As another elder statesman dies and the nation is caught in the grip of another bout of panegyrics, it’s worth stepping back to concentrate on the individual lives that they touched during their time in the halls of power. For George Herbert Walker Bush, specifically, that means considering also the plight of Keith Jackson.
In 1989, Jackson was a high school senior in Anacostia, southeast DC, living in one of the worst zip codes in the country. Like many of his peers, Jackson was a low-level drug dealer, one of the smallest cogs in a larger machine, like the Baltimore towers in The Wire. Crucially, he had reached his 18th birthday when the federal government started setting him up for a presidential publicity stunt.
See, George Bush, seemingly desperate to prove he was man enough to live up to his successor, wanted a set piece to kick off his own extension of Reagan’s War on Drugs. So his staff came up with the idea of busting someone for selling crack cocaine—still the drug warrior’s enemy of choice—in the shadow of the White House.
Bush demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts.
DEA agents offered up Jackson as a patsy. He’d been on their radar for months—so if selling drugs in and of itself was really such a big deal, they could have grabbed him at any point (and then he’d be replaced by another young slinger with no other prospects, and then another, ad infinitum). No, he was only worth it if he could be sacrificed for a higher purpose, like making a weedy, “wimpy” Massachusetts desk-occupier look like a tough guy. That purpose in hand, the undercover DEA agent on Jackson’s case asked him to meet at Lafayette Park, promising an extra premium to lure Jackson to Northwest DC, where black residents of the city almost never went. (As a measure of how stratified and segregated DC society was at the time — not to mention how complete the failure of the educational system — when the undercover DEA agent asked Jackson to meet him in the park across from the White House, Jackson didn’t know where that was until piecing together that it was “where Reagan lives,” and he was hesitant to make the trip because one thing he did know is how much greater the police presence would be in Official DC.)
The purchase took place on September 1, and on September 5 Bush was holding up a plastic baggie of crack cocaine during a White House address, noting that it had been “seized” (not bought) just across the street. He demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts. He got all of those things, often in connection with mandatory minimum laws that eliminated judicial discretion in sentencing (and which perpetuated a nonsensical divide in sentencing between powdered and crack cocaine, the burden of which fell almost entirely on the black community).
If George Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it.
Keith Jackson was one of those who fell prey to a mandatory minimum. The DEA arrested him, not at the sale for whatever reason, but immediately after Bush’s speech. After his first two trials ended in hung juries, a third trial saw him convicted and sentenced to a legally-mandated decade in prison without parole. The judge in the case, uncomfortable with the mode of Jackson’s entrapment, urged him to ask the president for a commutation. But Bush had almost immediately washed his hands of the matter: facing criticism from a variety of sources including even those had a stake in the Drug War’s continuance (like the head of the city’s police union), Bush said, “I cannot feel sorry for [Jackson]. I’m sorry, they ought not to be peddling these insidious drugs that ruin the children of this country.” And so, for the crime of selling 2.4 grams of crack cocaine to another consenting adult in a place where there had been no recorded drug busts in the past, Keith Jackson served almost eight years in prison.
What happened to him after that point is not known. One doubts that Bush ever dwelt on Jackson or any other of the thousands affected by yet another surge in the War on Drugs—young men and occasionally women losing their futures to ruthless sentencing guidelines and the economic incentives of incarceration, or often just their lives to police enforcement or to the criminal turf wars that invariably follow the artificial limiting of a highly in-demand substance. Add in the families and communities that depended on this suddenly absent and incarcerated generation, and it’s hundreds of thousands if not millions.
But if Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it, as the Iraqi people had ample opportunity to learn. In the rush to war with one-time American ally (indeed, almost appointee) Saddam Hussein over the invasion of Kuwait, Bush infamously allowed himself to be swayed by the testimony of a supposed refugee of the conflict, known only as Nayirah, who spoke of Iraqi soldiers raiding Kuwaiti hospitals, pulling prematurely born infants out of incubators and tossing them aside to die. By the time it was discovered that Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., and the entire thing had been organized by an American PR firm in the employ of the Kuwaiti government, the war was already over — though its repercussions will persist long after our lifetimes.
Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair.
An estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and an unknown number of civilians were killed in that first Gulf War, with the particular highlight of the Highway of Death, in which American forces blockaded and massacred retreating Iraqi forces, as well as any civilians unfortunate enough to be within cluster bomb range. Content with this level of slaughter, Bush called off hostilities the next day—a point in his favor, perhaps, when compared to those overseeing the unceasing carnage of today’s forever wars. But Bush hardly had clean hands before this, having already orchestrated an illegal invasion of Panama. Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair; it will be decades though, if ever, before we learn just how deeply he was implicated.
There’s much else to dislike about the elder Bush and the legacy he is leaving behind, in particular his enablement of many awful people. You can draw a direct line from his campaign manager Lee Atwater and his infamous Willie Horton ad to the race-baiting scare tactics used by Donald Trump. A look at Bush’s administrative appointees reveals many of the big names—Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld — who would go on to botch the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, all the while pushing for ever more wars on ever more fronts. (Which is not even to mention his son who, in signing off on Gulf War Redux, committed what is thus far the greatest geopolitical blunder of the century.) You could talk also about his surrender to the tax-and-spenders on budget issues, or to the Religious Right about gay rights. You could also give him credit where it’s due: for handling the end of the Cold War with flexibility and grace, for committing himself to promoting volunteerism and community service, for not following in the footsteps of his father, Prescott Bush, and signing on to any half-baked fascist coups against the US government.
All this, at least the good stuff, or the bad stuff that various media figures want to recast as good, will be gone over ad infinitum. But when you see the footage of his funerals, when you take in the official outpouring of grief that is increasingly mandatory on such occasions, when above all you hear anyone talking about how George H.W. Bush advocated for a “kinder, gentler conservatism,” spare a thought for Keith Jackson. It’s more than Bush ever did.