American DNA

It is just 597 days since George Bush walked out of the White House for the last time as president and said goodbye to a Washington swirling with excitement about his successor.

Not enough time has passed for memories of the Bush era to start to glow in nostalgic hues.

Nevertheless, in recent weeks anyone who considered his presidency a nightmare has caught a glimpse of how it could have been much, much worse. And, in fact, the former Texan governor may have held back destructive forces of division.

On September 17, 2001, days after Muslim extremists brought the World Trade Centre crashing to the ground, a president famed for wearing cowboy boots stood in his socks at the Islamic Centre of Washington and declared: "Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace, they represent evil and war."

Bush, widely mocked for his fondness for phrases that seemed more suited to a campfire than the Oval Office, actually had a knack of communicating with simple precision to a country which could have been once again ravaged with lynchings.

But now, less than a decade later, there is furious opposition to building an Islamic centre two blocks from the former site of the twin towers and a cab driver has been slashed across the neck, allegedly after being asked if he was a Muslim.

The pastor of a small Florida church has grabbed worldwide publicity by pledging to stage International Burn A Koran Day on Saturday. This has the potential to trigger waves of violence which could eclipse the furore which followed the Danish publication of the Muhammad cartoons in 2005.

We now have the extraordinary spectacle of General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, urging the organisers not to go ahead with this categorically inflammatory event.

Just 46% of Americans approve of Obama’s performance so far, and it is clear that his election did not neutralise or vanquish the right-wing forces which caused mayhem throughout the Clinton years.

Up to 450,000 people gathered around Washington’s Lincoln Memorial at the end of August to hear firebrands Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin call for a restoration of national honour.

Presidents Reagan, Bush and Bush Jr corralled America’s assorted libertarians and religious and fiscal conservatives into supporting the Republican establishment but these legions no longer look to the princes of the Washington Beltway for leadership.
Bush sought and failed to reform the immigration system but Arizona is now pursuing a law which could lead to mass detentions.

The adventures of self-publicising demagogues and huckster politicians are dividing a nation that both Bush and Obama pledged to unite. If they disable its formidable ability to accommodate diversity they will have unthreaded the DNA of America.

A Thursday column