Tag Archives: speech

In Praise of George W. Bush (No Kidding)

Where was this guy while Dick Cheney was running the country?

Granted, George W. Bush has been looking a lot better during the disaster that is Donald Trump…but I’m still dumbfounded (and awed) by his speech last week at the Bush Institute’s Spirit of Liberty event in New York.

A few quotations:

“Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”

 “Bigotry in any form is blasphemy against the American creed and it means the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation. We need a renewed emphasis on civic learning in schools.”
“And our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.”

“The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”

“We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.”

“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions, forgetting the image of God we should see in each other. We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, [and] forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.”

In a further reproach to Trump–whose name he never uttered and who has dismissed the evidence–Bush also underscored the conclusion of all the American intelligence agencies about Russian interference in last year’s elections, calling it real and labelling it “subversion.”

Credit where credit is due: during his presidency, Bush never came across as a bigot, although he often failed to push back against his party’s use of bigotry and especially homophobia to win elections.

It is obviously easier for politicians who are not facing another election to call out Trumpism, as we’ve seen with John McCain and Bob Corker. But it is also easier to refrain from publicly defying a sitting President of one’s own party, easier to avoid setting an example that cannot help but shame the current leadership of that party. Easier to keep your head down and enjoy the accolades that come from being an “elder statesman.”

Bush’s broadside is so important because it is his party (or more accurately, what his party has become). Trump ran as a Republican. The House and Senate are controlled by Republicans. Admonitions from Democrats–even previous Presidents–will be dismissed by the party’s base as partisan carping.

As welcome as this speech was, the fact that Bush delivered it is an ominous sign of how worried responsible people are. Those who understand government, who recognize the challenges facing the country and the incredible damage being done to America’s democracy at home and our stature abroad, are speaking up, and we need to recognize how  unprecedented that is.

Differences of opinion on policies would never prompt this behavior. Only a deep foreboding–a sense of existential crisis–can explain this departure from Presidential behavioral norms.

When George W. Bush feels it necessary to warn the country against Trump and Trumpism, we’re in trouble. Bigly.

Who’s Talking?

Among the decisions handed down by the Supreme Court at the conclusion of this term was a little-noted one addressing the question whether states that sell specialty license plates can refuse to issue plates with controversial images like the Confederate flag. The ruling itself is less consequential (at least, in my view) that the opportunity if affords for a much-needed lesson in Constitutional analysis.

The First Amendment prohibits government from censoring the speech of its citizens. In the case before the Court, the Sons of Confederate Veterans claimed that Texas’ refusal to issue plates bearing a Confederate flag constituted such censorship.  But the Court could not analyze that claim until it decided what lawyers call a “preliminary” question: who is speaking through that state-issued license plate–the driver or the state?

Justice Steven Breyer, writing for the court’s majority, said that Texas’ program “constitutes government speech” and that the state was “entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design.” Just as the state could not force drivers to espouse a particular message, he said, drivers could not force a state to espouse theirs.

I think the Court got this one right. But it’s amazing how many people don’t understand the importance of determining who’s talking for First Amendment purposes.

Several years ago, plaintiffs sued Indiana’s General Assembly over legislative prayers claimed to violate the Establishment Clause. (The Courts have long allowed what we might term “de minimus” legislative prayers, so long as they are  brief and inclusive; many scholars–including this one–disagree with that admitted exception to the Establishment Clause, but it is what it is.) In Indiana, the prayers had gotten much longer and much more specifically Christian–one pastor, invited to the Speaker’s podium, had led the room in a rousing rendition of “Take a little walk with Jesus.” The District Court ruled that the practice violated the Establishment Clause and must stop, and all hell broke loose, with protestors complaining that religion had been censored.

It hadn’t.

I got several calls from local media, with breathless questions about a group of aggrieved pastors praying together at the back of the chamber–wasn’t that a violation of the Court’s order?

No, it wasn’t.

When a clergyman is invited to pray from the Speaker’s podium, as an official part of the legislative session, that prayer becomes state speech. The Establishment Clause prohibits government from endorsing or sponsoring religion. When individuals gather to pray, the Free Exercise Clause protects them against government interference.

Who is talking, who is praying, who is making the decision–makes all the difference.

The Bill of Rights only restrains government. That makes it pretty important to identify when government has acted.

 

 

 

Tod Gitlin Sums It Up

I was going to post about Obama’s speech this morning, but Tod Gitlin has already said it, and said it best.

He sounded like a winner. Like all great preachers, he started methodically and built to crescendos. The Republican responder, Charles Boustany of Louisiana, sounded like a whiner, crying, Deficit, deficit, and government-run, government-run, and built toward nothing. Obama charged the Republicans with specific lies. He made the obligatory gestures toward bipartisanship, including the unexpected shout-out to John McCain, who had campaigned in favor of mandatory catastrophic insurance–and I don’t want to be cynical about those gestures, even though I think he’s naive about the other party’s intentions–but that’s not where his stresses fell. He was reminding the majority who voted for him why they did that. He was reminding independents that the reason why no progress has been made toward universality, mandates, and affordabiity is Republicans–as with 1935’s Social Security and 1965’s Medicare laws. He was reminding them, as well as the few rational Republicans left, that the insurance companies are not the glories of American value.

He did not sound like a patsy. He offered specific programs but the peroration was clear: he stood for values and national character. If he went too easy on the insurance companies for my taste–his audience could have used the information that Americans pay insurance companies twice as much as they pay doctors–he took a proper jab at Republicans (they know who they are) who make up the party of fear. You can say that he’s still not willing to talk to Americans straight about the need to limit high-tech medicine for the very old and very frail. Presidents won’t do that.

But he bet on the strength of the American character. It was his finest public moment since the Inaugural. I’m betting national decency wins.