The death of former US president George H W Bush at age 94 may unleash a flood of nostalgia for the days of Bush 41. There’s no denying that Bush the First had more personal integrity and dedication to public service than the current occupant of the White House – not a high bar – and that Washington was a less dysfunctional place during his 1989-93 tenure. But we can’t let yearning for a better era now cloud our view of a president and presidency instrumental in the evolution of the incivility and dishonesty that are hallmarks of today’s politics, and racism that tars the Bush legacy.

Bush’s reputation for courtesy owes much to his patrician bloodlines. Born to a future US senator and a mother whose family endowed the Walker Cup, an amateur golf competition for gentlemen from the US and the UK, Bush attended Phillips Academy Andover, was a third-generation Yale legacy and was a member of secret society Skull and Bones.

There’s also much to admire in Bush’s résumé. He enlisted in the US Navy in 1942, earned his wings before turning 19 – making him the youngest American naval aviator to date – then flew 58 combat missions, surviving a downing in the Pacific and collecting the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After World War II, he captained Yale’s baseball teams to two College World Series. He eschewed his father’s Wall Street world for oil drilling in Texas and made himself a millionaire. Then he turned to government and politics, serving well by most accounts in Congress, as ambassador to the United Nations, US envoy to China, Central Intelligence Agency director and head of the Republican National Committee in the dark days after Richard Nixon’s resignation.

That’s an impressive body of work, a counterpoint to the current fashion to deride public-service experience. But in his quest for the presidency, Bush forfeited any claim to the decency he supposedly represents.

Move into the White House

Things began well enough as Bush pursued the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. Candidate Ronald Reagan contended that lowering taxes would increase government revenue, based on the aptly named Laffer curve. Bush dismissed the claim as “voodoo economics,” and subsequent US budget deficits have proved him right.

However, that disagreement over the fundamental plank of Reagan’s domestic policy didn’t prevent Bush from accepting the offer to run as his vice-president. That was in keeping with the old-school view that politics was a parlor game and when it was finished, everyone remained friends. But behind Reagan’s geniality were reverse-Robin Hood policies that hastened the devastation of America’s middle class.

Bush was part of the Reagan administration’s drive to widen America’s income gap and diminish opportunities for upward mobility, plagues that created fertile ground for demagogues at home and abroad. You can contend that a vice-president is as important to the operation of a White House as a hood ornament is to an automobile. But when Bush began his campaign to succeed Reagan, he proved he’d lost his moral compass.

To run his presidential race, Bush hired Lee Atwater, who combined Watergate-style dirty tricks with state-of-the-art race baiting. For the contest with Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, Atwater crafted what observers then considered the dirtiest presidential campaign ever.

Its cornerstone was the Willie Horton ad, featuring the mugshot of a black convicted murderer who abducted a couple, assaulting the man and raping the woman, while on a weekend furlough from prison. As Massachusetts governor, Dukakis had vetoed a bill that would have stopped the furlough program for first-degree murderers like Horton. Atwater promised to make Horton Dukakis’ “running mate.”

The campaign also attacked Dukakis’ patriotism and portrayed the son of Greek immigrants as an out-of-touch elitist at the same time his aristocratic opponent allegedly couldn’t identify a checkout scanner.

Both tactics have become hearty perennials of Republican politics that demonize opponents and transplant their candidate’s negatives to the opponent, further separating politics from the realm of truth. Before his death at age 40 in 1991, Atwater apologized to Dukakis for the Horton ad; to my knowledge, Bush never has. When asked about the ad, Bush dismissed it as “history.”

As president, Bush did many responsible things. He reneged on his “Read my lips: no new taxes” pledge to avoid unconscionable budget cuts resulting from Reagan’s voodoo economics. He wisely limited the 1991 Gulf War to the expulsion of Iraqi occupiers from Kuwait, rejecting the opportunity to overthrow Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq. He continued arms-control progress with the Soviet Union and formed a strategic partnership with its successor, Russia.

The Clarence Thomas legacy

Beyond those good deeds, Bush committed the single most cynical presidential act of the 20th century: nominating Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court.

Thomas was a rags-to-Yale Law School black conservative Republicans had been grooming for a Supreme Court seat. His strict constructionist views include a disdain for affirmative-active policies; he’s a ladder-kicker, committed to denying the upward-mobility opportunities he enjoyed to others. It was no small irony that in 1991, when the court’s first black justice, Thurgood Marshall, the plaintiff’s lawyer in the landmark school-desegregation case Brown vs Board of Education, announced his retirement, Bush nominated Thomas.

At age 43 with barely 14 months on the bench at the time of his nomination, Thomas was at best marginally qualified for the high court. Being black made him far more difficult to oppose, particularly for Marshall’s seat, even though their views were 180 degrees apart, and gave Bush cover for not nominating a more qualified jurist. Yet standing on the lawn of his family’s ancestral Kennebunkport, Maine, compound, Bush declared, “Race had nothing to do with” Thomas’ nomination.

Bush multiplied that dishonesty and cynicism by unleashing a vicious White House lobbying effort on behalf of Thomas. The effort redoubled after Anita Hill testified alleging Thomas sexually harassed her, and other accusers emerged.

Thomas, the champion of a colorblind government where race can never be considered for benefits, defended himself by playing the race card. He called the hearings “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks,” showing a cynicism that outdid even Bush’s. Yet the president whose decency we now pine for stood by and tolerated this indecent spectacle on behalf of an indecent nomination, pretending to be an innocent bystander throughout the national nightmare he induced.

Thomas was narrowly confirmed in a spectacle that set the stage for the Brett Kavanaugh horror that played out this year. Unfettered by his bitter confirmation, Thomas remains on the Supreme Court, in the midst of what will be one of the longest and least distinguished tenures in the court’s history.

It includes Thomas casting many deciding votes, perhaps none bigger than in Bush vs Gore that stopped the vote recount in Florida and handed the 2000 presidential election to George W Bush. That decision brought America more failed voodoo economics, the Iraq invasion and the world’s worst financial crisis since 1929.

In this case, it seems quite fair to visit the sins of the son upon the father.