Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Giving credit where credit is due

One way or another the 43rd presidency will end today (and then really end again, on 20th January), with no true successor: a very different man will become, as they still say, the leader of the free world. Criticism of the president is a dime a dozen, and having a go at him became cheap a long time ago, so on this occasion it's appropriate to listen to six writers say what they will miss about President George W. Bush.

Because there are good things to say about him. GWB is by all accounts devoid of racial prejudice in his own dealings, and he showed a consistent will to generously resolve the problem of illegal (for which read: poor Hispanic) immigration to the United States, a token of real leadership and sensible priorities, and something that caused him no end of trouble with his own party. It is not much to your credit if you take a stand that causes you trouble with your enemies: if it causes you trouble with your friends, this is more to the point. (Shades here of PM John Howard and controls on assault weapons, a similarly principled stand for which I hope I have always given him full credit, my general disapproval of the man notwithstanding.) The Bush White House also showed a real commitment to opposing sex-trafficking --- what an earlier generation called “white slavery” --- an issue on which, until the last few years, so-called social progressives have been unacccountably silent.

On a related tack, there was a huge stink a while back when Representative John Lewis issued a warning to John McCain, invoking the name of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace: everyone thought this was excessive because, well, McCain is pretty clearly no racist. However, there's a sense in which this was the whole point. There was an excellent NYT article the other week by Russ Rymer on “The George Wallace We Forgot”, explaining the relevance of the governor's tragic history, and why Lewis was speaking on good authority:
He [Wallace] might have carried a tolerant message into the Alabama governor’s mansion in 1958, but he lost the race after spurning the support of the Ku Klux Klan (which then backed his primary opponent, John Patterson) and being endorsed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Sadly for Wallace’s state, his region, his nation and himself, he did not respond as John Lewis did after his defeat by Carmichael. Mr. Lewis, whenever confronted with calls to divisiveness, chose to redouble his commitment to reason and tolerance. After his loss to Mr. Patterson, Wallace is said to have turned to an aide and declared, “I was out-niggered ... and I’ll never be out-niggered again.”

After Wallace finally won the governorship in 1962, his administration was never as race-hostile as his campaign appeals implied; black leaders found his office door open, and often his mind, too. But he would eternally pay the price for the methods he used to gain that office.
Albeit that politics is the art of the possible, there are some movements and tendencies with which no accomodation can be reached, and the writer paints an awful portrait of a reasonable man forced to retreat in dismay, and disarray, by a storm of race-hatred which he did not truly share, but which he had helped to unleash by his pandering. And now, his name is a byword. It's a sad fate, and something you might wish to be warned about: this, Rymer claims, is what Lewis was trying to do.

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