Mad About Me

By

No article of mine has received anywhere near as much attention--
positive or negative--as the defense of Bush hatred that I wrote
last year ("Mad About You," September 29, 2003). Actually, the
point of the article was not that Bush hatred was good, but that it
was understandable. Conservative after conservative had expressed
bewilderment that liberals could so dislike George W. Bush. I
argued that the way he attained office and governed made this
hatred inevitable. In the course of writing the article, it felt
dishonest to approach the topic in a purely detached and clinical
fashion. So I opened with a paragraph confessing that I, too,
shared a deep and personal loathing for Bush. This admission
scandalized a number of critics, and the latest to be scandalized
is my friend (and tnr's stellar legal affairs editor) Jeffrey
Rosen. In this space last month, Jeff asked, "Might not [Chait's]
decision to wallow in his hatred of Bush run the risk of distorting
his judgment?"Let me respond by applying the sort of close textual analysis that
Jeff would no doubt find familiar. First, there's the word
"wallow." I've been known to wallow in certain obsessions--did you
know I'm not a fan of supply-side economics?--but, if a portion of
one article qualifies as wallowing, then the bar is being set
pretty low. Nor do I think that expressing my hatred in print
undermines my ability to make judgments about Bush's policies.
Suppose I held my loathing in my head or shared it only with close
friends and family. Would that make it any better? I know lots of
people who despise Bush but don't have access to the print media.
Lacking a print outlet for their revulsion does not seem to have
made their judgments of the president more charitable. So Jeff must
mean that the fact that I despise Bush as a man has compromised my
judgment. But, if my Bush hatred were interfering with my critical
faculties, then I would reflexively oppose Bush even when he takes
positions that I would normally be expected to support. Yet I
unequivocally and repeatedly defended Bush's decision to invade
Iraq, the single biggest policy decision of his presidency. And my
opposition to, well, just about everything else he's done is shared
by others who tend to agree with me ideologically. So my Bush
hatred doesn't seem to have distorted my judgment.

I'd even go so far as to argue that what is really distorting
perceptions in Washington today is not Bush hatred but an effort by
many center-left pundits to be evenhanded and "reasonable." Let's
call those prone to this tendency "thoughtful observers."
Thoughtful observers tend to see any given problem as equally the
fault of Democrats and Republicans, and, like Jeff, wish both sides
could get along better. They tend to be held in high esteem by both
sides. But, when it comes to analyzing the administration's
actions, the Bush-haters have been right, and the thoughtful
observers have been wrong. I don't mean "right" and "wrong" in a
normative sense--judging whether Bush's policies are good for the
country. I mean it in a descriptive sense. Thoughtful observers
believed during the 2000 campaign that Bush had broken with the
conservative wing of his party and took him at his word when he
promised a new era of bipartisan comity. (As Joe Klein
editorialized for The New Yorker, "[T]here is only one possible
governing strategy: a quiet, patient, and persistent
bipartisanship.") After September 11, 2001, they expected that Bush
would embrace a kind of national unity government and abandon his
most partisan goals. Both assumptions clearly proved wrong.
Certainly, Bush hatred can distort one's thinking. But it's not the
only kind of distortion, and, in recent years, it hasn't been the
most important kind.

Jeff proceeds to argue that "Clinton, Bush, and Kerry hatred are all
reflections of precisely the same phenomenon, which results from the
transformation of politics into theater." This is another comforting
parallel that obscures more than it reveals. The deep
personalization of politics under Bill Clinton reflected a
deliberate Republican strategy. Clinton had moved his party to the
center, leaving it with few unpopular policies. Republican
opponents of the administration had little choice but to turn
voters' attention toward Bill and Hillary's unappealing personal
qualities. Rush Limbaugh said in 1994 that harping on Whitewater
was a way to defeat the Clinton health plan. (Polls showed that
voters supported every element of the Clinton health plan; but the
Clintons' intense personal unpopularity made voters distrust
anything called the "Clinton plan.") Likewise, Republicans have
shrewdly used Bush's personal popularity to compensate for the
unpopularity of many of his policies on health care, the economy,
and management of the Iraq war.

I'd like nothing more than for American politics to revolve entirely
around policy and for everybody to ignore personality. I'd happily
vote for an obnoxious, philandering, dog-kicking tax cheat who
carried out effective policies at home and abroad. Why, then, if
the real basis for my opposition to Bush is his performance in
office, would I even bother to mention my personal disdain for him?
It's a reaction to his success at passing himself off as a moral
paragon, and even as a great leader in the mold of Winston Churchill
and Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, the intense personal animosity many
harbor against Bush didn't really blossom until the last couple of
years, in response to the absurd cult of personality that grew up
around him in the wake of September 11. As I wrote in my defense of
Bush hatred, liberals produced a lot of cultural kitsch in the
1990s (Dave, The American President, the early years of "The West
Wing") glorifying Democratic presidents. Annoying as they could be,
the point of these fantasies was to imagine an idealized president
who, unlike Clinton, didn't have to engage in the grubby
compromises of real-world Washington. Conservative propaganda has
also created a fantasy president, but this one is named "George W.
Bush." If his followers did not revere him so slavishly, and if
frank appraisals of his background and personal qualities had not
been so marginalized, it would be much easier to accept with
equanimity the fact that the leader of the free world is basically
the Fredo Corleone of the Bush family.

Oops. There I go again, indulging in base emotions and cheapening
the public discourse. I've got to stop doing that.

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