Bush at Monticello: The Irony

Dan Jordan, outgoing and venerated President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, is getting more “love” than usual this past week. Many were dismayed that Monticello, Jefferson’s historic home, had invited George Bush to speak at its annual naturalization ceremony on July 4th. Others were miffed that the Foundation “permitted” the audience to include “indecent” demonstrators who were less than impressed by the President. (See this link for debate within the local activist community on the propriety of protests.)
To clarify, the Foundation every year issues an invitation to the sitting President to speak at Monticello. This year, President Bush accepted the invitation.
Previously scheduled speaker Kenneth Burns deferred to the President. Burns would have been following last year’s outstanding speaker, actor Sam Waterson. I commented on Waterston’s magnificent “Commencement Speech for America” here.
As for the many hecklers in the audience, the Foundation released 1,000 or so free general audience tickets on Wednesday morning. To its credit, no attempt was made to restrict who could get those tickets. Early birds got those worms. How refreshing it was that the President encountered some “free speech,” unlike so many other venues where potential protesters are kept far, far away.
I too was moved to comment upon the profound irony of the spectacle — the 43rd President belatedly getting around to visiting with the 3rd President, known to many as the “author of America.” My commentary with Ruhi Ramazani was distributed via Agence Global. I can now post it here, with notes and links we couldn’t put into the original:
Bush’s Last Fourth
by Wm. Scott Harrop and R. K. Ramazani Released: 5 Jul 2008

Irony abounds in President George W. Bush’s decision to speak at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, on the last July 4th that he will occupy the Oval Office.
For it was Jefferson who wrote in America’s Declaration of Independence that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires” the colonies to set forth the reasons for their rebellion before a “candid world.” America’s founders agreed — international legitimacy mattered. Two hundred and thirty-two years later, the conscious disregard for the “opinions of mankind” has come to define the Bush presidency.

If that sounds a little strong, it’s calmer than an earlier draft, which wondered if Bush came seeking to wrap his foreign policies in the cover, the perceived legitimacy that speaking from Jefferson’s porch would afford to his controversial legacy.

In the Bush view, the world commonly reduced to being either “with us or against us.” His former press secretary Scott McClellan illustrates the problem in his recent book, What Happened. Lacking respect for international opinion, Bush created alliances with leaders of a “coalition of the willing,” not their citizens. Bush praised those leaders who stood with him for being “tough” and “strong” despite intense criticism from their own publics.
This disregard for the opinions of mankind yielded a bitter harvest. In the aftermath of 9/11, most of the world sympathized with America. But America’s reputation abroad plummeted since 2002, as documented by multiple international public opinion surveys.

In one recent BBC survey of 34 countries, barely a third found the United States to be a “positive force in the world.” The most recent Pew World Public Attitudes poll found that a “majority or pluralities” in most of the 47 countries surveyed “disliked American ideas about democracy.” Within Muslim countries surveyed, “the US image remained abysmal.”
To reverse such negative attitudes abroad, the US government spends over one hundred million dollars annually on Arab language programming. {al-Hura} Responding to criticism that such broadcasting has not discernibly lessened anger at America, new Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman remarkably asserted on June 23, “our mission is not to improve America’s standing in the world.” If so, his office has abandoned its mandate to “influence” foreign publics — the “opinions of mankind.

(I comment on this extraordinary Glassman quote in a separate post, particularly as it’s apparently at odds with Glassman’s own previous positions.)

Explanations for weakening American stature abroad during President Bush’s tenure include the controversies over the US-led war on terrorism, the invasion of Iraq without a UN mandate, and mal-treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
No issue has harmed America’s image abroad more than the Guantánamo prison, where hundreds have been held without charge. “Gitmo” has become a world symbol of American injustice and hypocrisy.

Even President Bush seems to know this, as from time to time he muses about closing it, but then does nothing to carry forward.

The recent Supreme Court Boumediene v. Bush ruling may reverse the tide by insisting that habeas corpus, the historic judicial check against arbitrary imprisonment, applies to Guantánamo.

President Bush strongly disagrees with the decision. A “conversation” with Jefferson might persuade him otherwise.
More than any other founder, Jefferson recognized the fundamental importance of habeas corpus. In his first Presidential inaugural message of 1801, Jefferson counseled his “fellow-citizens” to understand that “freedom of persons under habeas corpus” is among the “essential principles” of our democracy. Along with freedoms of religion and the press, and “honest friendship with all nations,” these “principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation.”
In the same enumeration of essential principles, Jefferson speaks of “equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political.” Citizenship was not required. As Jefferson wrote in 1798 to an Irish dissident, “Habeas Corpus secures every man here, alien or citizen, against everything which is not law, whatever shape it may assume.”
Jefferson also cautioned against justifying the “suspension” of habeas corpus in time of “rebellion or invasion.” In a letter to James Madison in 1788, Jefferson warned that the want of habeas corpus “will do evil…” and that suspensions thereof can become “habitual” and the “minds of the nation almost prepared to live under its constant suspension.” This was no idle speculation. During the American rebellion, the British public tolerated six Parliamentary bills denying habeas corpus — to all Americans.
Critics who contend the recent Court decision favored international over domestic opinion disregard the latter. As recent Pew Polls demonstrate, large majorities of Americans consider the fact that “the United States has lost global respect” to be a “major problem.” They also agree that legal protections accorded terrorism suspects should be the same for citizens and non-citizens, and regardless of where they are captured.
In these sentiments, American and world opinion concur. The problem has not been a cultural “clash” of American values at war with an alien world, but of America not living up to its own values. If America commits anew under the next President to having a decent respect to the opinions of humankind, then respect for America will increase.

Wm. Scott Harrop is a recent Jefferson Fellow at Monticello’s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, where his work focused on the intent of the “opinions of mankind” clause in the US Declaration of Independence.
R. K. Ramazani is Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia and co-editor of The Future of Liberal Democracy: Thomas Jefferson and the Contemporary World and the forthcoming, Religion, State, and Society: Jefferson’s Wall of Separation in Comparative Perspective.
Copyright © 2008 Wm. Scott Harrop and R. K. Ramazani

2 thoughts on “Bush at Monticello: The Irony”

  1. 100-plus give a lesson in free speech
    Is that making difference? Don’t think so.
    Bush for two terms in WH have done what he believed nothing changing his view and his attention. if these minors jumped her and there protesting GWB going to put it ignore list does he care? No, his popularity now less than 30% is that making any different for him to carry his duty nothing happen.
    He did passed all the bills that required to Iraq/Afghanistan war, last one just two weeks ago, he move one and one.
    But for those who thing there is some thing good they picking these events and make them big the reality nothing changed in Bush attitude or polices in the last two terms.

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