During the first week of September 2001, President George W. Bush welcomed his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, to the White House for a state dinner. The pageantry offered a very public confirmation of the close bond between the two leaders, an alliance that held the promise of helping to bring a sane solution to America's economic reliance on millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico.
Bush, of course, had served as the governor of Texas — a state that shares a vast land border and a common culture with Mexico — before being elected president. He had grown up among Mexican immigrants in both Midland and Houston, and his brother Jeb had married and had children with a Chicana.
The political calculus, too, encouraged Bush in his liberal direction on immigration. The grand plan of Karl Rove for establishing permanent Republican dominance relied not just on motivating the right-wing base around issues like abortion and gay marriage, but enticing at least a substantial share of Hispanic voters. Many of them were Catholics or Pentecostals who supported the GOP on social issues, but had been driven into Democratic arms by the race-baiting tactics of past Republican standard-bearers.
Five days after the state dinner — and the prospect that Bush and Fox would agree on some combination of earned citizenship and guest-worker waivers to deal with illegal immigration — the world changed. Terrorism became the only issue that mattered in the United States, and concerns about border security instantly supplanted immigration reform.
Yet George W. Bush hasn't changed. Even as his stubborn, unyielding nature had brought America into calamity in Iraq, the same relentless streak has led him to an unexpected moment of grace late in a disastrous presidency.
Against much of Congress, against a vociferous and organized nativist lobby, against the right-wing media machine that is usually his handmaiden, Bush over the last two months tried to resurrect immigration reform. He put whatever political muscle he still possessed (and, admittedly, it wasn't much) behind a complicated, flawed, but fundamentally smart and decent bill that finally acknowledges the proverbial elephant in the room:
America has millions of illegal immigrants, it needs them, and the vast majority of them work hard and live responsibly. What's more, Bush has spoken of the proposed legislation in the kind of personal, passionate language that can't be faked.
The president's liberal opponents (and I'm quite often one of them) have never admitted that his skill at politics is not just as the puppet of Rove or Vice President Dick Cheney. On certain issues that truly move him, Bush can speak with a bracing, disarming sincerity, and voters have recognized it.
That genuineness, in my experience, usually emerges when Bush talks about religion, when the mask of the spoiled frat boy falls away to reveal a prodigal son who has been humbled by his own destructive excesses. And it has emerged also on the subject of immigration, when Bush speaks of the sacrifices and honest toil of Mexican newcomers, with or without documentation.
Bush's immigration bill has now failed. Precisely because Bush as president has done so many things colossally wrong, we should give due respect for what he's tried, over nearly seven years by now, to do right. The immigration bill serves as a poignant, even tragic reminder of the kind of president Bush as candidate had vowed to be — a unifier, a bridge-builder, an advocate of "compassionate conservatism." Here is the president we might have had.
George W. Bush has betrayed the country with the Iraq fiasco, but a good deal of the country has now betrayed him.
Nativist bigotry — the sort that gave America immigration restrictions and the eugenics movement 80 years ago, the sort that left refugees from Nazi Germany with no sanctuary here — has come back to haunt us. Lou Dobbs on the left and Rush Limbaugh on the right seem to be competing for the Father Coughlin sound-alike award.
Only this time, it is the Mexicans — and not the Jews — who are portrayed as the vermin of the earth.
Samuel G. Freedman is a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism.