The Uncompassionate Conservative

It's not that he's mean. It's just that when it comes to seeing how his policies affect people, George W. Bush doesn't have a clue.

In order to understand why George W. Bush doesn't get it, you have to take several strands of common Texas attitude, then add an impressive degree of class-based obliviousness. What you end up with is a guy who sees himself as a perfectly nice fellow -- and who is genuinely disconnected from the impact of his decisions on people.

On the few occasions when Bush does directly encounter the down-and-out, he seems to empathize. But then, in what is becoming a recurring, almost nightmare-type scenario, the minute he visits some constructive program and praises it (AmeriCorps, the Boys and Girls Club, job training), he turns around and cuts the budget for it. It's the kiss of death if the president comes to praise your program. During the presidential debate in Boston in 2000, Bush said, "First and foremost, we've got to make sure we fully fund LIHEAP [the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program], which is a way to help low-income folks, particularly here in the East, pay their high fuel bills." He then sliced $300 million out of that sucker, even as people were dying of hypothermia, or, to put it bluntly, freezing to death.

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Sometimes he even cuts your program before he comes to praise it. In August 2002, Bush held a photo op with the Quecreek coal miners, the nine men whose rescue had thrilled the country. By then he had already cut the coal-safety budget at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which engineered the rescue, by 6 percent, and had named a coal-industry executive to run the agency.

The Reverend Jim Wallis, leader of Call to Renewal, a network of churches that fight poverty, told the New York Times that shortly after his election, Bush had said to him, "I don't understand how poor people think," and had described himself as a "white Republican guy who doesn't get it, but I'd like to." What's annoying about Bush is when this obtuseness, the blinkeredness of his life, weighs so heavily on others, as it has increasingly as he has acquired more power.

There was a telling episode in 1999 when the Department of Agriculture came out with its annual statistics on hunger, showing that once again Texas was near the top. Texas is a perennial leader in hunger because we have 43 counties in South Texas (and some in East Texas) that are like Third World countries. If our border region were a state, it would be first in poverty, first in the percentage of schoolchildren living in poverty, first in the percentage of adults without a high school diploma, 51st in income per capita, and so on.

When the 1999 hunger stats were announced, Bush threw a tantrum. He thought it was some malign Clinton plot to make his state look bad because he was running for president. "I saw the report that children in Texas are going hungry. Where?" he demanded. "No children are going to go hungry in this state. You'd think the governor would have heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas." You would, wouldn't you? That is the point at which ignorance becomes inexcusable. In five years, Bush had never spent time with people in the colonias, South Texas' shantytowns; he had never been to a session with Valley Interfaith, a consortium of border churches and schools and the best community organization in the state. There is no excuse for a governor to be unaware of this huge reality of Texas.

Take any area -- environment, labor, education, taxes, health -- and go to the websites of public-interest groups in that field. You will find page after page of minor adjustments, quiet repeals, no-big-deal new policies, all of them cruel, destructive, and harmful. A silent change in regulations, an executive order, a funding cutoff. No headlines. Below the radar. Again and again and again. Head Start, everybody's favorite government program, is being targeted for "improvement" by leaving it to the tender mercies of Mississippi and Alabama. An AIDS program that helps refugees in Africa and Asia gets its funding cut because one of the seven groups involved once worked with the United Nations, which once worked with the Chinese government, which once supported forced abortions.

So what manner of monster is behind these outrages? I have known George W. Bush slightly since we were both in high school, and I studied him closely as governor. He is neither mean nor stupid. What we have here is a man shaped by three intertwining strands of Texas culture, combined with huge blinkers of class. The three Texas themes are religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo. They all play well politically with certain constituencies.

Let's assume the religiosity is genuine; no one is in a position to know otherwise. I leave it to more learned commentators to address what "Christian" might actually mean in terms of public policy.

The anti-intellectualism is also authentic. This is a grudge Bush has carried at least since his college days when he felt looked down on as a frat rat by more cerebral types. Despite his pedigree and prep schools, he ran into Eastern stereotypes of Texans at Yale, a common experience at Ivy schools in that time. John F. Kennedy, the consummate, effortlessly graceful, classy Harvard man, had just been assassinated in ugly old Dallas, and Lyndon Johnson's public piety gave many people the creeps. Texans were more or less thought of as yahoo barbarians somewhere between the Beverly Hillbillies and Deliverance. I do not exaggerate by much. To have a Texas accent in the East in those days was to have 20 points automatically deducted from your estimated IQ. And Texans have this habit of playing to the stereotype -- it's irresistible. One proud Texan I know had never owned a pair of cowboy boots in his life until he got a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard. Just didn't want to let anyone down.

For most of us who grow up in the "boonies" and go to school in the East, it's like speaking two languages -- Bill Clinton, for example, is perfectly bilingual. But it's not unusual for a spell in the East to reinforce one's Texanness rather than erode it, and that's what happened to Bush. Bush had always had trouble reading -- we assume it is dyslexia (although Slate's Jacob Weisberg attributes it to aphasia); his mom was still doing flash cards with him when he was in junior high. Feeling intellectually inferior apparently fed into his resentment of Easterners and other known forms of snob.

Bush once said, "There's a West Texas populist streak in me, and it irritates me when these people come out to Midland and look at my friends with just the utmost disdain." In his mind, Midland is the true-blue heartland of the old vox pop. The irony is that Midland along with its twin city, Odessa, is one of the most stratified and narrow places in the country. Both are oil towns with amazingly strict class segregation. Midland is the white-collar, Republican town; Odessa is the blue-collar, Democratic town. The class conflict plays out in an annual football rivalry so intense that H.G. Bissinger featured it in his best-selling book, Friday Night Lights. To mistake Midland for the volk heartland is the West Texas equivalent of assuming that Greenwich, Connecticut, is Levittown.

In fact, people in Midland are real nice folks: I can't prove that with statistics, but I know West Texas and it's just a fact. Open, friendly, no side to 'em. The problem is, they're way isolated out there and way limited too. You can have dinner at the Petroleum Club anytime with a bunch of them and you'll come away saying, "Damn, those are nice people. Sure glad they don't run the world." It is still such a closed, narrow place, where everybody is white, Protestant, and agrees with everybody else. It's not unusual to find people who think, as George W. did when he lived there, that Jimmy Carter was leading the country toward "European-style socialism." A board member of the ACLU of Texas was asked recently if there had been any trouble with gay bashing in Midland. "Oh, hell, honey," she drawled, "there's not a gay in Midland who will come out of the closet for fear people will think they're Democrats."

The machismo is what I suspect is fake. Bush is just another upper-class white boy trying to prove he's tough. The minute he is questioned, he becomes testy and defensive. That's one reason they won't let him hold many press conferences. When he tells stories about his dealings with two of the toughest men who ever worked in politics -- the late Lee Atwater and the late Bob Bullock -- Bush, improbably, comes off as the toughest mother in the face-down. I wouldn't put money on it being true. Bullock, the late lieutenant governor and W's political mentor in Texas, could be and often was meaner than a skilletful of rattlesnakes. Bush's story is that one time, Bullock cordially informed him that he was about to fuck him. Bush stood up and kissed Bullock, saying, "If I'm gonna get fucked, at least I should be kissed." It probably happened, but I guarantee you Bullock won the fight. Bush never got what made Bullock more than just a supermacho pol -- the old son of a bitch was on the side of the people. Mostly.

The perfect absurdity of all this, of course, is that Bush's identification with the sturdy yeomen of Midland (actually, oil-company executives almost to a man) is so wildly at variance with his real background. Bush likes to claim the difference between him and his father is that, "He went to Greenwich Country Day and I went to San Jacinto Junior High." He did. For one year. Then his family moved to a posh neighborhood in Houston, and he went to the second-best prep school in town (couldn't get into the best one) before going off to Andover as a legacy.

Jim Hightower's great line about Bush, "Born on third and thinks he hit a triple," is still painfully true. Bush has simply never acknowledged that not only was he born with a silver spoon in his mouth -- he's been eating off it ever since. The reason there is no noblesse oblige about Dubya is because he doesn't admit to himself or anyone else that he owes his entire life to being named George W. Bush. He didn't just get a head start by being his father's son -- it remained the single most salient fact about him for most of his life. He got into Andover as a legacy. He got into Yale as a legacy. He got into Harvard Business School as a courtesy (he was turned down by the University of Texas Law School). He got into the Texas Air National Guard -- and sat out Vietnam -- through Daddy's influence. (I would like to point out that that particular unit of FANGers, as regular Air Force referred to the "Fucking Air National Guard," included not only the sons of Governor John Connally and Senator Lloyd Bentsen, but some actual black members as well -- they just happened to play football for the Dallas Cowboys.) Bush was set up in the oil business by friends of his father. He went broke and was bailed out by friends of his father. He went broke again and was bailed out again by friends of his father; he went broke yet again and was bailed out by some fellow Yalies.

That Bush's administration is salted with the sons of somebody-or-other should come as no surprise. I doubt it has ever even occurred to Bush that there is anything wrong with a class-driven good-ol'-boy system. That would explain why he surrounds himself with people like Eugene Scalia (son of Justice Antonin Scalia), whom he named solicitor of the Department of Labor -- apparently as a cruel joke. Before taking that job, the younger Scalia was a handsomely paid lobbyist working against ergonomic regulations designed to prevent repetitive stress injuries. His favorite technique was sarcastic invective against workers who supposedly faked injuries when the biggest hazard they faced was "dissatisfaction with co-workers and supervisors." More than 5 million Americans are injured on the job every year, and more die annually from work-related causes than were killed on September 11. Neither Scalia nor Bush has ever held a job requiring physical labor.

What is the disconnect? One can see it from the other side -- people's lives are being horribly affected by the Bush administration's policies, but they make no connection between what happens to them and the decisions made in Washington. I think I understand why so many people who are getting screwed do not know who is screwing them. What I don't get is the disconnect at the top. Is it that Bush doesn't want to see? No one brought it to his attention? He doesn't care?

Okay, we cut taxes for the rich and so we have to cut services for the poor. Presumably there is some right-wing justification along the lines that helping poor people just makes them more dependent or something. If there were a rationale Bush could express, it would be one thing, but to watch him not see, not make the connection, is another thing entirely. Welfare, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps -- horrors, they breed dependency. Whereas inheriting millions of dollars and having your whole life handed to you on a platter is good for the grit in your immortal soul? What we're dealing with here is a man in such serious denial it would be pathetic if it weren't damaging so many lives.

Bush's lies now fill volumes. He lied us into two hideously unfair tax cuts; he lied us into an unnecessary war with disastrous consequences; he lied us into the Patriot Act, eviscerating our freedoms. But when it comes to dealing with those less privileged, Bush's real problem is not deception, but self-deception.