What will George W. Bush be remembered for? If, as Clare Boothe Luce argued, every president gets just one sentence in the history books, then President Bush's will certainly concern the war on terror and Iraq. His historical reputation will wax or wane based entirely on how well Iraq does in the coming decades. That's the ball game for Bush, historically speaking. And yet, as recent news about student test scores reminds us, a poignant aspect of this president's two terms is his unrequited love for blacks and other minorities.
Many black readers will laugh at this assertion. No president in recent memory has been held in lower esteem by black voters than George W. Bush. Reagan and H.W. Bush were perceived (despite their best efforts) as uncaring at best. Bill Clinton was adored. But from the beginning, George W. Bush was painted as the devil by many black leaders. It's remarkable that this was so, considering Mr. Bush's steadfast and unwavering interest in the poor and minorities, but there it is. When no other opportunity for tarring President Bush presented itself, his detractors seized upon Hurricane Katrina as the catch basin for all the free-floating bile against the president.
Remember the way George W. Bush first campaigned? He was the "compassionate conservative." He visited so many black churches he could have applied for membership in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He telegraphed early and often that if elected he'd choose Colin Powell for Secretary of State (and that was only the beginning of his promotion of blacks and Hispanics to high office -- he might as well have believed in affirmative action). He boasted (en Espanol) of his excellent record winning the votes of Hispanics in Texas. He lamented the "soft bigotry of low expectations."
And he meant it. On his second day in office, Bush invited the all-Democrat Congressional Black Caucus to a meeting at the White House. His two signature domestic policies were the No Child Left Behind education act -- a reform whose entire focus was on narrowing the achievement gap between blacks and Hispanics and other children -- and the faith-based initiative that was aimed at helping all of those who for one reason or another fall into economic or psychic woe. As his former speechwriter Michael Gerson recalled, "He [wa]s deeply committed to the idea of helping the poor through community and faith-based institutions."
When President Clinton traveled to Africa, black Americans rejoiced at the recognition. Poor President Bush practically bankrupted the treasury by spending on AIDS treatment in Africa. Just last week the Senate approved $48 billion over the next five years to treat Africans with the disease, on top of the $15 billion already committed. How much praise has Bush earned for this? Well, Bono (who received the NAACP's chairman's award in 2007) was able to spare a kind word, but the normally voluble African-American community has been virtually silent on the matter. One liberal magazine did offer this last year: "How Bush's AIDS Program is Failing Africans."
Some conservatives don't like No Child Left Behind. A recent report by The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, for example, argues that NCLB has focused so much attention on poorly performing students that higher-performing kids have been neglected during the past six years.
On the other hand, the program, whatever its flaws, does seem to have gotten results. Education Week reported last month that student achievement in math and reading has risen over the past several years, with particularly strong improvements noted among fourth-graders in both subjects. Significantly, the gap between minorities and other students has narrowed. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, 21 of 27 states studied showed moderate to large gains in math at the elementary level, 22 showed gains in reading and math at the middle school level, and 12 states showed reading and math improvements among high schoolers. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called "nation's report card," reported improvement in 31 of 33 states examined.
It's impossible to gauge how much, if any, of this measured success is due to NCLB. There are just so many moving parts -- individual state initiatives, changing student populations, other reforms. But this much is certain: If scores had not improved or had declined, NCLB would be universally blamed.
The excitement at the prospect of the first African-American president is natural and understandable. But the total contempt shown by the African-American community toward this president is a staggering injustice.