June 12, 2015
1995 book reveals that Jeb Bush is a fan of shame
by Mark Krotov
Books by politicians usually have two things in common: 1) they have sublimely generic titles and 2) they don’t tend to be very substantive.
This is sensible. After all, the more specific things a politician says, the more he or she is likely to alienate possible constituents.
The following segment from a 1992 presidential debate between Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ross Perot provides an excellent case in point. Watch as Clinton succeeds by saying very little and making gestures with his hand that are weird, but not as weird as the gestures made by Bush, who does not succeed because he says many unfortunate, specific things.
Two years after his father lost both the hand gesture contest and the presidential election, Jeb Bush also ran for office and also lost, though not due to hand gestures. (But possibly due to this campaign ad!)
Shortly after the 1994 defeat and the subsequent humiliation but before his glorious comeback and that whole thing where his brother became president instead of him and then that other thing where he also decided to run for president because America is a nepotistic oligarchy, Jeb Bush co-authored a book. And that book has been in the news this week because while it met one of the criteria outlined above (it has a sublimely generic title), it did not meet the other one. It is way too specific.
Published in 1995 and co-authored by Brian Yablonski, Profiles in Character should have been a winner. After all, its title alluded to John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, which Kennedy sort of wrote and which went on to be an extraordinarily successful book that very few people have actually read.
What was Profiles in Character? To prove this blog’s bipartisan bona fides, I’ll quote a (rather good!) piece by the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson:
[Jeb Bush] had earlier sat on the board of the Heritage Foundation. One of Heritage’s signature initiatives in the mid-’90s was The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, overseen and publicized by the conservative superstar William Bennett, who had worked as Ronald Reagan’s education secretary and George H. W. Bush’s drug czar.
Bennett’s index was uniformly depressing: a series of upward slopes showing 30-year increases in crime, divorce, abortion, drug abuse, drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, and—to use a phrase that these days sounds as fusty as a Wesleyan hymn—out-of-wedlock births . . .
“We were real interested in what Bennett was doing with his index,” Bush says now, “and we [he and his coauthor, a young think tanker named Brian Yablonski] wanted to do something like that for Florida.”
So far, so platitudinous. Indeed, Bush and Yablonki’s focus on cultural decline is so old-fashioned that it belongs on a Buzzfeed “10 Signs You’re a Nineties Kid” listicle. (“Did you love Clarissa Explains It All? Did you play with pogs? Did you believe that the only thing that could cure America’s ills was a collective turn toward Virtue, rather than massive economic redistribution or a dismantling of the carceral state? Guess what? You’re a Nineties Kid!”)
But as Catherine Rampell noted in the Washington Post earlier this week, Bush and Yablonski didn’t only offer platitudes—they got into some specifics. Specifically, their specifics had to do with shame, and how cool it is.
The book argues that the diminishment of dishonor has contributed to all sorts of depravity. If only we as a populace were a bit more judgmental, the poor would stop being so poor, the promiscuous would learn restraint, deadbeats would pay their bills, criminals would keep to the straight and narrow, school shooters would lay down their arms and bastard children would finally start getting “legitimize[d]” (their term, not mine) through marriage.
Remarkably, an entire political party would adopt this is an implicit—if not always explicit—public platform, and . . . look how that worked out!
Anyway, Rampell dug up some excellent quotes from the book, and while the blog Legal Insurrection may say that I’m just another blogger “mak[ing] stuff up,” it’s hard to see how this, for example, would work any better in context:
There was a time when neighbors and communities would frown on out-of-wedlock births and when public condemnation was enough of a stimulus for one to be careful. Infamous shotgun weddings and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter are reminders that public condemnation of irresponsible sexual behavior has strong historical roots.
As Rampell points out, “Hawthorne’s unforgiving, shame-wielding Puritan Salemites were not exactly portrayed as worthy of imitation.”
The best part, though, is when Bush and Yablonski endorse an idea to shame juvenile offenders “by dressing them ‘in frilly pink jumpsuits and making them sweep the streets of their own neighborhoods.’” Yes, that’ll show them!
It’s possible that this out-of-print not-really-campaign book will only bolster Jeb Bush’s credibility among his supporters, and that unlike most politicians, he won’t be punished for describing things in less than general terms.
Still, when Bush’s ghost writers sit down to draft the sequel to 2013’s Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution, they’d be wise to leave shame—and really any specific emotion—out of it.
Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.