A month ago, George H.W. Bush’s reputation was ascendant, a former Republican president seen by many as the personification of the statesman: thoughtful, civic-minded, and possessing the poise and good manners of a prewar East Coast establishment that was passing from the scene.

For a nation bitterly divided against itself, the 93-year-old was a living reminder of a time when parties sometimes worked together and the United States was the only remaining superpower in a hopeful post-Cold War world. He and Barbara had been married for 72 years, raising a future president and a Florida governor, and spending extended summers at their compound in Kennebunkport.

Since then, 10 women have come forward, alleging the former president groped them, nine of them while posing with him for photographs. One was 16 at the time. Another was a Republican candidate for the Maine Senate. A third incident was alleged to have happened when Bush was still president. Four of the alleged incidents occurred before the president had begun using a wheelchair because of a Parkinson’s-like condition. The most recent occurred at the Ogunquit Playhouse in the summer of 2016.

Through a spokesman he has apologized for some of the incidents and hasn’t denied any of them. “He has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner,” spokesman James McGrath has said in a statement.

But presuming no more serious allegations come forward, presidential scholars say the revelations are unlikely to have a lasting impact on Bush’s legacy, in part because they have been drowned out in a flood of more explosive allegations against elected officials, political candidates, journalists, actors and filmmakers.

“In the larger ledger of history, I think it will fade and his reputation will continue to grow,” says Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “People may not be paying attention to all the stories that come out about him and just remember the first two, with him sitting in a wheelchair, and everyone has an elderly grandpa or uncle who says things inappropriate at the dinner table.”

Presidential scholar G. Calvin Mackenzie, emeritus professor of government at Colby College, agrees. “The daily revelations about other people may be drowning out allegations against George H.W. Bush,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of presidents who’ve had sexual peccadilloes in their history, but their legacies were not significantly diminished by that.”

Ten accusations over 26 years

At least 10 women have come forward since Oct. 24, accusing Bush of grabbing their buttocks, nine while posing beside him for photos. The first two to speak out – actresses Heather Lind and Jordana Grolnik – described similar incidents in 2014 and 2016. As they stood for photos, Bush asked who they thought his favorite magician was. He then grabbed their behinds as he delivered the punch line: “David Cop-A-Feel.”

The third woman, Bangor native and best-selling novelist Christina Baker Kline, said Bush used the same line on her as he groped her during a photo shoot in Houston for a Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy fundraiser in April 2014.

The fourth, Amanda Staples, was a former Republican state Senate candidate from Standish, who revealed in an Oct. 26 Instagram post that Bush fondled her in 2006, when she was 29 and he was 82 and not yet using a wheelchair. Bush, Staples wrote, “grabbed my butt and joked, saying, ‘Oh, I’m not THAT President,’ ” as a photographer snapped their picture at Walker’s Point.

The following day, a former editorial page editor of Pennsylvania’s Erie Times-News, Liz Allen, posted on Facebook that Bush also grabbed her behind as they posed for a photo at a June 2004 business association event where he’d spoken.

The most troubling accusation came from Roslyn Corrigan. In an article in Time published Nov. 13, she said Bush groped her as a photographer shot their picture at a November 2003 event at The Woodlands, Texas, office of the Central Intelligence Agency, where her father worked. She was 16 at the time.

“My initial reaction was absolute horror. I was really, really confused,” Corrigan told Time. “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?’ “

Broadway actress Megan Elizabeth Lewis on Nov. 14 alleged that Bush had also grabbed her as they posed for a camera in Houston in 2009, and on Nov. 15 an unnamed flight attendant told the Democracy Now television program that in the early 1990s Bush grabbed her buttocks and wouldn’t let go with Barbara seated next to him on the plane.

The most recent allegation is also the oldest. An unnamed Michigan woman and her ex-husband told CNN that Bush had grabbed her buttocks while they posed for a picture in April 1992, when he was still president. “All the focus has been on, ‘He’s old.’ OK, but he wasn’t old when it happened to me,” the woman told CNN on Nov. 16.

McGrath, the Bushes’ spokesman, said they would not comment for this article and declined to provide an updated statement on the recent allegations.

After the first two accusations surfaced, McGrath had issued a statement saying that in an effort “to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke – and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner. Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate. To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.”

After Corrigan’s allegations, McGrath released an additional statement saying: “George Bush simply does not have it in his heart to knowingly cause anyone distress, and he again apologizes to anyone he offended during a photo op.”

A ‘minor blemish’ to legacy

The allegations have come as public attention has been focused on more ominous accusations against other figures, like Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, comedian Louis C.K. and television journalist Charlie Rose. Several of the scholars who spoke to the Maine Sunday Telegram were initially unaware of the majority of the accusations against the former president.

Mark Updegrove, former director of the LBJ Presidential Library, is the author of “The Last Republicans,” a newly released book on the relationship between Bush and his son George W. Bush and says the allegations should be seen in context.

“If you look at the spectrum of behavior we’ve seen alleged against Weinstein and some other very high-profile men, it’s relatively minimal,” Updegrove says. “This is hardly a sexual predator; this is a man who made an inappropriate gesture and a bad joke with women he didn’t know well.” Assuming nothing else comes out, he adds, the accusations will amount to “a very minor blemish on the character of somebody who will be celebrated as the dominant part of their legacy.”

Amy Fried, who chairs the political science department at the University of Maine, agrees. “At this point, based on what’s known, it’s a blot but not necessarily a huge blot, because most of it is post-presidential,” Fried says. “I don’t hear many people talking about it or see it take up much space in the news.”

Historian Gleaves Whitney, director of Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, says that allegations of sexual impropriety have dogged a quarter of all U.S. presidents but that in the long run it has been rare for historians or the public to tie their presidential legacies to them.

“As a historian I have learned that, with the passage of time, Americans tend to be forgiving of their presidents’ sexual misconduct,” Whitney said via email. “Not forgiving of truly evil and criminal behavior such as rape and sexual assault, but forgiving of the bad judgment and occasional weakness that go with being human.”

“In the current environment, I am not surprised that women are coming forward with stories about former presidents. They are insisting on the safety, dignity, and professional treatment they deserve in the workplace,” he added. “This is definitely a good thing, but it is too early to tell how much any particular accusations against a former president will damage (Bush’s) reputation.”

Kim Simmons, who teaches in the women and gender studies department at the University of Southern Maine, says the damage to women is real, and that Bush’s policy record on women’s issues was poor, from his opposition to abortion to the nomination of Clarence Thomas – himself accused of sexual harassment – to the Supreme Court. “President Bush was literally treating women as objects for his consumption who were not to be taken seriously,” she says. “That has a ripple effect for the people who are working around him and developing policies.”

“It comes down to a kind of toxic masculinity that is so much a part of the waters we are swimming in,” Simmons adds. “It’s not that all men do that, but it’s available to all men, a kind of domination over women as a way of expressing power.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at:

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