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Personal Essays


Civil Plights

Is there room for civility in Civil Rights? On the day of Obama’s inauguration, facing down the moment you nearly brought President George W. Bush to task.

In the summer of 2006, it just so happened that my travel itinerary overlapped with the President’s. My father and I were visiting the National Civil Rights Museum midway through a road trip from Chicago to New Orleans, and in mere minutes I went from reading about the 1963 March on Washington to watching a bubbly mother-daughter duo with identical perms shake hands with President Bush. Corralled into the receiving line myself, I prayed for an invisibility cloak, or at least an Acme “Instant Hole” to duck into. As he went down the line with the confidence of a beauty queen, did it occur to the President that I might refuse his handshake?

My father and I had stopped in Memphis to recharge our batteries somewhere a raccoon couldn’t snatch our dinner off the campfire (Southern Illinois had not been that place). Our first day in town we learned George W. Bush was soon to arrive, bestowing a Graceland visit to the Prime Minister of Japan, a huge Elvis fan, as a “thank you” gift for years of friendship and loyalty in the face of widespread international disapproval.

Though excitement around Memphis was palpable on the morning of Bush’s visit, the need for crowd control downtown as described on the local news seemed slightly overstated: maybe a dozen tourists making their way around barricades and sullen Memphis cops. My dad noted the heavy police presence wondering, “how much time you think I’d spend in Gitmo for throwing my coffee on Bush’s motorcade?” I grimaced at the joke—my father going to Guantanamo was not what I wanted to think about while squinting through a hangover first thing on a brutally hot morning.

Memphis had surprised us with charming restaurants, genuinely friendly residents, and the option to attend a gay horror movie screening or a production of Urinetown that weekend. Memphis tourist attractions confirm the city’s status as a small but mighty hub of Southern history and culture. Forced to choose between the Stax Museum of American Soul and the National Civil Rights Museum, my father lobbied hard for the Civil Rights Museum, making the convincing point that—our car held hostage in a barricaded parking garage—it happened to be closer by foot.

The President smiled, introduced to me his “friend the Prime Minister of Japaaan,” and solidly shook my hand before moving on to the next surprised bystander.Built around the Lorraine Motel balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, the National Civil Rights Museum is an ascending gallery of photographs, text, and video footage. The exhibit includes a statue of Rosa Parks on a salvaged Montgomery bus and sculptures of freedom fighters sitting-in at a Greensboro, NC lunch counter, but the bulk of the institution’s wealth are meticulously told stories: the photos, first-person accounts, speeches, and timelines of the Civil Rights Movement.

Once inside, we immediately split up. My father likes to savor the museum experience, while I’m inclined to gorge and once finished circle back to revisit whatever bright Renaissance painting or Japanese pottery stuck in my memory. On this particular morning I was poring over details about the activist murders during “Freedom Summer (1964)” when a woman in a bright silk shirt rushed through the hall demanding with authority and a good deal of volume that “everyone please stay where you are.” Initial confusion gave way to the panicked realization that he was here.


* * *

After the G-20 summit in Washington, DC this past November, a video of George W. Bush being refused a handshake by the summit’s participants made its way around the internet. In the version I saw, set to the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, Bush plays the literal lame duck: beyond pathetic, walking across the stage with a hangdog expression. I’ve since heard it was taken out of context, that the President had already greeted leaders off-camera, but cable news and the web clung desperately to the juicy possibility of comeuppance. The possibility that not only the world but its leaders were finally serving just desserts.

Bush’s offenses—entry into and mismanagement of the Iraq War; indifference to New Orleans after Katrina; torture in American prisons abroad; illegal surveillance; unconscionable conceit—explain the glee or hope that he was snubbed. Though further disaster seemed inevitable, in 2006 it felt impossible that George W. Bush could be put in his place, so monumental was his outward arrogance. No out-of-context cable news clip in the world could imply rejection or criticism had affected the President’s certainty—the evasive answers and indifferent smirks never stopped. Two years ago, trying to reason with Bush seemed like asking the Big Bad Wolf not to blow your house down; not only was he not listening, he didn’t acknowledge your existence. Yet in the final months of 2008, to diss the President was like wearing gold leggings to a Brooklyn warehouse party—might have been cutting-edge when Yeah Yeah Yeahs first broke, but these days the sentiment’s on sale at American Apparel.

The museum worker returned insisting even more urgently that we not move, and I took this as a cue to get my dad and get the hell out. Hurrying toward the exit, I dead-ended at a giant window that faced a parking lot teeming with photographers. Their lenses aimed above my head, I craned my neck to see two men standing on the motel room balcony. Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi were having a photo op where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Tacky, yet oddly appropriate for a President who, addressing the NAACP for the first time in 2006, admitted that, “I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party,” and received applause.

I backtracked through the museum hoping to disarm my father of any hot beverage he might be carrying. I had assumed that, like Barneys during a Britney Spears shopping spree, the museum would have been cleared of any undesirables in preparation for a Presidential visit. But no. Nearly colliding with me as I turned a corner, a Secret Service agent commanded me to “stay right here.” Suddenly, Bush was closing in.

And his broad grin, and yes, firm grip, was nothing if not civil. The President smiled as I twitched and scowled, introduced to me his “friend the Prime Minister of Japaaan” in a Texas lilt, and solidly shook my hand before moving on to the next surprised bystander.


* * *

Compulsory and impersonal, the handshake is the currency of civility. Even if it’s sincere, a handshake does not equal compassion or even kindly feelings. But when the gesture is refused, it’s because someone is pissed off.

At the time, my father and I both suffered from what columnist Charles Krauthammer describes as “Bush Derangement Syndrome.” Sure, at first we disagreed with the President on a rational and reasoned level, but this disagreement had evolved into a visceral, irrational hatred. I experienced queasiness and disgust whenever Bush came on the radio or TV, while my father, at the mere mention of the President, would launch into tirades against the “fucking criminals who run this country.”

Given the chance to take the President to task, it’s possible I failed a basic test of character.At his final press conference, George W. Bush was asked about Bush Derangement Syndrome and why he’d “engendered such passionate criticism.” Though he barely acknowledges its existence, the causes of Bush Derangement Syndrome are implicit in the President’s response:

“You know, most people I see, you know, when I’m moving around the country, for example, they’re not angry. And they’re not hostile people. And they—we never meet people who disagree, that’s just not true. I’ve met a lot of people who don’t agree with the decisions I make. But they have been civil in their discourse… I don’t see how I can get back home in Texas and look in the mirror and be proud of what I see if I allowed the loud voices, the loud critics, to prevent me from doing what I thought was necessary to protect this country.”

The idea of “civility,” Bush’s insistence on it and my submission to it, has plagued me since that morning in the museum. Civility was a touchstone of Bush’s 2001 inaugural speech that, in many ways, implored Americans to obey rather than challenge their political leaders and the country’s status quo. “America, at its best, matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility. A civil society demands from each of us good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness,” said the newly elected President. And I don’t necessarily disagree. There’s nothing wrong with civility in principle, but in practice it allows surface pleasantries to mask more complex ambitions, like justice, equality, and, yes, civil rights.

When concerned with politeness, civility is also conformity. And so we have civil disobedience and civil war, moments when the pleasant day-to-day exchanges—on both a state and street level—break down. Protests, freedom marches, boycotts, sit-ins, and strikes don’t embody Bush’s appeal for “grin and bear it” civility; but they were crucial to a civil rights movement. At the Civil Rights Museum, I was surrounded with examples of honorable disobedience and, too busy being civil, I completely missed the point.

Even now, with some of the highest disapproval ratings of any President, having authored policies that cost the country trillions, Bush repeatedly dodges the bullet of accountability. He refers to not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and Abu Ghraib, as “disappointments,” but leaves them off his list of actual “mistakes.” There was probably no point in voicing criticism against someone who saw openness and dissent as at best a nuisance and sometimes a threat. Maybe I’d simply been a coward. Given the chance to take him to task, it’s possible I failed a basic test of character.


* * *

In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama describes putting his arm around the President during their first meeting, saying it was “an unconscious habit of mine, but one that I suspected might have made many of my friends, not to mention the Secret Service agents in the room, more than a little uneasy.” The men shook hands, shared hand sanitizer (sanitation is definitely compatible with civility) and, four years later, Obama is not only the President, but an inspiration. Throughout his life and campaign, Obama has emphasized the importance of civility and civil rights—though he recognizes the deep need for racial and economic equality, he’s always reserved and polite when challenged—but still I wonder if the two might be mutually exclusive.

Had Bush been less certain and less arrogant, people may have been less eager to throw shoes (or coffee) at him.Pastor Rick Warren, one of Obama’s inaugural speakers, recently compared gay marriage to “an older guy marrying a child.” Warren responded to critics of Obama’s choice saying, “hopefully individuals passionately expressing opinions from the left and the right will recognize that both [Barack Obama and I] have shown a commitment to model civility in America.” Mere months after an historic civil rights defeat with the passing of Proposition 8, Obama gives the stage to someone would deny Americans in same-sex relationships the basic right of marriage. As he does this, many including Warren applaud Obama for upholding the tenets of civility, for crossing that invisible but deeply rooted culture barrier in America, even if it means relegating gay rights to the sidelines.

But not everyone respects the call to recognize. Openly gay congressman Barney Frank, responding to the choice of Rick Warren as inaugural speaker, told Jeffery Toobin of the New Yorker:

“It’s one thing to talk to somebody…it’s another to make Rick Warren the most honored clergyman in the world…Now when we fight Warren in California, we are going to hear, ‘Oh, yeah, but Obama picked him for the inaugural.’ He doesn’t deserve that honor. And I don’t want to hear that the other clergyman at the inaugural, Reverend [Joseph] Lowery, supports gay rights. I didn’t vote for a tie in the election.”

That strikes me as about right. Excited as I am for the end of the Bush Administration, and as much hope as I do invest in the Obama Presidency, the inauguration is a time for caution and critique as well as celebration. Despite all the strategic justifications and the reality of Obama’s own faith—the rainbow flag is not gonna fly at the White House any time soon—I have had a difficult time reconciling my hopes for Obama with my fears that singling out Rick Warren for distinction will legitimize already fervent anti-gay sentiment in this country. In giving Warren this honor, Obama seems to choose, as I did that day in Memphis, civility over civil rights.

For Bush, civility was a veil behind which he concealed abuses of power and escaped reproach. If he’d listened to the critics he proudly ignored, he might have avoided disastrous missteps and mistakes. And had he been less certain and less arrogant, people may have been less eager to throw shoes (or coffee) at him. But Obama is not Bush. And on November 4, during his first speech as President-elect, Obama took time to address “those Americans whose support I have yet to earn,” saying, “I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.” This is a promise of more than civility. It is a pledge of respect. Americans striving for gay rights—for civil rights—will hold him to this pledge. Lucky for us, the 44th President does not see critics as whiny killjoys. He sees them as Americans.


TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka