A number of people have asked me who wrote George W. Bush’s speech over the weekend at the site of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa.—and what I think of it.
I have a few theories as to who wrote it, but I don’t know for sure, and I don’t really care.
As with most speeches, I care more about who said it, and who listened to it, and what might be its power to galvanize its intended audience in a mutual cause, or spirit.
These are the money paragraphs of the speech, as far as I’m concerned:
There’s little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard of human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them. …
In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient united people. When it comes to the unity of American people, those days seem distant from our own. Malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together. I come without explanations or solutions. I can only tell you what I’ve seen.
On America’s day of trial and grief I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know. At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know. At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know. At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know.
I can quibble with much of the rest of the speech, well crafted as it was. Lines like “a random group of Americans is an exceptional group of people” are the sort of jingoistic nonsense Studs Terkel and Susan Sontag and Bill Maher had the guts to call dangerous in the near-aftermath of 9/11. And how destructive, that jingoistic bullshit turned out to be.
The speech also might have included a wee paragraph of un-Bush-like introspection, about how some of his administration’s policies contributed to the anger, fear and resentment—those were Dick Cheney’s good qualities—that now leaves the former president without explanation or solution.
But the three paragraphs above, this onetime Bush-loathing (and still Bush-resenting) Democrat can get behind, word for word, with the possible and perhaps pedantic exception of wishing “the nation I know” was more like, “the nation I love,” or “the nation I believe in.” (Cuz all but the most hopeless patriotic glue-sniffers “know” lot of darker Americas, too; like the Midwestern night I drove through on September 14th, 2001, feeling damned glad I was not a Muslim.)
I think the hardest question I’ve been asked, mostly by people who have absorbed the title but not the content of my book, An Effort to Understand, is: Do we have to try to make friends with everybody?
My answer is that we have to try to understand our fellow human beings—out of self-interest and humanity both—but that no, we don’t have to try to be friends with everybody. Or anything like that.
But what we should not do—and this is what cable news people are encouraging us to do, by cherrypicking the most egregious statistics and the most obnoxious people on all sides of the political situation, and defining them as everybody but us—to grandiosely see ourselves as warriors in our own kind of domestic jihad. That’s the “malign force,” the “foul spirit” that President Bush was talking about, and it infects hearts of all kinds. Even Richard Nixon understood it was deadly, telling his staff in his farewell speech the day he left the White House in disgrace, “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Read the three Bush paragraphs above, and tell me what percentage of Americans can’t get on board with that, at least in spirit—or can’t be persuaded, over a couple of friendly porch beers, that a democracy isn’t a democracy without at least that minimum sense of tolerance and love and sanity and peace.
Seventy-five percent? Eighty? Depending on your tolerance for people who vote different than you these days, maybe 60 or 70?
Consider those Americans your country. With them, you don’t have to create unity, you already have it.
Stop focusing on the people you’ll never reach. Let the FBI and Fox News keep tabs on them, let the sorriest politicians rely on them, let their own self-destructive instincts prey on them—while you love them with the very most generous spiritual sense you can find in your heart. You love all people.
But spend your energy building upon what bonds you have with the people you can, and iron out your differences, or set them aside—and walk together, not necessarily in lockstep (you are not soldiers, just citizens)—in basic respect and candid humility and collective courage and a sense of humor.
That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway.