I'm in an Eliza Doolittle sort of mood. I have heard George Bush's inaugural address with its fine words of inclusion and unity, but I have heard these sentiments before -- in the campaign, at the convention and since the election itself. "Words! Words! Words! I'm so sick of words," the frustrated Ms. Doolittle sang to Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady." "Show me!"
My sentiments exactly.
It's not that I don't think Bush is sincere in his desire to unify the country and heal the breach that the campaign and, especially, the botched election opened up. I believe further that he has genuine concern for the poor and would love, through education, to improve their lives. When he talks of such matters -- when he says he will "speak for greater justice and compassion" -- his standing invitation to judge his heart shows a man of genuine compassion.
But words are not enough. The fact remains that in the period Bush has been talking this talk, he's not been walking the walk -- not as far the African American community is concerned. In fact, Bush conducted himself in a way that has apparently eroded his standing among the ethnic group with the greatest claim on the American conscience.
Bush got only 8 percent of the black vote in the recent election. That was a bit poorer than what Ronald Reagan got in 1984. He did worse than Bob Dole and worse than his father. To find a GOP presidential candidate who got a smaller percentage of the black vote, you have to go all the way back to Barry Goldwater in 1964, a candidate who was opposed to civil rights legislation.
Bush could take solace in the fact that Al Gore was heir to Bill Clinton's popularity and that Gore himself had long championed programs dear to the hearts of African Americans. But Bush had sought to become a new kind of GOP presidential candidate. He was not going to write off black America. He not only featured speeches by Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell at the convention, but no black child in America was safe from his photo-op hugs.
The effort produced what could only be called a magisterial rebuff. One reason was that Bush chickened out on South Carolina's use of the Confederate flag. He said over and over that the issue was South Carolina's to decide.
John McCain took the same position. Later, though, he recanted, confessing political cowardice. "I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary," he said. Bush said nothing. His spokesman said he was sticking with his position of having no position.
It was the same with the speech at Bob Jones University. The place is symbolic of intolerance -- never mind that it gets its bigotry from the Bible. There, too, Bush would not move. There, too, he sent a message with his actions that belied his words. He won South Carolina and moved on to the nomination and the presidency. Maybe he forgot the whole thing. Others have not.
The performance has taken its toll. When he ran for reelection as Texas governor, Bush claimed 27 percent of the black vote. When he ran for president, he got only 5 percent of the black vote in his own state. Something had happened -- different opponent, different issues, of course. Bottom line: Blacks went where they felt comfortable.
The Internet is virtually aflame with jokes about how dumb Bush is. I don't think they're funny, because I don't think they're true. Bush is no dummy. But he is not thoughtful and he is not particularly inquisitive. As a young, rich man, he rarely traveled abroad. He has shown not the slightest interest in the detailed workings of Texas's death penalty machinery -- worthy of reform, if not outright abolition. He tends to make himself and his feelings the sole judge of things -- how he feels, what's in his heart.
But to gays, to many women and to African Americans the selection of John Ashcroft as attorney general is a message of contempt -- not compassion, understanding or even tolerance. To blacks, the South Carolina flap sent a similar message. These actions truly spoke louder than Bush's tender words and, in some cases, seem to contradict Bush's use of the word "courage" in his inaugural address.
George Bush, I am convinced, is a good man of genuine talents. But he is too self-referential, so moved by his words and intentions that he thinks they are the sole judge of his character. At noon on Saturday, his presidency began, as all do, with words. Now, though, will have to come actions.
Show me. Show us all.