There are some things about people that they themselves should not have to tell you. You already know them to be true because of what you have seen them do. I want to introduce you to what I call Peck’s Law: “If you have to tell someone who you are, you aren’t.”
Jack Paar, an early television talk-show host, once told a story about Gregory Peck taking some friends to dinner. When they arrived at the restaurant, the waiter told them that the empty tables were all reserved, but another table would be available shortly. A gentleman in the party said to the actor, “Why don’t you tell him who you are?” Mr. Peck replied, “If you have to tell someone who you are, you aren’t.” It was a valid point. He had won an Oscar for Best Actor and had been the star of some of the finest films ever made: To Kill a Mockingbird, Twelve O’Clock High, The Gunfighter, and many more. However, none of that mattered unless the waiter had seen him on the screen, appreciated his work, and recognized him.
When Gov. George W. Bush ran for the presidential nomination in 2000, he offered himself as an alternative to Republican senators and representatives. They had thumbed their noses at the will of the American people and had come across during the Clinton impeachment shenanigans as voyeuristic, mean-spirited, and downright vindictive. Although Mr. Bush admitted being a conservative, he insisted that he was different: he was a “compassionate conservative.” Compassionate can mean the same as sympathetic, kind-hearted, merciful, concerned, magnanimous, or humane.
Why did Mr. Bush feel he had to tell us that he was a “compassionate conservative”? It was because that characteristic had not been visible during his tenure as governor of Texas. After all, his claim to fame had been that he had executed 131 prisoners in only five years. That was the most for any governor since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, and that number was a bit excessive even in the unlikely event that all of them had been guilty. He granted his only stay of execution (for a DNA test) after he decided to run for president.
Nor was “compassion” apparent while he campaigned for the Republican nomination. He very effectively played the race card in South Carolina to defeat his principle opponent John McCain. Mr. Bush made a point to give a speech at the Bob Jones University, which had gained notoriety for its anti-Catholic and segregationist policies. (Note: Bob Jones Univ. is non-accredited and is also the alma mater of Asa Hutchinson, who was a House prosecutor at Clinton’s impeachment and the 2006 Republican candidate for governor of Arkansas – he also ran for governor again in 2014 knowing how much Arkansans hated President Obama and won.) In addition, Professor Richard Hand, a Bush supporter at the university, spread an e-mail rumor that Sen. McCain had fathered an illegitimate child. There was also a push poll in which S.C. voters were asked, “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” In reality McCain and his wife had adopted an orphan from Bangladesh, but the damage was done.
Rumors were also spread in South Carolina that John McCain was not of sound mind as a result of his being tortured for five years while a POW in Vietnam. Later, as our self-proclaimed “compassionate conservative” President, he allowed and justified torture. Then, in one of his many signing statements, he reprehensibly said he would interpret the anti-torture bill as he saw fit. Incredibly, Mr. Bush even consented to the repugnant practice of extraordinary rendition, in which people are kidnapped by the U.S. government and sent off to countries known to specialize in torture. He also admitted that he used secret prisons outside the United States. Mr. Bush also persuaded his rubber-stamp Republican Congress to pass the Military Commissions Act, which endend the writ of habeas corpus for non-citizens. They could then be imprisoned indefinitely without ever being charged with a crime! Needless to say, these despicable practices were contrary to everything this country had ever stood for prior to the diabolical Bush-Cheney co-presidency.
Even though White House staffers referred to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Bob Jones III as being “goofy” and “nuts,” Mr. Bush determined to placate these Christianist evangelicals because they could motivate voters so well. To keep them happy, our “compassionate” president used his only veto to kill the stem-cell research bill. Consequently, those of us who hoped future generations might see cures for spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, sickle-cell, and other illnesses will have to rely mostly on research outside the U.S.
Although no one thought Mr. Bush was personally homophobic, he was certainly willing to appeal to his supporters’ worst instincts. Even the president of the gay Log Cabin Republicans, Patrick Guerriero, was unable to persuade our “compassionate” president to oppose the evangelicals’ proposed amendment banning same-sex marriage. Mr. Guerriero was told by Karl Rove and others around the President that very strong poll numbers “showed, at least for the 2004 election cycle, that the use of the Federal Marriage Amendment as a political issue would score points in the states that mattered.” Once again, only two weeks before Election Day 2006, with his Republicans behind in the polls, Mr. Bush found cause for hope. The New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling against discrimination against gays allowed him to try to re-energize the party’s anti-gay voting base. How many times did we hear Mr. Bush insist that he didn’t make decisions based on polls?
Several friends have emailed me various versions of an internet gag that I’ll paraphrase: During a White House war council, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld announced that 3 Brazilian soldiers had been killed in Iraq. To everyone’s amazement, all the color ran from the President’s face; then, he collapsed onto his desk, head in hands, visibly shaken. Everyone was surprised by his reaction. Here was a “compassionate” president who had eagerly started a war we didn’t need and had never before shown any concern during the first three years of his Iraq War for the 2,800 American deaths; 20,000 serious injuries; 70 suicides by soldiers after they returned home; $8 billion a month to pay for the war; or the estimated 650,000 Iraqi civilians killed. Finally, Mr. Bush composed himself, looked up at Rumsfeld and asked, “Just exactly how many is a brazillion?”
The opposite of being compassionate is being indifferent, cold-blooded, or unfeeling. Obviously, if Mr. Bush hadn’t told us he was a “compassionate conservative,” nobody else would have ever thought he was! That’s essentially the meaning of Peck’s Law: “If you have to tell someone who you are, you aren’t.”
by David Offutt
This is a slightly revised version of an essay that was published November 8, 2006, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.