Amer­ica is not a ‘kinder, gen­tler’ place

The Modesto Bee - - Opinion - BY LEONARD PITTS JR. [email protected]­ami­her­

On the last night of the Re­pub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion in 1988, the can­di­date sought to im­part to the coun­try a vi­sion of the Amer­ica it could be. “Some,” he said, “would say it’s soft and in­suf­fi­ciently tough to care” about trou­bled chil­dren. “But where is it writ­ten, that we must act as if we do not care, as if we are not moved? Well, I am moved. I want a kinder, gen­tler na­tion.”

And at the end of that speech, he made a prom­ise: “I will keep Amer­ica mov­ing for­ward, al­ways for­ward, for a bet­ter Amer­ica, for an end­less, en­dur­ing dream and a thou­sand points of light.”

Those words would en­ter the po­lit­i­cal lex­i­con, but in one sense, there was noth­ing re­mark­able about what Ge­orge H.W. Bush said. Pres­i­dents – and those who want to be pres­i­dent – have al­ways sought to weave po­etry from the prose of our daily lives, to en­no­ble our striv­ings and speak to what an­other Re­pub­li­can once called “the bet­ter an­gels of our na­ture.”

That’s what statesmen did once upon a time. But Amer­ica has sel­dom seemed fur­ther from states­man­ship – or from the vi­sion Bush ar­tic­u­lated – than it does now as the 41st pres­i­dent passes from the scene.

He died just days after the United States used tear­gas against asy­lum seek­ers, in­clud­ing chil­dren in di­a­pers, after a hand­ful of boys and men threw rocks at a bor­der check­point in San Diego.

He was eu­lo­gized in Wash­ing­ton as lame duck Re­pub­li­can leg­is­la­ture in Wis­con­sin brazenly stron­garmed democ­racy and lifted a mid­dle fin­ger to the will of the peo­ple, vot­ing to strip power from the in­com­ing Demo­cratic gov­er­nor and at­tor­ney gen­eral.

He was memo­ri­al­ized in Texas as in­ves­ti­ga­tors in North Carolina probed an al­leged scheme in which an op­er­a­tive work­ing for a GOP can­di­date col­lected ab­sen­tee bal­lots from vot­ers in Demo­cratic ar­eas and di­verted them away from the bal­lot box.

Such things seem to hap­pen ev­ery day in the thugoc­racy Amer­ica has be­come. And that speaks to how thor­oughly Amer­ica has re­jected the vi­sion of it­self Bush of­fered 30 years ago.

No na­tion can be called kind or gen­tle that uses gas against chil­dren. And any na­tion where the right of the peo­ple to choose their own path is stolen by dirty tricks or mugged by po­lit­i­cal gang­sters is a na­tion walk­ing un­der a thou­sand shad­ows.

Think what you will of Bush. Crit­i­cize his Wil­lie Hor­ton ad as a de­spi­ca­ble dog whis­tle to the na­tion’s racists, con­demn him for in­ac­tion against AIDS and for es­ca­lat­ing the ru­inous War on Drugs. Laud him for his mea­sured re­sponse to Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait, his sign­ing of the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, his sup­port for cli­mate sci­ence.

But un­der­stand that ul­ti­mately, the suc­cesses and fail­ures of his pub­lic life have lit­tle to do with the very par­tic­u­lar sense of loss some of us feel as the last pres­i­dent of the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion takes his leave. There is al­ways a sense of mo­ment when a pres­i­dent dies. But the death of this pres­i­dent, this de­cent man, seems to close one of the few re­main­ing doors be­tween us and that time when pres­i­dents made po­etry of prose and you didn’t awaken ev­ery day to some new thugo­cratic out­rage.

“Some have said this is an end of an era,” Bush’s pas­tor, the Rev. Dr. Rus­sell Jones Leven­son Jr., said in his eu­logy. “But it doesn’t have to be. Per­haps this is an in­vi­ta­tion to fill the void that has been left be­hind.”

We can only hope. Be­cause this mo­ment is haunted by a cu­ri­ous and sober­ing du­al­ity. Some peo­ple mourn for Ge­orge H.W. Bush, yes.

But some of us mourn for Amer­ica, too.

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