For now Americans seem to be split 50-50 over the reelection of George W. Bush. Such a hotly contested election is hardly new. We saw races just as close in 1960, 1968, and 1976. Had Ross Perot not run in 1992–and perhaps even in 1996–Bill Clinton (who didn’t receive a 50 percent majority in either of his presidential races) may well have found himself in the same predicament as Gore did in Florida, 2000–struggling to win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote to George Bush Sr.
There are a number of issues in this contest on which reasonable people can differ. If one is out of work or without comprehensive health insurance, then the economy is rocky, to be measured not by historically low unemployment figures but by the number of actual jobs lost or gained. For others more fortunate, by any fair measure of housing, transportation, or consumer goods, the United States has achieved a standard of living well beyond even that of Europe.
One can argue that the post-bellum reconstruction of Iraq was unforeseeably messy and fouled-up. Or, one can argue that it’s striking that after a mere three years the United States has liberated 50 million and implemented democratic reform in place of what were the two most fascistic governments in the world–all without another 9/11 mass murder.
Furthermore, our troubles with Europe can be seen as either provoking tried and tested friends or lancing a boil that was growing for years as a result of our different histories, the end of the Cold War, and the utopianism of the EU. We could all disagree further about education, illegal immigration, energy policy, taxation, and a host of other issues.
But what is not explicable in terms of rational disagreement is the Left’s pathological hatred of George W. Bush. It transcends all contention over the issues, the Democratic hurt over the Florida elections, and even the animus once shown Bill Clinton by the activist Right. From where does this near-religious anger arise and what does it portend?
Let’s start with the admission that much of the invective is irrational, fueled by emotion rather than reason. Thus the black leadership uses slurs such as “Taliban” and “Confederacy” against Bush, even though no other president has selected an African-American secretary of State and national-security adviser or pledged so many billions for AIDS relief in Africa. Liberals talk of social programs starved, but domestic spending under Bush increased at annual rates greater than during any Democratic administration in recent history. Just read howls of conservatives who worry about Bush’s Great Society-like programs.
On foreign policy, Kerry rips Bush apart–but can’t say whether he would have gone into Afghanistan and Iraq and is unable to specify how he would have gotten pacifistic Europeans on board. It is common to caricature Ashcroft as some Seven Days in May insurrectionist, bent on overthrowing the Constitution; but given the almost daily arrests of terror suspects in the United States, Kerry cannot tell us how exactly the Patriot Act has eroded our freedoms, much less why it is unnecessary in hunting down potential mass murderers.
What is it about Bush that elicits such hatred, that galvanizes even usually mindless rock stars, self-indulgent Hollywood actors, lethargic ex-presidents and vice presidents, and hypocritical Democratic senators to embrace such canonical fury? Why was the Left content to make fun of Ford’s clumsiness, Reagan’s forgetfulness, and George Sr.’s preppiness, but now calls George W. a Nazi and worse still? Why are there forthcoming novels and plays that discuss the assassination of George W. Bush? Why did we not get a Reaganwacked, a Reaganworld, a Lies of Ronald Reagan–a similar vast industry of paperback pulp equating Reagan with evil incarnate?
THE SOUTHERN ALBATROSS
Bush is a southerner, with a drawl–but not one who is either liberal or Democratic. We forget just how rare that is.
In fact, we have not seen a twanged president or vice president who was conservative in over a half-century. The previous rule? A Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Lloyd Bentsen, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, or John Edwards could serve or run for executive national office only on a simple triangulating premise–they offered moderate and regional balance to Yankee liberalism and yet did not in the slightest scare the rest of the country with images of a redneck South.
Any unrepentant conservatives from the south–former Democrats like a John Connolly or a Phil Graham–who sought the presidency quickly faded. Mr. Bush is unusual–an adopted Texan who reflects the attitudes and beliefs of most Southerners, and who counts on real political affinity rather than mere regional loyalty for support south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nixon-Lodge, Goldwater-Miller, Nixon-Agnew, Ford-Dole, Reagan-Bush, Bush-Quayle, Dole-Kemp, Bush-Cheney–not a Southern conservative Republican to be found on any ticket, a trend that surely keeps Karl Rove’s wheels spinning each night.
For the Left, Mr. Bush is automatically under a cloud of suspicion; he is an unapologetic twanger who likes guns, barbeques, NASCAR, “the ranch,” and pick-up trucks. It matters little that George Bush’s record on classical civil-rights issues is impeccable, without a hint of the deplorable racism of a younger Senator Byrd, a Lyndon Johnson, or an Al Gore Sr. Every statement Bush drawls out about religion, affirmative action, or abortion is forever suspect–sort of what would happen should a Germanic-sounding Arnold Schwarzenegger quite rightly lecture Californians about the need for greater order, efficiency, cohesiveness, and the willpower to regain pride and purpose. Necessary, yes–but for some, given his accent, Wagnerian and spooky all the same.
Similarly, Bush’s Christianity seems evangelical and literal. It comes across as disturbing to liberals of the country who see religion as a mere social formality at best, useful for weddings and funerals, perhaps comforting at Christmas and Easter of course, but otherwise a potential threat to the full expression of lifestyle “choices.”
American politicos like their candidates to be Episcopalian, Unitarian, or Congregationalist, perhaps even mainstream but quiet Methodists or Presbyterians. Baptists of the southern flavor, or anything not found in a New England township, reflect a real belief in the literalness of the Bible–primordial ideas that religion is not a social necessity but a fire-and-brimstone path to eternal salvation.
Jimmy Carter came closest to the edge with his talk of being born again. Yet his liberalism, his close friendship with Walter Mondale, and his talk of American pathology convinced the Left that he was just a southern version of a Daniel Berrigan or William Sloan Coffin–a little weird, perhaps, but useful all the same in drawing the powers of Christianity into the liberal crusade. In contrast, if Bush evokes the name of God one one-thousandth as often as did Abraham Lincoln or Reverend Jackson, he is dismissed as an unhinged zealot eager to incite a Hundred Years’ War with the Muslims.
Critics accuse Mr. Bush of Manichaeism–of tough, black-and-white talk about good and evil. They are right. He certainly sounds different from the usual suburban moralist, especially in an age of irony, skepticism, and cynicism. Our era is dominated by pundits, professors, and journalists to whom hip nuance is everything. The Time magazine style of reporting starts off with Theme A, then reverses course half-way through with counterargument B, only to conclude with Theme A lite.
I like David Letterman and Jon Stewart, but like most Americans I can never really tell when or whether they are ever sincere. Not long ago a Frenchman explained to me why he hates Bush, who “thinks linearly” and has no sense of the “problematique.” Face it: We are now an information society, with a premium on talk, not action. To suggest that one need not be 100 percent certain–but perhaps only 60 percent certain–to act is deeply disturbing. And when you add lingo like “bring ‘em on,” the caricature that Bush belongs on the main street of Gunsmoke rather than in Sex in the City or The West Wing is only strengthened.
Go back to the early 1960s and listen to the accents on shows like Have Gun Will Travel and GE Playhouse and contrast those characters’ speech with today’s television diction: The former are square, one-dimensional, blunt–almost flat and Midwestern in tone–the latter speak nasally, their speech drawn out and full of ironic, sarcastic under-the-breath asides, often striving to reflect sophisticated uncertainty, if not camp.
We not only have an evangelical Christian as president in the age or irony, but one who really makes it sound like we have the ability to make choices that are more right than wrong and then act on them. In a world in which our elites can give 1,000 reasons for inaction and not one for resolution, Mr. Bush seems precipitous, unnuanced, one-dimensional, and oh-so-retro.
George Bush is a traitor of the most frightening sort to his class: He is not an ideological tribune like Roosevelt or Kennedy, but someone far worse, who seems to dislike the entire baggage of sophisticated, highbrow society. An Eastern blueblood who initially did all the right things–Prep School, the Ivy league, Skull and Bones–he then, accent and all, not only went back to rural Texas, but embraced a popular culture antithetical to the preppie, wonkish, aristocratic world of the East Coast elite.
So Bush suffers additional invective not accorded his father, whose cadre of Wall Street stockbrokers, Council on Foreign Relations pin-stripers, and State Department sober and judicious insiders could assure the liberal establishment that, well, here was a man like us who believed in noblesse oblige, sent his kids to our schools, and simply had a smidgeon less compassion for the down-trodden.
But W.? His wife is pure Texas: a closet smoker from a family that does not have lots of money or status–not a Kennedy or Kerry spouse replete with loot, connections, and European sophistication. Unlike Teresa, Hillary, or Tipper, Laura has no angst about her own career; she doesn’t give sermons about super-womaning as wife, mother, and activist exec. Worse still, Laura Bush is happy, proud, and likes who and what she is.
We don’t hear that the Bush twins are like the Kerry offspring at Harvard Med, or slashing through Stanford Chelsea-style, or even like the Gore girls, lecturing the faithful on their father’s liberalism. Somehow the purportedly non-New York Times reading, non-NPR-listening, non-Guggenheim-visiting George W. Bush veered off onto the wrong path, and his recalcitrance seems to drive his aristocratic rivals nuts. His antipathy, after all, is one of choice, not fueled by an outsider’s envy or prior poverty.
“Pushy” neocons–not Shimon Peres groupies–advise him on Israel. Bush talks to confident black entrepreneurs, not the elite CEOs of the race industry. He is at home more with ministers in polyester than with elbow-patched, turtle-necked scholars of religion. So it is not just what Bush does, but how he does it that matters so much to the exasperated, out-of-the-loop op-ed boards, Malibu filmmakers, elite newsrooms, faculty lounges, and foundation panels.
In short, the Left hates George W. Bush for who he is rather than what he does. Southern conservatism, evangelical Christianity, a black-and-white worldview, and a wealthy man’s disdain for elite culture–none by itself earns hatred, of course, but each is a force multiplier of the other and so helps explain the evolution of disagreement into pathological venom.
September 11 cooled the furor of these aristocratic critics, but Iraq re-ignited it. Not voting for George Bush is, of course understandable and millions in fact will do precisely that. But for those haters who demonize the man, their knee-jerk disgust tells us far more about their own shallow characters than it does anything about our wartime president.
And there is a great danger in all these manifestations of pure hatred. We are in a war. And in these tumultuous days, the Left’s unhinged odium will resonate with and embolden not only our enemies abroad, but also the deranged, dangerous folk here at home.