The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

The Underappreciated Barbara Bush

2000-From left: Laura Bush, Barbara Bush, and George W. Bush advisor Condoleezza Rice at a campaign stop in Southfield, Mich., October 18, 2000. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: realizing how little we appreciated Barbara Bush when she was in the public’s eye; Mike Pompeo meets with Kim Jong Un and the long road to presidential attendance at high-stakes summit meetings; and Democrats propose a vast, expensive new plan to tackle unemployment . . . at a particularly unusual time.

RIP, Barbara Bush

I’ve been thinking about how the culture saw Barbara Bush during her years in the public eye.

Phil Hartman was a great comedic performer, but his old Saturday Night Live sketches playing Barbara Bush feel unnecessarily mean now. The moment Hartman first appeared as Bush in a 1988 sketch, the audience laughed — a fairly big guy in a dress, acknowledging that Bush wasn’t petite or svelte. Hartman played opposite Jan Hooks all three times — Elizabeth Dole in one sketch, Kitty Dukakis in the next, and Nancy Reagan in the last. In Hartman’s first appearance as Barbara, Nora Dunn’s dim-witted television hostess character Pat Stevens asked, “Are you proud of your son?” Once corrected, she followed up, “Well, she looks so much older, I hardly think it’s my faux pa!” (Of course, after the presidency of George W. Bush, the question is funnier for its prophecy than for its disrespect.)

Still, Hartman tried to capture Bush’s gentle tone and gracious manners, even in the face of wild indignities. Perhaps the intended target of the joke was how tactless and rude people could be about her appearance — but the whole sketch presupposed that Bush somehow didn’t fit the mold of a traditional First Lady.

The Naked Gun 2 ½ featured a lot of slapstick humor involving Barbara Bush — Frank Drebin opening a door into her face, taking away her chair as she’s about to sit, banging her head onto a table, accidentally kissing her, and knocking her over a balcony. But even in this depiction, she’s relentlessly courteous to the buffoonish klutz Drebin, who keeps accidentally clobbering her. No doubt the creators concluded that if opening a door in someone’s face is embarrassing, opening a door into the face of First Lady Barbara Bush — America’s grandmother! — would be mortifying. She was more popular than her husband in most polls during his presidency, and by 2014, a survey found her to be the most popular former first lady.

Then again, maybe these depictions are something of a salute; Barbara Bush could handle it. She could handle anything. An easily-forgotten tale of young Barbara revealed she stood her ground in the toughest of places. Bush, two African-American caretakers, and her children Jeb, Neil, and Marvin, were journeying from west Texas to Connecticut in the summer of 1957:

The Bushes had made reservations at hotels along the way. They were not aware, until they reached Oklahoma City the first night, that the hotels they had chosen would not accommodate blacks.

“She came out and told us the manager didn’t want us to stay there,” [Otha Taylor, one of the caretakers] recalled.

“We explained to her this would be all right, she could let us get a motel or something in the black neighborhood. She said no.”

The hotel finally relented and let the women stay. Otha Taylor recalls Barbara Bush fighting the same battle at each stop — pressuring hotel clerks, changing reservations, refusing to split up the group.

“She insisted that we were together and we were going to stay together,” Taylor said. “Sometimes she would go out (of a hotel) upset. This was all the way to Maine. She would talk to us and tell us how badly she felt. She kept us with her and she didn’t go anyplace we couldn’t go, and she didn’t live anyplace we couldn’t live.”

The passing of Barbara Bush feels like a marker, or a reminder, that not so long ago public figures could be strong without being nasty or combative. Or perhaps rarely so; Terence Hunt shares a fascinating story of the time Barbara Bush lost her temper and appeared to use a crude term about Geraldine Ferraro back in 1984. She later told a biographer that she had cried for “twenty-four hours” at the thought of how she had embarrassed her husband and family, and called Ferraro and apologized.

We rarely appreciate people enough until they’re gone.

When Pompeo Met Kim

Should Mike Pompeo be confirmed as secretary of state? Or is that now just a formality, since he’s doing the sorts of things a secretary of state usually does already?

CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a top-secret visit to North Korea as an envoy for President Trump to meet with Kim Jong Un, and plans for a possible summit between the two leaders are underway, Trump confirmed Wednesday.

The extraordinary meeting between one of Trump’s most trusted emissaries and the authoritarian head of a rogue state was part of an effort to lay the groundwork for direct talks between Trump and Kim about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

His meeting with Kim marks the highest-level contact between the two countries since 2000, when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s late father, to discuss strategic issues. Then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. visited the country in 2014 to secure the release of two American captives and met with a lower-level intelligence official.

By itself, a pre-summit meeting between a foreign leader and a high-level American official is pretty standard and normal. I’m reading William Taubman’s Gorbachev: His Life and Times, and the book is full of fascinating details pulled from interviews with all of the key figures of the era, records from the Soviet state archives, and Gorbachev’s diaries and contemporaneous notes.

In 1985, George Shultz went to Moscow to meet with Gorbachev before Reagan and the Soviet leader had their first meeting in Geneva. From Taubman’s book:

Other elements of the meeting encouraged Shultz. Gorbachev didn’t flare up when interrupted, but seemed to relish sharp exchanges, and although “he talked a lot, but he also listened.” But on the whole, according to Dobrynin, the conversation was “long and difficult.” Gorbachev complained heatedly about SDI [the Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. “Star Wars”]. Shultz gave as good as he got. Dobrynin thought Gorbachev was “overdoing [SDI] because that would merely reinforce Regan’s belief in its importance.” Shultz felt Gorbachev was “acting, posturing, trying to show how tough he was.” Gorbachev came away disappointed that Shultz “did not have serious baggage for the summit.”

I’m not opposed to negotiations with Pyongyang. I’m just not convinced that this White House is ready to even start discussions, much less reach a good agreement. It’s easy to forget that the first few Reagan–Gorbachev summits were disappointments in terms of substantive negotiations, although the two leaders gradually built a genuine personal friendship and understanding. The world seemed to relax a little bit, watching the leaders of the Cold War superpowers discuss their differences amiably; perhaps a Trump–Kim summit would have a similar calming effect.

But Reagan spent almost all of his second term in continual negotiations and offers and counter-offers with Gorbachev. Nothing we’ve seen from President Trump indicates that he has the patience, focus or fortitude to enter a detailed, complicated, multi-year process of negotiating a path to verified denuclearization of North Korea. No one knows where the president stands on any details of policy until he says so himself, and even that can change; Trump apparently changed his mind on another round of Russia sanctions at the last minute.

Heck, this administration is still operating with a skeleton crew. We’re still waiting for the Senate to confirm the new secretary of State; the new CIA director; and Susan Thornton, the nominee to be the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who was nominated in January. We’re still waiting for nominations to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea, the State Department’s coordinator for threat-reduction programs, and the special envoy for North Korea human-rights issues.

Reaching a workable deal with North Korea would be difficult enough, even when fully staffed.

It’s the Perfect Time for an Expensive Jobs Plan, Right?

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: “If Republicans could give $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to corporations and the wealthiest among us, why can’t we invest a similar amount in a guaranteed jobs plan for regular Americans who are unemployed and willing to work to better their local community?”

Er, has she noticed that the number of new jobless claims hit the lowest point since 1973 recently?

Gillibrand appears to be embracing a proposed plan from a former economic adviser to Bernie Sanders, a not-too-subtle cry of “Hey, Bernie revolutionaries, look at me!”

It’s interesting to watch liberals cry we need to reach “true full employment” — a term which insists that the current moment is not-quite-true full employment. And perhaps it isn’t. But we’ve been at 4.1 percent for the past six months, the lowest in 17 years, and just barely ahead of 2000’s 3.9 percent; before that, you have to go all the way back to 1969 for a national unemployment rate of 3.5 percent. If our current economic conditions don’t constitute full employment, we’re in the neighborhood.

ADDENDA: The LIBRE Initiative and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce will be launching a seven-figure national campaign calling on congressional leaders to agree to a permanent solution for Dreamers. That’s quite a sum, going towards national television ads on both broadcast and cable as well as some digital advertising.

Regardless of what you think the policy on the Dreamer immigrants ought to be, notice that everyone who demonizes the Koch network won’t even bother to acknowledge these efforts.

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