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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

This week, there's been a strange dialogue between a rap star and a former president. Kanye West and George W. Bush have taken to TV and Twitter to rehash an incident that happened right after Hurricane Katrina. West went off script during a telethon to raise relief funds, and he said this.

Mr. KANYE WEST (Rapper, Singer and Record Producer): George Bush doesn't care about black people.

SIEGEL: It's come up again now because former President Bush wrote about it in his new book. And in an interview that's gotten a lot of play, he told NBC's Matt Lauer that it was - in President Bush's words - the worst moment of his presidency.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Today Show")

President GEORGE W. BUSH: He called me a racist.

Mr. MATT LAUER (Co-host, "The Today Show"): Well, what he said was George Bush doesn't care about black people.

Pres. BUSH: That's - he's a racist. And I didn't appreciate it then. I don't appreciate it now. It's one thing to say, you know, I don't appreciate the way he handled his business. It's another thing to say that man's a racist. I resent it. It's not true, and it was one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.

SIEGEL: And it's the emotions around that word racist that make this whole episode interesting to commentator Jay Smooth.

JAY SMOOTH: I think it's unfortunate that on the issue of race, it's so difficult for us to focus squarely on the issues. Where on the issue of the war in Iraq and how President Bush handled that, the conversation will focus on his actions and whether he regrets his actions. On the issue of Katrina and how race played into it, the focus always lands squarely on how raising the issue of race made President Bush feel.

Pres. BUSH: The misery in Louisiana affected me deeply as well. There's a lot of tough moments in the book. And it's a disgusting moment, pure and simple.

SMOOTH: This morning, on "The Today Show" when Matt Lauer interviewed Kanye West, he made it a point to focus on how Kanye's words made President Bush feel, and he even asked Kanye to look at the recording and look at George Bush's face, look what you did to him.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Today Show")

Mr. LAUER: Just play the tape. Don't even listen this time. I want you to just look at his face...

Mr. WEST: All right.

Mr. LAUER: ...when he is commenting about you and just look at him. I mean, this is the most emotional he got during my entire three-and-a-half-hour interview with him.

SMOOTH: Which is not how any other issue in the Bush administration would be addressed. The focus lands squarely on how it makes the person feel. And I think that's the biggest stumbling block we have to being able to work on race issues in this country is how everything becomes so hyperpersonalized, and we focus on whether you're saying I'm a bad person instead of focusing on issues that are bigger than ourselves and have nothing to do with what's inside our heart at the end of the day.

I do, like Kanye, feel some empathy for President Bush. I think President Bush believes he's a good person who was trying to do the best for all people. But I still find it puzzling that President Bush has such an apparent lack of perspective about what his responsibilities were as president.

When I initially saw his comments, I thought he must be referring to some other Kanye West who's a head of state in some foreign country, because for him to have this strong reaction and so much lingering anger towards some random pop star who had an emotional reaction to one of his decisions, I find that peculiar. I think it reflects the unique relationship we have with race, where anytime the issue of race comes up, we relate to it in an extremely personal way instead of being able to stay grounded and focused on what the substantive issue is.

SIEGEL: Jay Smooth blogs at illdoctrine.com.

(Soundbite of song, "Power")

Mr. WEST: (Singing) I need a moment. No one man should have all that power. The clock is ticking. I just count the hours. Stop tripping. I'm tripping off the power.

Mr. GREG LAKE (Singer, King Crimson): (Sampled audio) Twenty-first century schizoid man.

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