I have been reading No Ordinary Time lately, Doris Kearns Goodwin's marvelous history of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II. There are so many reminders of my childhood, so many names of long forgotten officials like War Production Board chief Donald Nelson that we used to memorize from My Weekly Reader. Goodwin describes the remarkable ability of President Roosevelt to unify the nation and mold public opinion. I remember how we used to sit around the radio and listen to his Fireside Chats, hearing his voice flow in musical cadences, a voice like no other I heard in school, on radio or, of course, on our immigrant-dominated Bronx streets. My mother always remarked on the brilliance of the oratory. "God bless him," she said after one Fireside Chat. "He didn't make a single mistake."
It's not fair, of course, to compare George W. Bush with FDR. But, as I read the book, it's hard not to be constantly reminded how poorly Bush fits the presidency. For the most part, in fact, he does not seem to be there. He rarely makes the front pages. His news conferences produce little news. He shows up on television to smile, to smirk, to gesture at a friend, to joke. Neither I nor anyone I know wait upon his words. There is an air of insignificance about him. He is a boring president.
His aides know this and seem determined to transform the image. That is why they billed his speech to the nation on stem cell research -- his first speech to the nation on any subject since the inauguration -- as a momentous moment in American history. In their view, it had all the drama and significance of a John F. Kennedy taking to television to implore Americans to guarantee voting and other civil rights to the blacks among us. But Bush's speech was hardly historic.
The issue ought to be simple. Fertility clinics thrive in the United States, and it is foolhardy not to use excess embryos for promising research. Most Americans, including many prominent Republicans, agree with this. Bush would look like a fanatical idiot if he tried to block all research. But there is a group of righteous conservatives who believe that abortion is the equivalent of Auschwitz. They extend their metaphor to cover fertility clinics as well. They insist that life begins at conception and therefore any squelching of this life, even in a test tube, is murder. Researchers who use the tissue from embryos that die are the equivalent of Nazi medical experimenters. Conservatives who believe this are all in Bush's corner, and his speech to the nation was really a speech to them.
Bush tried to show them that he had anguished over the decision and that he had tried to reach a compromise that would allow some research without crushing principles. For the rest of us, our ringside seat at this dialogue was supposed to afford us a chance to see Bush as presidential, statesmanlike, measured, mature, well-versed, ethical, philosophical, compassionate, and courageous. That did not work for me. His reasoning was tortured. His delivery was hurried and as boring as ever. His compromise was more likely to hurt research than help it. He still looked too small for the job.
I suspect that press commentary will acclaim the political wisdom of Bush's compromise. He managed to placate his right-wing backers while supporting the research, albeit in a lukewarm way. He managed to look like a compassionate conservative. Bush, in fact, has been doing rather well in the press lately. There has been a good deal of chatter in the press, for example, about his legislative victories. In his first six months in office, he cajoled Congress into passing his mischievous tax cut and even pressured the House into passing a watered-down Patients Bill of Rights and an energy bill that allows oil companies to drill where they shouldn't. He has demonstrated that he can go to the mat with mighty congressional Democrats and somehow pin them down. You cannot blame reporters for watching these matches and toting up the scorecard in Bush's favor. That's the nature of daily journalism.
But you have to wonder about a scorecard that chalks up passage of a harmful bill as a victory. Presidents ought to receive credit only for enhancing the public good, not for the sheer number of their bills passed. I think the tax cut will haunt this administration and the country in the long run. Perhaps it should be chalked up as a pyrrhic victory or as an albatross. That's not the job of reporters, I suppose. But I am sure historians will do so.
One thing is clear from the first six months of this president: He has no real sense of history or of the world outside American politics and Texas oil. He showed up at the Capitol rotunda on April 19 to deliver the keynote address at the annual ceremonies commemorating the millions who died in the Holocaust. The speech seemed designed more to boost his faith-based initiative legislation than to clarify the past. He seemed to believe that Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War II because they believed in God while their oppressors did not.
"...History's worst tyrants have always reserved a special hatred for the Jewish people," he said. "Tyrants and dictators will accept no other gods before them. They require disobedience to the First Commandment. They seek absolute control and are threatened by faith in God...So they resent the living example of the devout, especially the devotion of a unique people, chosen by God."
Hitler had contempt for Christianity as well as for the Jews, but it is nonsense to assume that the hordes of murderers were nonbelievers pushing Jews into gas chambers because they believed in God. Devout fascists in Vichy France sent Jews to their death and then took refuge after the war in Catholic churches and monasteries. These fascists probably had a stronger faith in God than some of their Jewish victims. If you go back in history, as Bush does, there is even less evidence for his pronouncements. Jewish victims burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition did not believe in God more fervently than their inquisitors. A tyrant like Francisco Franco hardly required "disobedience to the First Commandment;" he slept with the relic of a hand of Saint Teresa of Avila at his bedside all his life.
The speech was such a distortion of the Holocaust - when Jews were slaughtered whether believers or not -- that I wondered why there was no outcry against it. But he heaped so much praise on the Jews in his audience that they would have felt like ingrates to protest. And his speech seemed to make no impact elsewhere. His speeches rarely do.