He Stoops to Conquer

Reports started to circulate that George Bush was going to give a speech at the Holocaust Days of Remembrance observance last month that would be second in importance only to his address, earlier in the first 100 days, before the joint session of Congress. The theme that he was going to elaborate on, the big-deal message of this most major address on the anniversary of the death of the 6 million, would be … civility.

It seemed like we were going to get the real thing. The awaited, anticipated, W. moment: the president linking the Bush social code and the Shoah. He was going to place his pet peeve about American politics – its partisanship and fractiousness, or, in the Bush lexicon, “name-calling and finger-pointing” – in the context of mankind’s greatest act of evil and destruction.

Editorialists and comedians and liberals everywhere could lock and load – Bush was about to be Bush.

But by some process of converting bad instincts and cultural limitations to perfectly acceptable behavior – in a nutshell, good manners – that speech was never given. Now, one can only imagine what happened between the reports of the almost-famous Holocaust Civility Speech and the speech itself. Likely whatever occurred would shed light on the real talents and remarkable vetting procedures of this administration.

The speech he in fact gave was neither major nor wrong; rather, it was a just-right speech, modest in its aims, deferential in its point. Powerful tone-deafness turned into pitch-perfect sensitivity.

Civility is the opposite of hostility, and certainly, if there was any of that at the dinner, it melted. I had good feelings about the man for a moment, too.

In fact, let me be the first to say it: Bush may be on his way to giving better speeches than any modern president save Roosevelt and Kennedy. Straightforward sentiments. Simple language. Free from housekeeping agendas (e.g., the Clinton laundry list of legislative wishes). Unself-congratulatory. Artfully short. Frictionless; soothing, even. Mellow. And, most important, and most rare, his speeches aren’t especially about him – or about what he can do, or about what he wants, or the regard in which he wants to be held. (One reason he gives such good speeches may be that, unlike his predecessors, he does not much interfere with his speechwriters – he is not that kind of control freak.)

He deflects attention.

Civility – this aversion to conflict, this social stoicism – in the end might have kept him from raising the issue of civility (Oh, don’t get into that, George. It’s so …).

This is the Wasp dinner table – high Wasp, like the Bushes, or Midwest Wasp, like the Cheneys. (Or perhaps you’ve eaten with my in-laws.) We’re talking about a level of remoteness, or philosophical disengagement, that was the ruling American aesthetic for generations and that long ago fell into comedy and disrepute. It’s a lost way of life. Pre-sixties. Pre-yuppie. Pre-diversity. Pre-Seinfeld. Pre-boom. And so very pre-Clinton (you can, however, imagine that there was a lot of this in Hillary’s house).

And yet, suddenly, there seem to be many people for whom this modesty and old-shoeness and self-control are refreshing and new.

The New Yorker the other day featured a profile of Dick Cheney as proxy president, as laudatory a political portrait as has appeared in many years. Here you had a man who in the very recent past would have been (most certainly was) consigned to an older generation of uncommunicative, emotionally shut-down, Anglo-Saxon hollow men. Now, in the space of 100 days, he’d been rehabilitated into near-heroic stature: “Easy authority … air of calm … an even look on his face … legs crossed in the Western-male manner … voice deep, low, and clear – strong but not loud … immense reassurance … rocklike manner … out of a Willa Cather novel … consummately expert and experienced … “

The New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann had been seduced by the most unseductive figure in America.

There was no politics in this portrait – other than that Cheney is a conservative, one would not learn much about his particular policy views from the profile – just a deep appreciation of some new type of old-fashioned good taste, lack of salesmanship, renewed sense of ritual and propriety in American life.

A few weeks after the Holocaust observances, Bush II was scheduled to speak at the annual dinner of the American Jewish Committee.

There was, potentially, a lot of conflict packed in here, I thought. Jews had voted 80 percent against him. The right-wing march of the past several months couldn’t be pleasing to many Jews. Bush had, purposely or inadvertently, shunned Jews in choosing his Cabinet. And, not least of all, it was hard to get more un-Jewish than W.

“Anyone who rises to a position of prominence in America today is likely to have met and interacted with Jews along the way,” said David Harris, the AJC executive director, carefully trying to frame the Bush anomaly. “But that has not been his life path. Unlike Bill Clinton, who was intellectually engaged with Jews as soon as he got to college, or Ronald Reagan, who was surrounded by Jews in Hollywood, George Bush has not had much life contact. Not in Midland, not in prep school, not in his self-described life at Yale, not in his business career. There is no Arnie Jacobson – Harry Truman’s haberdashery partner – in his life.”

In addition, the most antipathetic modern president for Jews (after Nixon, anyway) was George Bush I – indeed, he was the only modern president not to address the American Jewish Committee.

But the son’s manners, and sense of ritual and propriety, turn out to be, however unexpectedly, far keener and more righteous than the father’s.

The Bush appearance before the AJC, notable for occurring so early in his term, was, you could interpret, about good manners and courteousness (perhaps he sees himself, in that early-twentieth-century, advanced Wasp way, as a role model for good manners).

Of the three major Jewish organizations that had invited Bush to events this spring, the AJC was selected, the organization was told by the White House, because it was “open-minded and civil.” (The AJC’s Bruce Raymer, was, too, a generous Republican – “We know,” said Harris, clear on the issues, “how loyal he is to those who have been loyal to him.”) His visit, in other words, was a kind of positive reinforcement.

What’s more, AJC officials marveled, while presidents and high administration officials often address the annual dinner, it is almost always a last-minute confirmation. At last year’s dinner, Madeleine Albright confirmed shortly before; the year before, Hillary became, at the eleventh hour, the featured speaker.

But Bush, with his iron schedule, and what seems like a calculated lack of presidential hysteria, confirmed three weeks in advance.

He would, the AJC was told, speak for twelve minutes.

You could have missed his entrance into the impressive hall of the National Building Museum. Then he sat patiently, in some sense anonymously, on the dais through three other speeches. (He seemed, I noted, to have gained weight during his 100 days in office.) He was, with his pursed lips and slight frown and baby-blue tie, contained, subdued, almost expressionless (was he pleased to be here? Sour about it? Merely dutiful?).

He was the first on his feet to applaud the remarks of his friend (mi amigo) Vicente Fox, Mexico’s president (a Mexican reporter at the dinner pointed out that Bush has seen Fox three times in his first 100 days, versus the usual twice-a-year visit between American and Mexican presidents); then he extended Fox a brotherly pat.

He began his own remarks with just a slight stumble (more endearing than comic), welcoming, among others, the “foreign dignities.”

Then he spent a large part of his twelve minutes complimenting the other speakers, and, unhurried, sharing personal anecdotes about the people he knew at the dinner, getting in a not-too-forced joke or two. He was light and graceful. He was in his element. He was tipping his hat, paying respects, demonstrating some keen understanding of not-so-well-followed social rules.

He did not speak with a particular emphasis about Israel, which would have been the obvious way to handle the occasion. Instead, he spoke, however briefly, about tolerance around the world. It was a fine speech. Not necessarily memorable, but as smooth as the deftest after-dinner talk. And again, oddly, not about him – he was just the cheerful tummler.

I wondered, actually, if this wasn’t his civility speech – not so much about civility but a how-to of the courtesies and rituals that can artfully mask so much antipathy and so many disputes.

Civility is the opposite of hostility, and certainly, if there was any of that at the dinner, it melted. The crowd came fondly to its feet. I had good feelings about the man for a moment, too.

“It is,” observed an AJC official, not without some ruefulness, “a great talent for a politician – to make people like you.”

The temptation in considering Bush is to look to the Reagan model – that kind of remarkable artifice and scripting. The problem is, with Bush II, it seems the opposite of that. Where Reagan seemed suffused with hyped-up sentiment and symbolism, Bush and company, in their low-key, conflict-averse unobtrusiveness, seem stripped of it.

Possibly this is pure strategy: Confuse the opposition, fuck with their heads, and, in an inversion of everything presidents are supposed to be about, make the target smaller.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel noted in the Times that in a survey of major news outlets, there were 41 percent fewer stories about Bush in the first two months of his administration than there were about Clinton in the same time period in his administration. (The other day, Mrs. Bush was in New York and staying, as all First Ladies in modern memory have, at the Carlyle, where, to the wonder of the staff, skilled at dealing with the paparazzi who attend all First Ladies, she was greeted by no photographers whatsoever.)

And yet nobody is saying, Where’s George? Rather, we may be thinking, for no other reason than that it is so strange for someone to become president and then not embrace, or even seem to enjoy, the ego perquisites and self-promotion opportunities of the job, that this could be something like modesty and self-effacement, virtues (country-club virtues, you could say) that have not been seen in a long time. He does not, apparently, need or desire to call attention to himself. He is able and willing to pass largely unnoticed.

It’s bizarre. And apparently smart.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

He Stoops to Conquer