It is possible that the most stunning story of the past week is not the brutal midterm loss suffered by the Democrats but the release of former President George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points, and his attendant book-promoting public appearances.
Sitting with NBC’s Matt Lauer, President Bush breezily defended his use of waterboarding torture, explaining that he relied on the judgment government attorneys who advised him the practice was legal. He also told Oprah he was "sick" about not discovering weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but he went onto confidently assert that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein. But for me the jaw-dropping, headline-making revelation of this week is President Bush’s assertion that the low point of his presidency came when 33-year-old hip-hop artist Kanye West went off-script during a Hurricane Katrina benefit concert, looked into the camera and asserted, "George Bush doesn’t care about black people."
Of this moment the president writes:
I faced a lot of criticism as president. I didn’t like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low.
Public outrage about the president’s assessment of this moment as a definitive low is both predictable and understandable. After all, one might expect that thousands of American deaths and the brutal entrance of the United States in the terrorist age on September 11, 2001, would be a reasonable moment to recall as the worst of his presidency. The economic devastation of 2008 is also a good candidate, as are the disgusting disclosures about American troops dehumanizing and torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib. Even if Hurricane Katrina were the defining event, many might expect the president to view the terrible loss of life, breathtaking destruction of property, and massive displacement of American citizens in the aftermath of the levee breach as worse than with the singular assessment of a young, if vocal, critic.
Still, I think there is a lesson in the President’s anxiety about having been labeled racist. It is a lesson about America’s relationship to race and racism and one that might help us better understand our own history, motivations, anxieties and political choices.
President Bush describes Kanye West’s statement as his presidential low, a personal nadir. Recall that the nadir of American history is the time between 1877 and World War I. These are the decades immediately following the end of Reconstruction. After fighting a brutal and bloody war to preserve the Union and to end intergenerational chattel slavery, American Reconstruction lasted for an astonishing decade from 1866–1876. These were some of America’s greatest years in terms of the nation’s willingness to pursue the vision of the founding documents. In these years black men ran for and held office, black families gained a toe hold as property owners, black and white laborers experimented with cooperative organizations and former Confederates were expected to accept that black people were full citizens.