In my lifetime, there have been two presidents whom I think have been better ex-presidents than they were active presidents–Jimmy Carter and George Bush. And on Saturday as the country marked twenty years since the bombing of the Twin Towers, George Bush gave the best speech of his career and one of the strongest speeches by any US President in recent history. He and Laura were at the site in Pennsylvania where the passengers and crew of the hi-jacked plane probably heading to the Capitol fought off the hijackers and prevented their mission. I’m sure journalists and talking heads will analyze this speech for whatever they are looking for, so I just want to share what it is about what Mr. Bush said that moved me deeply, several times to tears.
The language was quiet and specific throughout the speech, accenting obvious things like how our world was altered in some permanent ways that stunningly beautiful morning. Quickly, however, Mr. Bush wanted to remind us that people reached out for the hand that was close by without worrying about to whom it belonged and whether we might agree with them about things political or cultural. Clearly his focus was on unity then versus crushing divisions now, so he kept pairing past and present details, all of which cast shadows on where the country is today. At one point Mr. Bush called the people on that plane that morning a “random group of Americans who became an “extraordinary group of heroes.” Later in the speech, he began his many statements all ending with “That’s the America I know” and I knew he was alluding to the America that Trump has spawned with his racist, xenophobic, misogynist rhetoric. (I am so glad Mr. Bush never uttered his name since the Orange Man is addicted to hearing his name even if it’s being railed against.) What is always powerful about using anaphora–repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of grammatical units–is the cumulative effect that builds with each utterance. So whoever helped write the President’s speech for Saturday understands this rhetorical fact, so when Mr. Bush spoke about an instance of decency and acceptance as a possible response to life in the country today, he suddenly said “That is the America WE know.” I was caught up short because I expected him to say “I” know, so the final statement lingers long after its having been said. By expanding from his own idea of the country to what all of us listening to him can adopt if we so choose, he puts the ball squarely in each of our courts–where it surely belongs if we are to heal from the dangerous breaches happening to our fundamental democratic tenets. That’s his challenge.
Lest I focus only on what George W. Bush said Saturday, let me remind myself that right after the attack on 911, he told the country not to generalize to all Muslims. We had been attacked by specific fanatical Muslims, he said, not by the thousands of Muslims living in our towns and cities. He went even further by attending a Mosque and being photographed with an Imam. And I know all too well that the same president who spoke and acted in support of inclusivity said things and enacted policies that hurt the very diverse groups he was praising. But none of us is perfect, and all of us are better than our worst acts, as people like Sister Prejean reminds us every so often when she speaks about her work with death row criminals. So I thank Mr. Bush for instructing his speech writer(s) about the tone he wanted to sound; and especially I thank him for sounding that tone so clearly and unapologetically.