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.”
Tens of thousands of people are dead today because of George W. Bush’s choices, but he’s quick to get misty-eyed when thinking of the maimed bodies and shattered lives he left in his wake. Isn’t that what really matters?
In response to this flimsy defense, it’d be understandable if one concluded, as some on Twitter have, that Bai is simply a crypto-Republican who is ready to play his part in the epic quest to rewrite the legacy of the 43rd president. It turns out, however, that Bai’s argument is much more expansive — and destructive — than that. It’s not a mere defense of Bush but rather a condemnation of the way we treat our leaders, how we abuse and ridicule them because “[t]here's a lot of money to be made writing quickie books and giving speeches about the utter depravity of a president.” Bush’s father, Clinton and Obama, too; all are described by Bai as fundamentally good and likable people. (Carter, curiously, goes unmentioned, despite having an average post-presidential approval rating as of 2013 of 56.) Writing of Obama, but implicitly of both Bushes and Clinton as well, Bai claims “we should all be able to grant that he's at least a good American.”
I’m not sure what being a “good American” quite means — is it better or worse than being a good Frenchwoman or Nigerian or Swede? — but I get the gist of Bai’s piece, and I think it’s terribly mistaken. For one thing, this is an argument already made relatively recently by National Journal’s Ron Fournier and, as a rule, if your article is a rehash of a Fournier troll-job, you’re probably making a huge mistake. More seriously, this view of what makes a person “good” or “bad” is almost shockingly juvenile on its own, and becomes nearly toxic when used to assess politicians. Ignoring my temptation to break Godwin’s Law, I’ll simply note that Richard Nixon and Francisco Franco, two men few of us would consider exemplars of humanity at its best, also sincerely believed that their actions were for the greater good. For that matter, so did Jefferson Davis and the leaders of the Confederacy. Vanishingly few of us deliberately act in an immoral fashion; we’re all the heroes of our own stories.
The need to focus on consequences rather than intentions is all the more pronounced when it comes to politics, the realm in which a person’s decisions, and their consequences, are the only rational metric the rest of us can use in order to judge their suitability. Particularly in America, where the political spectrum is quite constrained, with no real far left and an often marginalized extreme right, and where some of the most heated debates are ostensibly about how best to achieve mutually agreed upon goals, it’s vital that we focus on results. To take an example less fraught than torture or war, if you were someone who believed everyone should have a good-paying job and health insurance, but you were only allowed to consider what each party says it wants to occur, you’d have no way of choosing between Republicans and Democrats, who both say a wealthy and healthy middle class is their ultimate goal.
Or, to return to my initial example, anyone who followed Bai’s advice would have a real tough time reaching a conclusion about George Wallace that the rest of us wouldn’t find obscene and bizarre. What matters more, the fact that George Wallace stoked racial resentment at a time when it was a force powerful and dangerous enough to murder innocent children; or the fact that, while he did so, he went to bed every night knowing that he was not only a beneficiary of hatred but a charlatan to boot? What matters more, the time George W. Bush wrote Ron Fournier a nice thank you card, or the millions of lives that would be better if he had not decided more than 10 years ago to destabilize the world with a war of choice? If we were talking about people whose professional decisions weren't literally matters of life and death, Bai's focus on people skills would be defensible. But we're not, and it isn't.
In the end, I can't tell you any more than Bai can whether or not Bush is a "good" person. To paraphrase the former president's favorite philosopher, that's above my pay grade. I wouldn't even know how to pick the right criteria. What I can tell you is that George Wallace, by the time he died, was a born-again Christian who said he believed all forms of racial discrimination were wicked and wrong; and that George W. Bush, today, most likely remains someone many of us would like to have a beer with. The question, then, is this: Who cares and why does it matter?