Saturday, November 03, 2007

Not an original thought in my head

From Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, by Robert Draper (though the clumsy use of elipses is all me):

Early on the afternoon of February 18, 1998, Bush [who was running for reelection as governor of Texas] and Karen Hughes arrived at a juvenile prison in Marlin, Texas...While the TV cameras rolled, one boy after the next recited his litany of criminality- I'm Jimmy, I'm from Mineral Springs, at the age of thirteen I did steal the next door neighbor's car and I did run over my grandma with it, which did cripple her permanently- followed by his acknowledgment that he, rather than society, was to blame and his pledge to do better.

This was the Responsibility Era personified, as Bush well knew. It was also exploitative, and he knew that as well. This prefab moment was about winning votes... when the last preselected urchin had concluded his recitation, Bush and everyone else sat there for an uncomfortable moment as if at the end of a bad blind date, searching for something nice to say about a thoroughly meaningless encounter.

A scrawny fifteen-year-old black kid raised his hand.

"Can I ask the governor a question?" said the boy, a petty thief from Tyler named Johnny Demon Baulkmon.... "What do you think about us now?"

...[Bush's] words, when he found them, sounded almost confessional: "You look like kids I see every day. And I'm impressed by the way you're handling yourselves here. I think you can succeed. The state of Texas still loves you all. We haven't given up on you. But we love you enough to punish you when you break the law."

That was the answer to the question.

A strange euphoria overtook Bush and the other adults in the dormitory. Something had just taken place here that did not ordinarily occur, either in youth prisons or on the campaign trail. A sense of institutions humanized, of possibility....

[Karen Hughes] began to work the Marlin tableau into his speeches, in language that one seldom heard from the lips of any politician, much less a conservative: "Each of us holds a piece of the promise of America. That young man at the jail in Marlin wasn't sure. He wasn't sure the promise was meant for him. He didn't know whether he still had a shot. Yet some spark was alive. He was willing to risk asking the governor, What do you think of me? He meant, Is there hope for me? Do I have potential? Can I make it? Do I own a piece of the promise of America? In the mightiest and wealthiest and free-est nation in the world, he still wasn't sure. And that's a tragedy."

(Johnny Baulkmon "still wasn't sure" for a reason, as it turned out. Some time after his chance encounter with George W. Bush, the boy was raped by another juvenile offender. Though the meeting in Marlin would become a centerpiece of Bush's nomination-acceptance speech in 2000, Baulkmon did not learn of his fleeting fame until years later. Apparently unconvinced by "the promise of America," he would become an adult petty criminal. In 2006, from a Beaumont prison visitation room Johnny Baulkmon would appraise Bush thus: "He doesn't care about anything but himself. He's complete trash, a horrible evil person.")


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