Rocky Start: Bush Takes Some Side Trips on His Summer Vacation

Make text smaller Make text larger

President Bush?whose 43-beats-per-minute heart rate will be the envy of anyone who stays up until 3 a.m. writing columns half the nights of the week?spent the last few days in the Rockies and Southwest. He communed with the spirit of the mountains, bucked up struggling schoolchildren and raked in $2 million for Gov. Bill Owens at the biggest Republican fundraiser in Colorado history.

He also went to a successful, largely Latino school in New Mexico, where he attacked the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Man, that line?originally written for Bush's father?is the rhetorical gift that keeps on giving. Dubya apparently didn't know what to do with it, though, because he went on to enunciate one of the great pieces of silliness in recent presidential oratory. "In this great country," he said, "we expect every child, regardless of how he or she is raised, to go to college." Okay, we get it, we get it! But let's admit that here we're deep into Lake Wobegon territory, where every child is above average.

What does Bush mean when he says, "no matter how" the kids are raised? What if they're raised illiterate? What does college mean, then? (Answer: renamed vocational schools.) And, in general, what purpose would a universal college education serve? There are still assembly-line jobs in this country, still egg-flipping jobs? What are you going to have to study to get one of those? An associate degree in Yolk Management? Bush's answer would be that, if you get a college degree, you won't need to spend your life screwing rivets and flipping eggs. Fine, but those rivets will still need to be screwed and those eggs flipped. By whom? By immigrants. And what kind of immigrants? Well, it's not going to be Taiwanese nuclear scientists with their H1B visas. As we discussed in this space two weeks ago, in the American utopia, all immigration is illegal immigration.

But every time Bush veers toward a Jack Kemp-style deployment of heart's-in-the-right-place rhetoric to avoid facing the country's hardest problems, Democrats come to his rescue. In the President's most Kempian moment, he said of his own new school-standards policies, "You hear people say it's racist to test. Do you know what I think? I think it's racist not to test." We know what he's saying here?that people expect suburban whites to do well and ghetto blacks to do poorly?but it really doesn't make any sense to fling accusations of racism. If you're on the left, it's perfectly defensible to first ask what social injustices are responsible for Kevin O'Suburb's doing better on his SATs than Duane McSlum. If you're on the right, it's just as defensible to say that the difference may have a source that's beyond the competence of the government to fix, however many tests it throws at the problem. In neither case is the non-Bush approach necessarily racist.

But the very same day, along came a genuinely race-addled organization of the left, the Florida Voters League Inc., which filed suit in Monroe County to overturn the electoral reforms passed in the wake of last November's fiasco. The group seems to have two grievances. First is that procedures for purging felons from the rolls are unfair. That may be worth looking into. But the other gripe is that a simple sign posted by polling stations urging voters to "study and know candidates and issues" constitutes a "literacy test" that would return Florida back to the days of Jim Crow. Our voters, the lawsuit seemed to say, need to be protected from suggestions that they know what they're doing when they pull the lever.

Not So, Swift

Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift probably has received more family-oriented coverage per hour of tenure than any politician in American history. Last spring, the papers were full of stories on the twins she was having, which made her the first governor in American history to take a maternity leave. Last week, the superb Boston Herald reported that her husband, Charles Hunt III, had not been properly married in at least one, and possibly two, of his four marriages. Worse, the Herald reported that Swift's staffers were bowled over by the news that Hunt had been married four times (they'd assumed Swift was his second wife), and it was unclear whether Swift herself had ever been given the full tally.

These revelations came out the day after Hunt's son (Swift's stepson) Brian, who is gay, lambasted her and his dad in the press for opposing gay marriage. Gov. Swift has been a loud champion of gay rights, but (like 47 other state governors) draws the line at signing a Vermont- or Hawaii-style law. "It's hypocritical to me," said the young Hunt. "?She doesn't want to go too far, because she'll lose votes. Knowing they have a homosexual son, you'd think they'd be more understanding."

What a lot of sloppy thinking there is in this attitude. For one thing, it shows an ignorance of politics that is just extraordinary for a member of one of Massachusetts' most powerful political families: Imagine a governor taking a position so she doesn't lose votes! For another, it would seem like Brian is the hypocrite here. At root, he's attacking his mom for being extremely pro-gay rights. If she were Jesse Helms, he wouldn't have a problem with her. Finally, it reflects a very shallow idea of what gay rights is. It's not a true-or-false question on an exam. It's a range of issues, all of which involve questions of degree. You don't have to be pro-gay marriage just because you're pro-gay housing laws. That's like saying that, if you voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you must vote for reparations for slavery; or that if you believe hunters can own guns, you must believe they can own assault weapons and shoulder-launched missiles; or that if you vote against a national healthcare system, you must vote to abolish Social Security.

This is actually the second time such an accusation has been leveled at Swift. Last spring, a friend of hers named Michael Duffy expressed outrage that the Governor was an old friend of his, and yet wouldn't pass a law that would let him get married. This is a more old-fashioned and comprehensible kind of political silliness. It's the gay-rights version of a Louisiana pol saying, "Hey, we drink bourbon-and-branch together?how come you won't grant me the asphalt concession for the whole state?"

Don Giorgio

Earlier this month, I made fun of a Gallup poll that asked Americans: "Do you think leaders of other countries around the world have respect for George W. Bush?" Outside of that mass of Middle Americans who have first- (or even third-) hand knowledge of the thinking habits and personal preferences of Gerhard Schroeder or Jose Maria Aznar, the only proper response would have been, "How the hell should I know?"

But a new Princeton Survey Research Associates poll done for the International Herald Tribune actually cut to the chase. It asked actual Europeans what they thought of Bush, and the results were stunning. First of all, having spent the entire Cold War fixated on England, France and Germany, we now find that?on almost all issues?our natural allies are in Aznar's and Berlusconi's Mediterranean. It's true that the Brits provided the only red-meat American plurality, telling pollsters, by a margin of 47-44, that they favor Bush's support of the death penalty. But the British and the French are more inclined to think they've grown apart from the United States than have come together. The Germans and Italians are more likely to see a rapproachment of interests. In fact, Italy gave Bush his highest approval ratings on almost all the issues pollsters asked about?on his general foreign-policy job (29 percent), on scrapping the Kyoto treaty (12 percent) and on building a missile shield and withdrawing from the ABM treaty (24 percent). These aren't ticker-tape-parade numbers, true. But maybe we ought to consider the possibility that, just as Clinton was our first black president, Bush may be our first Latin one.

Beginning this week, Christopher Caldwell and Alexander Cockburn will appear in this space on alternating weeks.

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters