This week in the USA, two former presidents and one current senator delivered uncoordinated speeches that I thought were devastating blows against rising far-right nationalism. The speakers were Republican George W. Bush, Democrat Barack Obama, and Republican Senator John McCain, who is from my current hometown of metro-Phoenix. All three speeches obviously targeted that form of nationalism touted by current Republican President Donald Trump, if not also his recent chief political strategist Stephen Bannon, without naming them. The speeches were a warning, calling Americans back to the ideals of their democratic system that made their nation great.
George W. Bush has purposely withheld public comment about President Donald Trump’s nine-month presidency. But no longer. This week at the George W. Bush Institute in New York City, I thought Bush’s speech was outstanding. It was a profound rebuke of President Trump without ever naming him. Bush reportedly wrote this speech himself with some help. I immediately said to myself these exact words, “that speech was very well crafted.” I now just read that Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson at the University of Pennsylvania has called it “a beautifully crafted speech.”
Throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, I thought he was quite good at delivering a prepared speech. Yet I didn’t think he was that polished at extemporaneous public speaking. In fact, he was known for his gaffes almost as much as was his dad’s vice president, Dan Quayle. I liked George W’s constant word “nuculer,” for nuclear, the best. He never could get that one right.
Among the many memorable lines in this George W. Bush speech was this one, “Our identity as a nation — unlike many other nations — is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood.” This obviously was an implied criticism against white supremacists, especially those televised at the Charlottesville demonstrations who chanted “soil or blood,” a favorite neo-Nazi expression.
Bush’s wife Laura is a former school teacher. George continued, “our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.”
That “casual cruelty” expression surely targeted President Trump. Throughout his political campaign and including his presidency, Trump has ridiculed many political opponents by calling them names such as “Crooked Hilary (Clinton), Lying Ted (Cruz), Low Energy Jeb (Bush). When Mr. Trump finished his speech at his presidential inauguration this year, on January 20th, George W. Bush, sitting in the audience, reportedly said out loud to those sitting beside him, “What kind of s— is this?”
Senator McCain was not short on memorable lines in his speech this week, either. He spoke of “half-baked, spurious nationalism.” He added, “We have done great good in the world.” That was intended partly against Trump for chastising much of our recent past as he trumpeted his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” It is to John McCain’s credit that he never retaliated in public against Trump in his campaign when he said of McCain’s bravery as a five-year+ POW in the Vietnam War, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” What a jerk! McCain, the son of a Navy admiral, was a Navy pilot who got shot down in Viet Nam while flying a plane and was injured, preventing him from escaping. (See my post, “Was Donald Trump a Draft Dodger?“)