: “his White House directed the defense of his Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, that tried to discredit Anita Hill,” she writes.
And now that Brett Kavanaugh has been confirmed, the effect of Trump’s and Bush’s defenses will be the same. Both men have succeeded in pushing onto the Court someone accused of sexual misconduct against a woman, whose decisions will affect all American women — indeed, all Americans, for decades to come.
Bush may have been polite where Trump is crude, restrained where Trump is over-the-top. But a look at today’s Supreme Court is a reminder that when it comes to a president’s legacy, style matters less than substance. And there are few decisions more substantial than the decision of what kind of person deserves to spend his or her life on the country’s highest court, handing down rulings that can shape the country for generations.