People forget today that George W. Bush first ran for president as a “compassionate conservative” because it was novel to do so: Most conservatives openly acknowledged that they were pricks by 2000. Like George’s brother Jeb, who wrote in 1995 of wanting society to attach a “sense of ridicule” to single parenting.
The Huffington Post on Tuesday went through the unpleasant task of locating and reading a copy of Jeb Bush’s Profiles in Character. Co-authored in 1995 by the soon-to-be Florida governor and his deputy chief of staff, Profiles in Character is your typical kitschy politician’s bookstore fare, a nod to JFK’s Pulitzer-winning Profiles in Courage and compulsive gambler-turned-conservative moral pontificator William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. And its existence may be a bit embarrassing to a politician trying to position himself as the staid, smart grownup in the Republican rumpus room.
That’s because it exposes Bush as either the lone conservative who’s experienced a dramatic, against-the-current swelling of civility and respect in the past two decades, or a grumpy hypocritical asshole.
Last month, discussing social problems in America, Bush told an interviewer he wasn’t trying to pass judgment on poor people today—he just wanted to have a frank, honest, respectful discussion about the causes of our social ills [emphasis added]:
The minute you suggest there’s a better path for large numbers who are struggling, you’re accused of ‘passing judgment.’ That just freezes the conversation. But it’s not ‘judgmental’ to suggest that a baby being brought up in poverty without a dad will have a bigger challenge growing up and the mom will have a bigger challenge economically than if they had an intact family.”
Yes, let’s just have a conversation! We don’t want to pass judgment on people who have had tough lives. Relatedly, here’s Bush on the same issue in Profiles in Character, in a chapter titled “The Restoration of Shame”:
One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame. Many of these young women and young men look around and see their friends engaged in the same irresponsible conduct. Their parents and neighbors have become ineffective at attaching some sense of ridicule to this behavior. There was a time when neighbors and communities would frown on out of wedlock births and when public condemnation was enough of a stimulus for one to be careful.
Irresponsible unmarried fornicators don’t get humiliated enough in public or cast out by their families anymore, that’s the problem. (No judgment!) Doesn’t anyone remember the good old days of the 1840s, as related in that uncomplicated celebration of public shaming, The Scarlet Letter?
Bush points to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, in which the main character is forced to wear a large red “A” for “adulterer” on her clothes to punish her for having an extramarital affair that produced a child, as an early model for his worldview. “Infamous shotgun weddings and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter are reminders that public condemnation of irresponsible sexual behavior has strong historical roots,” Bush wrote.
As HuffPo points out, governor Jeb put his (nonjudgmental!) theories into practice, refusing to veto “a very controversial bill that required single mothers who did not know the identity of the father to publish their sexual histories in a newspaper before they could legally put their babies up for adoption.” He also advocated humiliating juvenile offenders, siding with a columnist who proposed “dressing these juveniles in frilly pink jumpsuits and making them sweep the streets of their own neighborhoods! Would these kids be so cavalier then?”
On one view, Bush’s decades-old ruminations are refreshing: Conservatives who want to dismantle government once conceded honestly that their ideal “free” society had just as many constraints in individual freedom as a communist state’s; it’s just that the limits came from good ol’-fashioned moral busybodies and their powers of ostracism instead of any formal legal code.
Who helped Bush write this dreck, anyway? That would be his longtime consigliere, Brian Yablonski, who now directs external affairs for a power company and works “to use market principles to solve environmental problems”— while serving as a powerful deregulator at Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It’s unclear how much success he’s had merely shaming polluters and poachers into doing the right thing. No judgment!
[Photo credit: AP Images]