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He's the Picture of Racial Compassion

Commentary

The president's website is chock-full of nifty photographs. But does Bush think that images of him hanging out with black people is enough?

May 13, 2004|Lawrence Weschler | Lawrence Weschler, author of the forthcoming book "Vermeer in Bosnia," heads the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU.

Quick. Before they take it down. Go to your computer, log on to www.georgewbush.com -- the official Bush/Cheney '04 reelection website.

OK, now notice how running horizontally along the top there's a row of file tabs: Economy, Compassion, Health Care, Education, Homeland Security and so forth.

So, hmmm: Compassion. What could that mean? What might that involve, thematically speaking? Click the tab, and there you are on the Compassion page.

Nice big picture of Bush merrily shooting the breeze with two black teenage girls. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you'll find a quadrant labeled Compassion Photos, with the invitation, "Click here for the Compassion Photo Album." Do so.

And let's see, what have we got? First one up: short-sleeved Bush, holding a black kid in his arms, a bleacher full of black kids behind him, and he's merrily waving to the crowd. Click "next." And it's Bush at a Waco Habitat for Humanity building site, his arm draped around a black woman, his other hand tapping the shoulder of another of the black construction volunteers. Next: Bush waving to the Urban League. Next: Bush working a crowd, a black -- or maybe, in this case, South Indian -- kid prominently featured in the foreground, gazing on in amazement. Bush in an African thatch-roofed schoolroom.

It's incredible: The guy is so compassionate. His wife too: She doesn't seem to have any trouble reading to a bunch of kindergartners of color.

And now, there he is again, reading to a different roomful of black schoolchildren. It's amazing -- photo after photo, 19 in all, and almost every single one of them giving further testimony to the astonishing capaciousness of the guy's Compassion, by which we are given to understand: He just has no trouble at all touching black people! Hammering with them, bagging groceries, tottering alongside them on weirdly high stools.

It's like Ben Hur among the lepers -- the guy doesn't hesitate, he just goes and does it! Why, the Compassion page even includes a photo of him standing next to his own secretary of State, Colin Powell!

I mean, bracket for a moment some of the actual facts concerning the fate of blacks and other people of color across the years of the Bush administration. How, for instance, tax cuts massively skewed toward the wealthy favor whites, while the huge resultant deficits necessitate service cuts massively disfavoring the poor, a group that includes proportionally more blacks.

My question is, for whom is this photo gallery intended? Does anybody seriously think blacks are going to be swayed by one staged photo op after another, in which time and again their confederates are cast as the pitiable recipients of an ostentatious display of kingly compassion?

Maybe it's for the president's white supporters, anxious lest they be visited by tinges of self-doubt over their own arguable racism in continuing to support such a state of affairs. Maybe it's all just a mistake -- some staffer messed up.

(Although in this context it's worth recalling Bush's own reply to a journalist in 2001 who, citing the new president's highly unusual refusal to address the annual meeting of the NAACP, had asked how he might respond to critics who said his "civil rights record was less than stellar." Smirking, the president replied: "Let's see. There I was sitting around the table with foreign leaders looking at Colin Powell and Condi Rice." End of discussion. Even some conservative commentators were taken aback by the glibness of that answer. Tucker Carlson called it a "lame response" and insulting to Powell and Rice for Bush to say, "I was sitting with black people when I was criticized.")

So let's just say that the Compassion photo page was some staff screw-up. Surely heads are going to roll; somebody is going to be held to account, right? They'll take down the site and somebody is going to take the fall. In fact, maybe they'll replace the Compassion file tab with a new one: I don't know, say: Accountability. And that slide show will display the administration's forthright approach in consistently facing up to and correcting policy lapses, featuring, one after the next, all the Bush appointees who, for failure to head off variously egregious foul-ups, have been required to resign. You know, people like ... well, like ... hmmm ... oh heck, never mind.

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Lawrence Weschler, author of the forthcoming book "Vermeer in Bosnia," heads the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. The photographs discussed here also can be viewed on the Web at www.moveon pac.org/compassionmirror.

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