The wounded heart
Tuesday, November 9th, 2010
There's little reason to comment at length about George W. Bush's newly-published memoir, given the fact that he says virtually nothing new about the contentious policies he pursued, and that, on the printed page, he merely underscores what we already knew about his quick-draw impulses and paucity of intellectual curiosity.
But yesterday evening, while hawking his book on NBC, Bush said something noteworthy. Matt Lauer brought up the incident, shortly after Katrina, when Kanya West said that Bush didn't care about black people; in response, the former president told Lauer that the West incident was "one of the most disgusting moments in my presidency." And in his book, Bush went further: "I faced a lot of criticism as president…But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low" – indeed, "the worst moment" of his presidency.
Wait a second. That is what Bush considers his "all-time low" and "worst moment?" In other words, taking heat for his decision to send thousands of American soldiers to die in a needless war fought for non-existent reasons…that ranks higher on his comfort meter than being dissed by Kanye West? Being widely ridiculed for his failure to find so much as a single weapon of mass destruction, after hyping them as a "grave and gathering threat"…that's somehow not as bad as being insulted by one rap singer?
His priorities might strike some of us as a tad odd, given the serial disasters of his presidency, but there's actually a good explanation for his hurt feelings:
Members of the Bush family – George W., brother Jeb, father George, grandfather Prescott – have long considered themselves to be racially tolerant souls. George W. was always telling people that he supported black people in his "heart" (for instance, telling the NAACP: "Give me the chance to tell you what is in my heart"). The Bush guys have always tried to convince the black community that their hearts are in the right place. And whenever blacks have dissed them anyway (which is most of the time), the Bush guys have acted as if they were personally wounded.
The Bush reaction (with the reaction to West being merely the latest manifestation) is weirdly naive, because somehow the various Bushes have failed to fathom the simple truth that blacks typically judge them not on the basis of their "hearts," but on the basis of their orthodox Republican strategies.
George the father said in 1988 that he expected to do well among black voters in his presidential race (after all, he had implemented affirmative action at the Republican National Committee while serving as chairman 16 years earlier), yet he stayed silent during the '88 campaign when his strategists cooked up the infamous Willie Horton TV ad that preyed on white fears of black criminals. After he became president, he was so unnerved by his paltry black support that he told the party to study the issue.
Jeb the brother curried favor with minorities during his 1994 Florida gubernatorial bid, but after he got only six percent of the black vote, he said "It broke my heart." So in 1998 he campaigned hard among blacks, and won 16 percent of their votes on his way to victory – yet one year later, Florida's blacks fiercely assailed Jeb after he summarily wiped out affirmative action in public universities. True to the Bush character, he said he was personally wounded by the criticism. I wrote about this flap at the time; one Florida political observer, Lance deHaven-Smith, described Jeb to me: "He strongly believes in tolerance and respect between the races. So when people question his motives, his feelings get hurt."
There it is again, those "feelings." Who knew the Bushes had such tender hearts? Apparently George W. is way more upset by one rap artist's random dis – clearly, a wound to his heart – than he is about the fact that, among other things during his presidency, the income gap between rich and poor widened at a rate not seen since the Great Depression; that the black poverty rate went up during his tenure after falling during the Bill Clinton era; and that black family median income went down during his tenure after rising during the Clinton era.
Even now, as evidenced by his lingering hurt over Kanye West, Bush seems to believe that he should be judged on how he feels inside, rather than how he actually performed. But he has those criteria backwards, which is why many historians may ultimately rank him with the all-time low.
Sarah Palin is due in suburban Philadelphia today. To mark the occasion, I'd like to excerpt a new Wall Street Journal column, posted by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, which strikes me as the most withering dis – ever – of Palin's presumptions and ignorance. Especially the climax, when Noonan talks directly to Palin. Enjoy:
Conservatives talked a lot about Ronald Reagan this year, but they have to take him more to heart, because his example here is a guide. All this seemed lost last week on Sarah Palin, who called him, on Fox, "an actor." She was defending her form of political celebrity—reality show, "Dancing With the Stars," etc. This is how she did it: "Wasn't Ronald Reagan an actor? Wasn't he in 'Bedtime for Bonzo,' Bozo, something? Ronald Reagan was an actor."
Excuse me, but this was ignorant even for Mrs. Palin. Reagan people quietly flipped their lids, but I'll voice their consternation to make a larger point. Ronald Reagan was an artist who willed himself into leadership as president of a major American labor union (Screen Actors Guild, seven terms, 1947-59.) He led that union successfully through major upheavals (the Hollywood communist wars, labor-management struggles); discovered and honed his ability to speak persuasively by talking to workers on the line at General Electric for eight years; was elected to and completed two full terms as governor of California; challenged and almost unseated an incumbent president of his own party; and went on to popularize modern conservative political philosophy without the help of a conservative infrastructure….
Here is an old tradition badly in need of return: You have to earn your way into politics. You should go have a life, build a string of accomplishments, then enter public service. And you need actual talent: You have to be able to bring people in and along. You can't just bully them, you can't just assert and taunt, you have to be able to persuade. Americans don't want, as their representatives, people who seem empty or crazy.