Who Do You Loathe?

from: Bushies vs. Clintonites

Who Do You Loathe? Left vs. Right. Bushies vs. Clintonites. Lately, joining the political fray means choosing a side -- and being as contemptuous as possible about it. From name-calling pundits to mud-slinging candidates to the people who love them, the country seems to be in a love affair with hate. Who earns your rancor? Or is this hostility the most hateful thing of all? Scrutiny of the New York Times best-seller list discloses a new and important trend: Bush-hating has eclipsed Clinton-, Democrat- and liberal-elite-hating. There's Bill O'Reilly, liberal-hater in chief at Fox News, at the No. 2 slot; but Michael Moore's ''Dude, Where's My Country?'' sits on top of the greasy pole, while Al Franken's ''Lies (and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them)'' occupies the No. 3 spot. Molly Ivins's ''Bushwhacked'' is farther down, as is David Corn's ''Lies of George W. Bush,'' a register of alleged mendacity so relentless that it puts one in mind of Mary McCarthy's famous gibe at Lillian Hellman: ''Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' '' And Jonathan Chait, a centrist who backed the war in Iraq, has given new legitimacy to the genre with a recent Bush-hating confessional of his own in a cover article for The New Republic. David Corn "[Bush] has lied large and small, directly and by omission. He has mugged the truth... deliberately, consistently, and repeatedly." Al Franken "I don't see this as an honest administration and the right-wing media... is a shill for [Bush]... he can rely on them to spread his lies." Bill O'Reilly "[Liberals are] counterattacking. My name is no longer Bill O'Reilly. It's 'gasbag,' 'bully,' 'liar' and 'blowhard.'" Ann Coulter "Donations to the Odai and Qusai Hussein Memorial Fund can be submitted directly to the Dean campaign." For those of us of hopelessly moderate temperament, dipping into the inky depths of these volumes offers something of the wicked and barely licit pleasures of a Victoria's Secret catalogue. I had forgotten, for example, until David Corn reminded me, that President Bush contemptuously dismissed his own E.P.A.'s 268-page study admitting that global warming posed a grave threat to this country by saying, ''I read the report put out by the bureaucracy.'' Hatred is delicious. But the sudden rash of jeremiads and their stunning popularity raises a question: Why are so many liberals, including sane and sober ones, granting themselves permission to hate the president? And this in turn is related to a political question: How is it that Howard Dean has built a (so far) wildly successful campaign for the Democratic nomination for president on ressentiment? There are obvious ideological answers to this question. The liberal answer is that George Bush is a craven, lazy, hypocritical nitwit. The conservative answer is that liberals are being driven crazy by the fact that Bush is so popular with Americans, and thus by the realization that anyone to the left of center is utterly marginal. And then there is the generalized, nonpartisan lament that the public arena has become so vulgarized and polarized and Jerry Springerized that everyone is now at everyone else's throat. O tempora! O mores! The problem with this last view is precisely that it's nonpartisan. Our political culture has not been infected by some virus from outer space, or from TV. The carrier was Newt Gingrich. Now, I know perfectly well that Democrats like Teddy Kennedy did a fair job of dehumanizing Robert Bork in his 1987 Supreme Court hearings. But Gingrich brought delegitimation to the core of G.O.P. strategy. It was Gingrich who destroyed House Speaker Jim Wright in 1989, and Gingrich who advised Republicans to always affix adjectives like ''pathetic,'' ''sick'' and ''corrupt'' when referring to Democrats. Gingrich solemnly told the nation, at the 1992 Republican National Convention, that the Democratic Party ''rejects the lessons of American history, despises the values of the American people and denies the basic goodness of the American nation.'' And along with Trent Lott, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, Gingrich labored mightily to bring down President Clinton, first through Whitewater and then through the Starr report and the impeachment proceedings. The politics of delegitimation worked, at least in the short term. Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress in 1994, old-line moderates like Bob Dole were forced to the right, evangelical conservatives were mobilized, right-wing think tanks and media outlets waxed fat and Bill Clinton was very nearly run from office. Today's Republican Party is arguably the most extreme -- the furthest from the center -- of any governing majority in the nation's history. But the poisons that Gingrich and others released into the atmosphere also turned out to sicken many voters. And so George Bush ran for President as a ''compassionate conservative'' and ''a uniter, not a divider.'' Bush has not, of course, been a uniter. His most important domestic policy initiative by far, his massive tax cuts, received only token Democratic support and catered to his own party's most doctrinaire wing. The same is plainly true of the administration's environmental, regulatory and energy policies. He has made a theologically inspired conservative, John Ashcroft, his attorney general. And yet because he is so good-humored, so light-hearted, so devoid of personal animus, he is still able to offer himself as an antidote to divisiveness. And this, I think, does drive a great many Democrats crazy. Many of the ''lies'' recounted in ''The Lies of George W. Bush'' aren't untruths so much as artful repositionings designed to disguise raw partisanship as selfless patriotism. (Though there are quite a few actual fibs as well.) Liberals, and liberalism itself, got blitzed by Newt Gingrich and his minions a decade ago. But as President Bush himself likes to say, ''Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.'' And so liberals are fighting back against Bush with the same vitriol that has been dumped on them. Buying a book that has ''Bush'' and ''lie'' in the title, or even shaking your fist at a Howard Dean rally, is a deeply cathartic, ideology-affirming experience. It's satisfying; but I don't see how it can be a good thing, either for public debate or ultimately for the electoral prospects of the Democrats, to have liberals descend to the level of rabid conservatives. Maybe Al Franken has the right idea, since ''Liars'' is not so much an actual diatribe as a sly parody of conservative extremism. Anybody heard a good John Ashcroft joke?



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