President Bush was elected at a relatively stable time for international relations. Remember the pre-September 11 era? It seems quite distant. Before then, Bush was known as an accomplished consensus-builder that reached across party lines to get things done for his constituents as governor of Texas. His close relationship with Democratic lieutenant governor Bob Bullock showed this clearly, and the way they ably worked together to prod along the Texas legislature truly established the former governor’s reputation for diffusing partisan struggles to obtain meaningful results for Texans.
And so, George Bush was elected on the virtues of his domestic agenda, and Texans especially looked forward to see how their governor’s system would affect change when applied in Washington. The Capital, being what it is, made life very hard on the new President, and the old-boy networks and entrenched mores and biases made Bush’s approach less successful. But all that was rendered grossly insignificant on September 11. Since then, President Bush has been judged almost exclusively on his foreign policy agenda, for the exigencies of international drama have kept him from addressing domestic issues with full attention. As a result, Bush has been unable to put his strengths to work.
Somehow, though, the President has made a brilliant showing this week on the domestic front, first very ably and staunchly articulating his opposition to funding for embryonic stem cell research in the face of enormous pressure from his own party; and on Thursday with his well-executed speech to an NAACP conference. In particular, the speech before the NAACP was the real triumph for the President. Listening to audio, one hears Bush frequently interrupted by applause, indicating that his words resonated with his African-American audience. Read the transcript here.
The respectful dialogue that has opened between the NAACP leadership and the President is heartening, and these developments show again a spark of Bush’s old knack for reaching out across lines of political division. It would naive to think that Bush’s speech today will win the GOP a significant number of African-American votes. But if this momentum is built upon, the mutual respect that could develop between the African-American community and the Republican Party is a very exciting prospect. The recent cold relations between the two are a sad piece if a bigger picture of race relations in America, which all these decades later still leave much to be desired. The end of divisive rhetoric such as NAACP chairman Julian Bond’s claim that President Bush’s cabinet was made up of “officials whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection”, coupled with the development of mutual respect, if not agreement, between President Bush and NAACP president Bruce Gordon, hopefully will provide new impetus for Republicans and African-Americans alike to better understand each other and perhaps learn from each other.
Thursday’s speech to the NAACP was probably the sort of think the President envisioned years ago. In this environment is where Bush can really shine. Thankfully, as the international scene has suddenly become a dramatic quandary, the President has been able to find somewhere to shine in an increasingly dark political world.
I would recommend reading John Dickerson’s report on the President’s speech on Slate.com as well.