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Bush Revisionism Is Back: Why You Should Not Fall for this Lame and Dangerous Ploy

Don't let the pundits fool you. "W" was just as bad as his rep.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

When we think of the villains of the civil rights movement, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace — he of the infamous “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” battle cry — is perhaps the first face that comes to mind. It was Wallace, after all, who  stood defiantly in the doorway of a University of Alabama building, refusing to allow two African-American students to enter until then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach (and a few of his friends in the National Guard) persuaded the diminutive demagogue to give way. When we think of the era’s Dixiecrats, those Southern Democrats who spent decades siding with conservatives in order to maintain white supremacy in their apartheid states, we think of men like Wallace: shameless race-baiters whose entire political identities were inextricably bound to bigotry and hate.

But here’s the funny thing about George Wallace:  According to his contemporaries, the man was not personally ill disposed toward African-Americans (at least by the standards of the time). Before he became governor, in fact, Wallace was a judge known for moderate-to-liberal views on segregation and race. It wasn’t until he lost his first race for the governorship — during which he was endorsed by the NAACP — that Wallace decided to forge an iron bond between himself and white supremacy, vowing to “never be out-[N-worded] again.” Yet by his final term in the 1980s, Wallace had appointed a record number of African-Americans to jobs in the state government; and he regretted his role as America’s one-time leading segregationist  to his dying day.

Why am I thinking about George Wallace? Not because of Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy or Charles Murray. No, the reason I’ve got Wallace on my mind is less straightforward than that. Blame this foray into recent history on  a recent execrable piece from Yahoo!’s national political columnist and former New York Times Magazine scribe Matt Bai. The piece is titled “So George W. Bush isn’t a monster, after all” and it encourages an approach to politicians and politics that, if applied consistently, would have us believe that George Wallace was, at worst, misunderstood.

Bai’s piece is not very long, but here’s the short version, nonetheless: When George W. Bush was president, he was maligned, demonized and turned into a loathsome caricature by a political system that encourages divisive partisanship at the expense of humane treatment of the commander-in-chief. “The truth is,” Bai writes, “that Bush was never anything close to the ogre or the imbecile his most fevered detractors insisted he was.” On the contrary, he was “compassionate and well-intentioned” and “the kind of inclusive conservative you can deal with.” Bush, writes Bai, “is enjoying a public restoration,” a claim he supports by referencing  a poll about blame for the poor economy and  puff pieces about Bush’s kitschy paintings.

Now, as defenses of George W. Bush go, Bai’s is not only exceptionally weak but also quite strange. At no point does he directly mention any of Bush’s policies or decisions; the focus is entirely on the ex-president’s increasingly cuddly public image, which Bai insists is not the consequence of sympathetic media coverage but “has more to do, really, with how we distort the present.” Instead of judging the man by the wars he started, the torture regime he implemented, the city he left for dead or the economy he helped crater, Bai would have us see Bush as the man wants to be seen, as someone who “really does care deeply about the men and women he sent to war” and “really did want to do good for the country.”