- Mad About You
- I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it. I
think his policies rank him among the worst presidents in U.S. history.
And, while I'm tempted to leave it at that, the truth is that I hate him
for less substantive reasons, too. I hate the inequitable way he has come
to his economic and political achievements and his utter lack of humility
(disguised behind transparently false modesty) at having done so. His favorite
answer to the question of nepotism--"I inherited half my father's
friends and all his enemies" -- conveys the laughable implication
that his birth bestowed more disadvantage than advantage.
- He reminds me of a certain type I knew in high school--the
kid who was given a fancy sports car for his sixteenth birthday and believed
that he had somehow earned it. I hate the way he walks--shoulders flexed,
elbows splayed out from his sides like a teenage boy feigning machismo.
I hate the way he talks--blustery self-assurance masked by a pseudo-populist
twang. I even hate the things that everybody seems to like about him. I
hate his lame nickname-bestowing-- a way to establish one's social superiority
beneath a veneer of chumminess (does anybody give their boss a nickname
without his consent?). And, while most people who meet Bush claim to like
him, I suspect that, if I got to know him personally, I would hate him
- There seem to be quite a few of us Bush haters. I have
friends who have a viscerally hostile reaction to the sound of his voice
or describe his existence as a constant oppressive force in their daily
psyche. Nor is this phenomenon limited to my personal experience: Pollster
Geoff Garin, speaking to The New York Times, called Bush hatred "as
strong as anything I've experienced in 25 years now of polling." Columnist
Robert Novak described it as a "hatred ... that I have never seen
in 44 years of campaign watching."
- Yet, for all its pervasiveness, Bush hatred is described
almost exclusively as a sort of incomprehensible mental affliction. James
Traub, writing last June in The New York Times Magazine, dismissed the
"hysteria" of Bush haters. Conservatives have taken a special
interest in the subject. "Democrats are seized with a loathing for
President Bush--a contempt and disdain giving way to a hatred that is near
pathological--unlike any since they had Richard Nixon to kick around,"
writes Charles Krauthammer in Time magazine. "The puzzle is where
this depth of feeling comes from." Even writers like David Brooks
and Christopher Caldwell of The Weekly Standard--the sorts of conservatives
who have plenty of liberal friends--seem to regard it from the standpoint
of total incomprehension. "Democrats have been driven into a frenzy
of illogic by their dislike of George W. Bush," explains Caldwell.
"It's mystifying," writes Brooks, noting that Democrats have
grown "so caught up in their own victimization that they behave in
ways that are patently not in their self-interest, and that are almost
guaranteed to perpetuate their suffering."
- Have Bush haters lost their minds? Certainly some have.
Antipathy to Bush has, for example, led many liberals not only to believe
the costs of the Iraq war outweigh the benefits but to refuse to acknowledge
any benefits at all, even freeing the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein's reign
of terror. And it has caused them to look for the presidential nominee
who can best stoke their own anger, not the one who can win over a majority
of voters--who, they forget, still like Bush. But, although Bush hatred
can result in irrationality, it's not the product of irrationality. Indeed,
for those not ideologically or personally committed to Bush's success,
hatred for Bush is a logical response to the events of the last few years.
It is not the slightest bit mystifying that liberals despise Bush. It would
be mystifying if we did not.
- One reason Bush hatred is seen as inherently irrational
is that its immediate precursor, hatred of Bill Clinton, really did have
a paranoid tinge. Conservatives, in retrospect, now concede that some of
the Clinton haters were a little bit nutty. But they usually do so only
in the context of declaring that Bush hatred is as bad or worse. "Back
then, [there were] disapproving articles--not to mention armchair psychoanalysis--about
Clinton-hating," complains Byron York in a National Review story this
month. "Today, there appears to be less concern." Adds Brooks,
"Now it is true that you can find conservatives and Republicans who
went berserk during the Clinton years, accusing the Clintons of multiple
murders and obsessing how Vince Foster's body may or may not have been
moved. ... But the Democratic mood is more pervasive, and potentially more
- It's certainly true that there is a left-wing fringe
of Bush haters whose lurid conspiracy-mongering neatly parallels that of
the Clinton haters. York cites various left-wing websites that compare
Bush to Hitler and accuse him of murder. The trouble with this parallel
is, first, that this sort of Bush-hating is entirely confined to the political
fringe. The most mainstream anti-Bush conspiracy theorist cited in York's
piece is Alexander Cockburn, the ultra-left, rabidly anti-Clinton newsletter
editor. Mainstream Democrats have avoided delving into Bush's economic
ties with the bin Laden family or suggesting that Bush invaded Iraq primarily
to benefit Halliburton. The Clinton haters, on the other hand, drew from
the highest ranks of the Republican Party and the conservative intelligentsia.
Bush's solicitor general, Theodore Olson, was involved with The American
Spectator's "Arkansas Project," which used every conceivable
method--including paying sources--to dig up dirt from Clinton's past. Mainstream
conservative pundits, such as William Safire and Rush Limbaugh, asserted
that Vince Foster had been murdered, and GOP Government Reform Committee
Chairman Dan Burton attempted to demonstrate this theory forensically by
firing a shot into a dummy head in his backyard.
- A second, more crucial difference is that Bush is a far
more radical president than Clinton was. From a purely ideological standpoint,
then, liberal hatred of Bush makes more sense than conservatives' Clinton
fixation. Clinton offended liberals time and again, embracing welfare reform,
tax cuts, and free trade, and nominating judicial moderates. When budget
surpluses first appeared, he stunned the left by reducing the national
debt rather than pushing for more spending. Bush, on the other hand, has
developed into a truly radical president. Like Ronald Reagan, Bush crusaded
for an enormous supply-side tax cut that was anathema to liberals. But,
where Reagan followed his cuts with subsequent measures to reduce revenue
loss and restore some progressivity to the tax code, Bush proceeded to
execute two additional regressive tax cuts. Combined with his stated desire
to eliminate virtually all taxes on capital income and to privatize Medicare
and Social Security, it's not much of an exaggeration to say that Bush
would like to roll back the federal government to something resembling
its pre-New Deal state.
- And, while there has been no shortage of liberal hysteria
over Bush's foreign policy, it's not hard to see why it scares so many
people. I was (and remain) a supporter of the war in Iraq. But the way
Bush sold it--by playing upon the public's erroneous belief that Saddam
had some role in the September 11 attacks--harkened back to the deceit
that preceded the Spanish-American War. Bush's doctrine of preemption,
which reserved the right to invade just about any nation we desired, was
far broader than anything he needed to validate invading a country that
had flouted its truce agreements for more than a decade. While liberals
may be overreacting to Bush's foreign policy decisions-- remember their
fear of an imminent invasion of Syria?--the president's shifting and dishonest
rationales and tendency to paint anyone who disagrees with him as unpatriotic
offer plenty of grounds for suspicion.
- It was not always this way. During the 2000 election,
liberals evinced far less disdain for Bush than conservatives did for Al
Gore. As The New York Times reported on the eve of the election, "The
gap in intensity between Democrats and Republicans has been apparent all
year." This "passion gap" manifested itself in the willingness
of many liberals and leftists to vote for Ralph Nader, even in swing states.
It became even more obvious during the Florida recount, when a December
2000 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Gore voters more willing to accept
a Bush victory than vice-versa, by a 47 to 28 percent margin. "There
is no great ideological chasm dividing the candidates," retiring Democratic
Senator Pat Moynihan told the Times. "Each one has his prescription-drugs
plan, each one has his tax-cut program, and the country obviously thinks
one would do about as well as the other."
- Most Democrats took Bush's victory with a measure of
equanimity because he had spent his campaign presenting himself as a "compassionate
conservative"--a phrase intended to contrast him with the GOP ideologues
in Congress--who would reduce partisan strife in Washington. His loss of
the popular vote, and the disputed Florida recount, followed by his soothing
promises to be "president of all Americans," all fed the widespread
assumption that Bush would hew a centrist course. "Given the circumstances,
there is only one possible governing strategy: a quiet, patient, and persistent
bipartisanship," intoned a New Yorker editorial written by Joe Klein.
- Instead, Bush has governed as the most partisan president
in modern U.S. history. The pillars of his compassionate-conservative agenda--the
faith-based initiative, charitable tax credits, additional spending on
education--have been abandoned or absurdly underfunded. Instead, Bush's
legislative strategy has revolved around wringing out narrow, party-line
votes for conservative priorities by applying relentless pressure to GOP
moderates--in one case, to the point of driving Vermont's James Jeffords
out of the party. Indeed, when bipartisanship shows even the slightest
sign of life, Bush usually responds by ruthlessly tamping it down. In 2001,
he convinced GOP Representative Charlie Norwood to abandon his long-cherished
patients' bill of rights, which enjoyed widespread Democratic support.
According to a Washington Post account, Bush and other White House officials
"met with Norwood for hours and issued endless appeals to party loyalty."
Such behavior is now so routine that it barely rates notice. Earlier this
year, a column by Novak noted almost in passing that "senior lawmakers
are admonished by junior White House aides to refrain from being too chummy
- When the September 11 attacks gave Bush an opportunity
to unite the country, he simply took it as another chance for partisan
gain. He opposed a plan to bolster airport security for fear that it would
lead to a few more union jobs. When Democrats proposed creating a Department
of Homeland Security, he resisted it as well. But later, facing controversy
over disclosures of pre-September 11 intelligence failures, he adopted
the idea as his own and immediately began using it as a cudgel with which
to bludgeon Democrats. The episode was telling: Having spent the better
part of a year denying the need for any Homeland Security Department at
all, Bush aides secretly wrote up a plan with civil service provisions
they knew Democrats would oppose and then used it to impugn the patriotism
of any Democrats who did--most notably Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a triple-amputee
veteran running for reelection who, despite his support for the war with
Iraq and general hawkishness, lost his Senate race thanks to an ugly GOP
ad linking him to Osama bin Laden.
- All this helps answer the oft-posed question of why liberals
detest Bush more than Reagan. It's not just that Bush has been more ideologically
radical; it's that Bush's success represents a breakdown of the political
process. Reagan didn't pretend to be anything other than what he was; his
election came at the crest of a twelve-year-long popular rebellion against
liberalism. Bush, on the other hand, assumed office at a time when most
Americans approved of Clinton's policies. He triumphed largely because
a number of democratic safeguards failed. The media overwhelmingly bought
into Bush's compassionate-conservative facade and downplayed his radical
economic conservatism. On top of that, it took the monomania of a third-party
spoiler candidate, plus an electoral college that gives disproportionate
weight to GOP voters--the voting population of Gore's blue-state voters
exceeded that of Bush's red-state voters--even to bring Bush close enough
that faulty ballots in Florida could put him in office.
- But Bush is never called to task for the radical disconnect
between how he got into office and what he has done since arriving. Reporters
don't ask if he has succeeded in "changing the tone." Even the
fact that Bush lost the popular vote is hardly ever mentioned. Liberals
hate Bush not because he has succeeded but because his success is deeply
unfair and could even be described as cheating.
- It doesn't help that this also happens to be a pretty
compelling explanation of how Bush achieved his station in life. He got
into college as a legacy; his parents' friends and political cronies propped
him up through a series of failed business ventures (the founder of Harken
Energy summed up his economic appeal thusly: "His name was George
Bush"); he obtained the primary source of his wealth by selling all
his Harken stock before it plunged on bad news, triggering an inconclusive
Securities Exchange Commission insider-trading investigation; the GOP establishment
cleared a path for him through the primaries by showering him with a political
war chest of previously unthinkable size; and conservative justices (one
appointed by his father) flouted their own legal principles--adopting an
absurdly expansive federal role to enforce voting rights they had never
even conceived of before--to halt a recount that threatened to put his
more popular opponent in the White House.
- Conservatives believe liberals resent Bush in part because
he is a rough-hewn Texan. In fact, they hate him because they believe he
is not a rough-hewn Texan but rather a pampered frat boy masquerading as
one, with his pickup truck and blue jeans serving as the perfect props
to disguise his plutocratic nature. The liberal view of Bush was captured
by Washington Post (and former tnr) cartoonist Tom Toles, who once depicted
Bush being informed by an adviser that he "didn't hit a triple. You
were born on third base." A puzzled Bush replies, "I thought
I was born at my beloved hardscrabble Crawford ranch," at which point
his subordinate reminds him, "You bought that place a couple years
ago for your presidential campaign."
- During the 1990s, it was occasionally noted that conservatives
despised Clinton because he flouted their basic values. From the beginning,
they saw him as a product of the 1960s, a moral relativist who gave his
wife too much power. But what really set them off was that he cheated on
his wife, lied, and got away with it. "We must teach our children
that crime does not pay," insisted former California Representative
and uber-Clinton hater Bob Dornan. "What kind of example does this
set to teach kids that lying like this is OK?" complained Andrea Sheldon
Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition.
- In a way, Bush's personal life is just as deep an affront
to the values of the liberal meritocracy. How can they teach their children
that they must get straight A's if the president slid through with C's--and
brags about it!--and then, rather than truly earning his living, amasses
a fortune through crony capitalism? The beliefs of the striving, educated
elite were expressed, fittingly enough, by Clinton at a meeting of the
Aspen Institute last month. Clinton, according to New York magazine reporter
Michael Wolff, said of the Harken deal that Bush had "sold the stock
to buy the baseball team which got him the governorship which got him the
presidency." Every aspect of Bush's personal history points to the
ways in which American life continues to fall short of the meritocratic
- But perhaps most infuriating of all is the fact that
liberals do not see their view of Bush given public expression. It's not
that Bush has been spared from any criticism--far from it. It's that certain
kinds of criticism have been largely banished from mainstream discourse.
After Bush assumed office, the political media pretty much decided that
the health of U.S. democracy, having edged uncomfortably close to chaos
in December 2000, required a cooling of overheated passions. Criticism
of Bush's policies--after a requisite honeymoon--was fine. But the media
defined any attempt to question Bush's legitimacy as out-of-bounds. When,
in early February, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe
invoked the Florida debacle, The Washington Post reported it thusly: "Although
some Democratic leaders have concluded that the public wants to move past
the ill will over the post-election maneuvering that settled the close
Florida contest, McAuliffe plainly believes that with some audiences--namely,
the Democratic base of activists he was addressing yesterday--a backward-looking
appeal to resentment is for now the best way to motivate and unite an often-fractious
party." (This was in a news story!) "It sounds like you're still
fighting the election," growled NBC's Tim Russert on "Meet the
Press." "So much for bipartisanship!" huffed ABC's Sam Donaldson
on "This Week."
- Just as mainstream Democrats and liberals ceased to question
Bush's right to hold office, so too did they cease to question his intelligence.
If you search a journalistic database for articles discussing Bush's brainpower,
you will find something curious. The idea of Bush as a dullard comes up
frequently--but nearly always in the context of knocking it down. While
it's described as a widely held view, one can find very few people who
will admit to holding it. Conservatives use the theme as a taunt--if Bush
is so dumb, how come he keeps winning? Liberals, spooked, have concluded
that calling Bush dumb is a strategic mistake. "You're not going to
get votes by assuming that, as a party, you're a lot smarter than the voters,"
argued Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed last November.
"Casting Bush as a dummy also plays into his strategy of casting himself
as a Texas common man," wrote Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne
in March 2001.
- Maybe Bush's limited brainpower hasn't hampered his political
success. And maybe pointing out that he's not the brightest bulb is politically
counterproductive. Nonetheless, however immaterial or inconvenient the
fact may be, it remains true that Bush is just not a terribly bright man.
(Or, more precisely, his intellectual incuriosity is such that the effect
is the same.) On the rare occasions Bush takes an extemporaneous question
for which he hasn't prepared, he usually stumbles embarrassingly. When
asked in July whether, given that Israel was releasing Palestinian prisoners,
he would consider releasing famed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, Bush's
answer showed he didn't even know who Pollard is. "Well, I said very
clearly at the press conference with Prime Minister [Mahmoud] Abbas, I
don't expect anybody to release somebody from prison who'll go kill somebody,"
he rambled. Bush's unscripted replies have caused him to accidentally change
U.S. policy on Taiwan. And, while Bush's inner circle remains committed
to the pretense of a president in total command of his staff, his advisers
occasionally blurt out the truth. In the July issue of Vanity Fair, Richard
Perle admitted that, when he first met Bush, "he didn't know very
- While liberals have pretty much quit questioning Bush's
competence, conservatives have given free rein to their most sycophantic
impulses. Some of this is Bush's own doing--most notably, his staged aircraft-carrier
landing, a naked attempt to transfer the public's admiration for the military
onto himself (a man, it must be noted, who took a coveted slot in the National
Guard during Vietnam and who then apparently declined to show up for a
year of duty). Bush's supporters have spawned an entire industry of hagiographic
kitsch. You can buy a twelve-inch doll of Bush clad in his "Mission
Accomplished" flight suit or, if you have a couple thousand dollars
to spend, a bronze bust depicting a steely-eyed "Commander-in-Chief"
Bush. National Review is enticing its readers to fork over $24.95 for a
book-length collection of Bush's post-September 11, 2001, speeches--any
and all of which could be downloaded from the White House website for free.
The collection recasts Bush as Winston Churchill, with even his most mundane
pronouncements ("Excerpted Remarks by the President from Speech at
the Lighting of the National Christmas Tree," "Excerpted Remarks
by the President from Speech to the Missouri Farmers Association")
deemed worthy of cherishing in bound form. Meanwhile, the recent Showtime
pseudo-documentary "DC 9/11" renders the president as a Clint
Eastwood figure, lording over a cringing Dick Cheney and barking out such
implausible lines as "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him
to come on over and get me. I'll be here!"
- Certainly Clinton had his defenders and admirers, but
no similar cult of personality. Liberal Hollywood fantasies--"The
West Wing," The American President--all depict imaginary presidents
who pointedly lack Clinton's personal flaws or penchant for compromise.
The political point was more to highlight Clinton's deficiencies than to
- The persistence of an absurdly heroic view of Bush is
what makes his dullness so maddening. To be a liberal today is to feel
as though you've been transported into some alternative universe in which
a transparently mediocre man is revered as a moral and strategic giant.
You ask yourself why Bush is considered a great, or even a likeable, man.
You wonder what it is you have been missing. Being a liberal, you probably
subject yourself to frequent periods of self-doubt. But then you conclude
that you're actually not missing anything at all. You decide Bush is a
dullard lacking any moral constraints in his pursuit of partisan gain,
loyal to no principle save the comfort of the very rich, unburdened by
any thoughtful consideration of the national interest, and a man who, on
those occasions when he actually does make a correct decision, does so
almost by accident.
- There. That feels better.
- Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at TNR.