Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The Bush Apologista

It's not easy being a Bush apologist these days. In fact, it's getting so bad that they have to just make shit up.

(OK, so they've always made shit up. But it's becoming pronounced.)

Anyone who listens to NPR or watches Fox knows, of course, that Juan Williams is a Bush Apologista of some repute. So it's not surprising that his recent New York Times op-ed is primarily an apologia for Bush's dismal standing in the black community.

Along the way, there's this:
This is the record that President Bush can draw on to win a larger share of the black vote. But he has to want to do it. In private conversations, administration officials make the case that they want the black vote. But it is also clear that they are not planning to work hard to get it -- in part because they are still angry over the black response to their efforts in 2000.

Ah, yes. Of course, it's black people's fault that the Bush administration's photo ops with onstage minorities failed to attract votes. It probably doesn't cross these people's rather dim radars that if Bush had done something other than, say, obfuscate his dismal record regarding hate-crimes laws, play pitty-pat with neo-Confederates and slam affirmative action, something other than a handful of blacks might have considered voting for him. Even then, it's a hard sell.

Any, it goes on to a dramatic conclusion:
Interestingly, the anger predates the post-election sparring in Florida. It has its roots in an ad, run nationally by the N.A.A.C.P., that implied that Mr. Bush, as governor of Texas, did not want to punish the white men who attacked and killed James Byrd Jr., a black man, in Jasper, Tex., in 1998.

The ad distorted a complex situation. As governor, Mr. Bush took the conventional conservative position that hate crimes legislation could lead to a dangerous increase in prosecutorial power. Mr. Bush argued that there were adequate criminal penalties to punish Mr. Byrd's assailants. No matter: the N.A.A.C.P. broadcast its ad. Mr. Bush, who won 30 percent of the black vote and 47 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 1998 gubernatorial campaign, was introduced to minorities as a man willing to stand with white lynch mobs.

It's hard to say where Williams came up with this nugget. Bush's position as governor, as far as the written and reported record goes, regarding hate-crimes legislation that was proposed during his tenure had nothing whatsoever to do with prosecutorial power.

Bush's actual, stated position was far more simplistic, and his shameful behavior during the whole episode involving James Byrd's family and the effort to pass a new hate-crime law in Texas -- behavior that was at the heart of the ad in question -- ranged from evasive and nasty to downright deceptive.

Here's an excerpt (pp. 109-110) from my forthcoming book, Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America:
The hate-crime debate continued to rage on the state level, too -- especially in Texas, where James Byrd's killing inspired another effort to pass an effective law. The key player: the state's moderate Republican governor, George W. Bush.

Texas already had a hate-crimes law, passed in 1993 -- which was in fact the source of the problem. Passed amid a rancorous debate over the inclusion of sexual orientation as a bias category, it was watered down so that the law defined a hate crime by referring to the selection of victims "because of the defendant's bias or prejudice against a person or group." This language was so vague as to render the law constitutionally unsound and virtually worthless; a similar Utah statute was thrown out in 1999 by a state judge who called the law "incomplete" and "unenforceable." Consequently, Texas prosecutors rarely used the law -- and indeed, the cases pursued under the law in the ensuing years numbered exactly two.

Bush, however, had already made clear where he stood: "I've always said all crime is hate crime," he told a March 1999 news conference. "People, when they commit a crime, have hate in their heart. And it's hard to distinguish between one degree of hate and another."

But the governor was on the verge of launching his ultimately successful campaign to capture the presidency, and he had already made clear he intended to present to the voters a vision of "compassionate conservatism" -- a platform that suggested some moderation on social issues. At the same time, any bill approved in Texas that would expand hate-crimes categories to include gay-bashing, or might otherwise grant "special rights" to gays, was certain to attract the wrath of the Christian right, who constituted one of the Republicans' chief national constituencies.

So when State Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston introduced a bill in the 1999 Texas Legislature to replace the state's weak hate-crimes law, Bush chose to take, officially, no position on its passage. Indeed, when it passed the House eight-three to sixty-one, Bush said he would consider the bill if the Senate passed it. Then, quietly, his office went to work to kill it in the Senate, reportedly at the behest of Bush's political director, Karl Rove.

The bill faced difficulties anyway; Texas legislative rules severely limit the length of time bills are allowed to linger between houses, and Senate Republicans promptly set about sidetracking the measure in the Criminal Justice Committee, where it remained. Supporters then turned to their trump card: James Byrd's family, who came to Austin in May to lobby Bush for his support.

Byrd's twenty-nine-year-old daughter, Renee Mullins, met with Bush on May 6 in his office. Accompanying her were a cousin, Darrell Verrett; state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Democrat from Houston; and a gay-rights lobbyist.

Mullins later described the meeting: "I went in there pleading to him. I said that if he helped me move it along I would feel that [James] hadn't died in vain. . . . [Rep.] Thompson said, 'Governor Bush, what Renee's trying to say is, Would you help her pass the bill?' And he said, 'No.' Just like that.
"He had a nonchalant attitude, like he wanted to hurry up and get out of there. It was cold in that room."

A week later, after a Bush staffer met with the Republican caucus, the Senate officially let the bill die in committee. However, the matter would continue to haunt Bush.

The facts of the NAACP ad campaign are also rather at odds with Williams' characterization of the situation. They began running shortly after Bush rather blatantly misstated, during his nationally televised second debate with Al Gore, his position on hate-crimes laws and his handling of the legislation in Texas (as well as the outcome of the Byrd murder trials). Also from the text (pp. 112-113):
James Byrd's family was outraged [by Bush's debate performance] but not surprised. Renee Mullins in particular was angry about Bush's performance, saying: "It was just another way of him misleading the public. He didn't have the statistics right."

The NAACP, which had supported the Byrd family's efforts in Texas, made a national campaign issue out of Bush's handling of bias-crime laws, with the family in a starring role. It prepared a series of television, radio and newspaper ads questioning the governor's commitment to racial justice, featuring Renee Mullins saying: "I went to Governor George W. Bush and begged him to help pass a Hate Crimes Bill in Texas. He just told me no."

The Bush camp responded testily: "Throughout the process, Governor Bush has treated the Byrd family with a great deal of respect," spokesman Ray Sullivan said. "He spoke to them prior to Mr. Byrd's funeral. He gave forty-five minutes of his time to meet with Miss Mullins. The governor's office helped to fund the prosecution of Mr. Byrd's killers."

But in truth, no one in the Byrd family could recall Bush phoning the family -- and in fact, he had stayed away from the funeral by suggesting that the atmosphere was too "politically charged," even though other top state Republicans (including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison) had shown up. Nor was the contribution from the governor's office to the prosecution anything out of the ordinary -- $100,000, or about an eighth of the actual costs (the federal government, in contrast, contributed about $250,000).

Reality notwithstanding, Republicans in short order turned the NAACP's attack ads into a liability for Democrats, accusing the civil-rights group of "reprehensible" behavior for linking Bush to the Byrd killing. By the time the election rolled around in early November, conservative commentators offered as conventional wisdom the idea that the ads "implied that George W. Bush killed James Byrd." Right-wing pundit Ann Coulter featured the meme in her later book, Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, suggesting that Bush's support for the penalty should have mollified his critics, but instead, "they would not rest until the killers were found guilty of 'hate' and forced to attend anger-management classes."

The ads, of course, reasonably took Bush to task for his awful record on hate-crimes legislation, but with an emotional twist. Yes, it was a gut punch -- and conservatives responded in kind.

It's too bad Juan Williams couldn't be bothered to at least describe the actual content of the ads. Or perhaps explain just where in Bush's speeches or policy statements he opposed hate crimes out of a concern for prosecutorial abuse. And is there any mention of Bob Jones University here?

But then, that would make his job as an apologist that much harder all over again.

[Pssst. Death on the Fourth of July is supposed to be hitting the shelves this week. More soon.]

No comments: