The Thin Line Between Liking and Slamming the President

Lanny Davis, the special counsel during the Clinton administration, has an enjoyable op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. It’s cast as an appreciation of George W. Bush, “a sincere and kind man and a good friend” from Yale. But the fond memories of their college days have the effect of magnifying his (arguably) fatal flaws as president. Note this story:

True Confessions: A Democrat Likes George

But despite what you may have heard or read, George was not just frat-house party boy. One of my most vivid memories is this: A few of us were in the common room one night. It was 1965, I believe — my junior year, his sophomore. We were making our usual sarcastic commentaries on those who walked by us. A little nasty perhaps, but always with a touch of humor. On this occasion, however, someone we all believed to be gay walked by, although the word we used in those days was “queer.” Someone, I’m sorry to say, snidely used that word as he walked by.

George heard it and, most uncharacteristically, snapped: “Shut up.” Then he said, in words I can remember almost verbatim: “Why don’t you try walking in his shoes for a while and see how it feels before you make a comment like that?”

Remember, this was the 1960s — pre-Stonewall, before gay rights became a cause many of us (especially male college students) had thought much about. I remember thinking, “This guy is much deeper than I realized.”

In light of that memory, I wondered last year why Bush chose to exploit the gay marriage issue in his campaign. I’m still not sure, but I think that’s what politics sometimes does to a person. Now he appears to be backing off, and I am not surprised. I hope it suggests a return to the “compassionate conservatism” I remember and that he practiced in his two terms as governor of Texas.

That’s a very clever — and powerful — criticism, isn’t it? It plays into conservative portrayals of Bush as a genuinely decent human being, then casually notes that power may have intoxicated him. The message is betrayal, both personal and political. “You broke my heart,” Davis suggests,” you broke my heart!”

Of course, what Davis overlooks is that good people can reasonably disagree on controversial issues, and personal feelings alone form insufficient bases for policy stances. But he sure knows a thing or two about rhetoric and persuasion. It’s unfortunate that he hasn’t rubbed off much on his more acerbic partisan brethren.

Update: Commenter Kent makes a noteworthy distinction between “tolerance and advocacy.”

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Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. I think I’ve actually heard that anecdote before, or one very similar to it. From what I gather from the anecdotes, Bush was very much the, “hey, that guy’s got a right to his own deal” kind of person in his college days.

    Maybe it’s power intoxicating – or maybe it’s just the difference between personal tolerance and respect vs. setting public policy.

    Take another example. President Reagan is well known for wanting to cut social programs. But there are quite a few stories of people coming to talk to him, both during his days as governor of California and as President, with personal stories of deep poverty, and the man wrote them a personal check, sometimes for a thousand dollars or more, right there on the spot. Yet he still campaigned hard against social programs that he believed were ultimately hurting those people.

    I’m kind of agnostic on the gay marriage issue. Frankly, I think there are pretty decent arguments on both sides of the issue – but no slam dunk arguments on either side. But I’m really getting tired of the left painting people on the right as homophobic and hateful just because they don’t support gay marriage.

  2. Zed says:

    I have a golden response, one that no one will take seriously, I think the reason many intellectuals support Bush might be becuase they too are intoxicated by his power,

    I’m not sure if I really believe it, but it is an interesting thought, and plausible in some cases

  3. ken says:

    None of those touching stories being manufactured about Reagan are true. Here are a couple of real examples of just how compassionate Reagan really was:

    His daughter, Patty Davis, had herself sterilized when she was still in her teens because, in her words, she didn’t ever want to have kids and do to them what her parents did to her.

    His son, Michael Reagan, was sent off to boarding school while in elementary school and came home to an empty loveless house only on the holidays. By the time he graduated from high school he was such a stranger to his father that his father did not even recognize him at his graduation ceremony.

  4. Kent says:

    I believe that those who see a disconnect between Bush’s apocryphal remark as a student at Yale, and his position on gay marriage, are failing to perceive the fine line between tolerance and advocacy.

    It is one thing to be tolerant of neighbors who make choices in their personal lives that we disagree with. It is quite another thing to allow these neighbors to demand that we give social sanction to their choices.

  5. Zed says:

    it is also one thing to say you are tolerant of your neighbors

    and then try to tell them how to live

  6. Zed says:

    there seems to be a radical Islamic interpretation of the word ‘tolerance’ in this country

  7. Zed says:

    Targorda, your obviously a bigot, you have ruined OTB for me, I won’t be reading this site any longer.

    a noteworthy distinction between “tolerance and advocacy.”

    sounds like the spanish inquisition to me

  8. Just Me says:

    I think the tolerance/advocacy point is legitimate. It seems like we now function on two different definitions of tolerance, one group sees tolerance as “live your life, make your own choices, even if I don’t agree with them” while the other group thinks is should not only mean the above, but that you should “support and affirm those decisions.”

  9. Ken – I’ve heard stories like that, too. Two questions for you:

    1) Both stories are anecdotal. Do you have better evidence to support yours than I do to support mine? Probably not, and neither do I. That’s the nature of anecdotal evidence.

    2) Er… so what? What does his treatment of his children have to do with his giving to poor people? It’s totally unrelated. I’ve personally known people who are total bastards to their kids but the nicest guys in the world to complete strangers.

  10. Paul says:

    Moonbat alert!!!!!

    I warned you of course because, No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition.

  11. ken says:

    Russell, the story about Patty Davis comes directly from a autobiography she wrote a long time ago. It was around the time she posed nude for Playboy Magazine. The story about Michael Reagans graduation and his father not recognizing him comes from a multiple of sources, as told by those there, as well as by Michael Reagan himself.

    I am sure a google search will give you the name of the book Patty wrote and the name of the High School Michael attended. Let me know if you find any nude pictures of Patty. That would be a hoot to pass around on the internet.

    As far as Reagan being nice to total strangers – I have never seen a legitimate source that says he ever wrote thousand dollar checks to those who simply came to him with a sob story in need. This would have been in one of his biographies if true. I have not read them all but would have come across it, I think, if it were true.