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A Uniter, Not a Divider

I was thinking this morning about a phrase George W. Bush used in the 2000 election, “I’m a uniter, not a divider.” It occurred to me that everything that’s wrong with his administration is summed up by that one phrase, and the context in which it was used.

The most obvious thing to say about it is that it’s a lie. Has Bush been “a uniter, not a divider” in Iraq? It’s impossible to imagine a society more divided against itself than Iraq. There was a time when people were saying that the U.S. invasion had succeeded in uniting Shiias and Sunnis—against the U.S.—but lately, even that isn’t true. The danger now is that what happened there could happen here at home. Will the two-thirds of Americans who think that Bush has failed be able to forge a common agenda, or are mistrust and disgust now spread so broadly that no platform, party or person can unite this country?

What bothers me most about Bush’s claim isn’t that it’s false. It’s that it’s aggressively false, in-your-face false, in a way that is typical of his other false claims. It is arrogant to assume that saying a thing makes it so. How many times has Bush used this rhetorical trick? “Wanted Dead or Alive.” “Mission Accomplished.” “Significant quantities of uranium.” “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” How many times has it worked? Apparently Bush believes that if he says “I’m a uniter,” that’s good enough. He doesn’t actually need to unite anyone.

But more than arrogant, this is bullying, given the context in which it was said. He made the comment to justify his refusal to meet the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay organization that had invited him for a private chat. He later changed his mind and met some members of the group. His point was that he didn’t want to represent special interests as president, but rather all of America. What he was really saying was, “I’m not a divider like those gays.” The bullying becomes all the more apparent when we remember that around the same time, he gave a speech at Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating among its students. This policy was also reversed later under pressure. Apparently some folks are worth uniting, while others get painted with the “divider” brush.

This leads us to the third reason the statement is more than a typical lie, its willful wrongheadedness. Most people understand that a group like the Log Cabin Republicans, or the NAACP for that matter, isn’t trying to divide Americans into gay and straight, black and white. Rather, their goal is the building of a society that makes room for everyone. In contrast, Bob Jones University, whose embrace Bush sought, was dividing its own students. By twisting reality so blatantly, Bush was either insulting our intelligence, or his own.

So what we have here is an arrogant, bullying, and willful lie, one that came across at the time as innocuous. Many people accepted the words at face value, and looked more positively on Bush as a result. Yet in hindsight, they reveal the darkness at the heart of his administration. Their real message is this: “Don’t trust anything I say. When I say peace, I mean war. When I say liberty, I mean tyranny. When I say protect, I mean neglect. When I say tolerance, I mean fear.” And that’s how it’s played out, from New Orleans to Iraq.

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