Critics of Mr. Bush may by their excesses be undermining not him, but the weight of sound thought. The most clearly vulnerable line of attack has to do with vacation time–taken as an absolute indicator of fidelity to duty. “George W. Bush, the least hardworking president in history, continued playing at his Texas ranch while his fellow citizens drowned and starved in New Orleans.” This from The Week magazine in London, quoting Philippe Grangereau in Paris’s Libération. Grangereau has just discovered that the reason Rome burned was that Nero fiddled. The critic then weakens his case by describing the particulars of a Bush vacation: “The president had been riding his bike, chopping wood, and fund-raising for five weeks.” People who think that fund-raising is vacation fare have never raised funds. Or chopped wood.
At a more ambitious level of criticism is Howard Jacobson in the London Independent. It was as easy for him as to look at the face of Bush on television. “No light of humanity in the eyes. No gravitas on the face.”
It’s true that Bush’s face hasn’t the melancholic cast of Abraham Lincoln’s, a dramatic problem actors have faced since first Falstaff took the stage. But it was a large leap to assume from dark juxtapositions, intended irony. But Annette Lévy-Willard tried it in Libération. Her point is that television news directors undertook to expose the hypocrisy of Mr. Bush and his administration through the use of a split screen: “On one side, an administration official saying everything was fine; on the other, images of old people and the poor clinging to rooftops, dying of thirst.” You can’t really expect an official talking to a television reporter about the help that’s on its way simultaneously to be feeding people “clinging to rooftops.”
But there are serious critics who say that the basic question has to do with racial disparities. USA Today features a poll on this question. Asked whether the president “cares about black people,” 67 percent of whites said yes, 79 percent of blacks said no. A broader question was put in a poll by the Washington Post, which recorded that nearly two-thirds of black respondents said that race played a part in the government’s response while just over two-thirds of whites said that wasn’t the case.
The beginning of wisdom in accosting that question is: Do you believe it? Do you believe that a helicopter looking for men and women in desperation would give preferred treatment to someone whose hands flailed for help because those hands were white, not black? No doubt that consanguinity plays a role in human affinities (that’s why Ebony magazine features black models), but it is blasphemous to suppose that organized official aid discriminated in New Orleans against blacks.
If the sequence were parsed in a particular way, such a conclusion would be encouraged, but not warranted. A. The poorer sections of town were the least accessible. B. The poorer sections of town were the most densely inhabited by blacks. C. Therefore, blacks received the least aid.–That sequence, posing as a syllogism, is fraudulent if made to add up to racial prejudice.
But what isn’t denied is the existence of racist perceptions, as shown in the Washington Post poll.
The most direct transcription of such prejudice came with the O. J. Simpson trial. When 75 percent of black Americans believe that the answer is A, not B, and 75 percent of white Americans believe that the answer is B, not A, then what we have is a breakdown in communication between two cultures. On this point I opined at the time (June 12, 1995):
“Either we share a common language and a common rational apparatus or we do not. It is a very very scary thing when three-quarters of one ethnic group flatly disagree with three-quarters of another ethnic group about the structure of rational arguments. It is simply wrong to suppose that the white majority believed O.J. to be guilty because he was black. It is simply undeniable that the black majority believed him innocent because he was black. And–remarkably–those figures remained static throughout those endless months of testimony.”
Black Americans tend to distrust white Americans (the FEMA agents were mostly white), especially if they are Republicans (the White House is white Republican)–which is why they vote over 90 per cent for Democrats. But European observers of the American scene should proceed cautiously, lest they find themselves engaged in prejudiced categorical thought, which rescues no one from any rooftop, but clouds the philanthropic vision.