Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Words I Never Thought I'd Hear


The other day, a long-time friend of mine and self-described classic conservative, told me, "I had to admit this, but I've been thinking about it and I have to admit that Bill Clinton had the potential to be a great President - if he'd only kept his damn zipper up." He then expressed what he detested most about Clinton - his worldview was completely at odds with that my friend had developed through years as a military officer, but was coming to recognize as pervasive in government - in GW's government - since entering the civilian world.

Which brings me to a couple of weirditorials. Not idiotorials, but not entirely sensible, either. First, we have Robert Samuelson arguing,
The political story of 2003 was, in some ways, the fashionableness of "hate." It became respectable not simply to disagree with George W. Bush or to dislike him and criticize him -- but to go further and declare your everlasting hate for the man. People bragged about how much they hated Bush. This loathing of Bush from the left does not, as yet, seem any more vicious (and perhaps less so) than the loathing of Bill Clinton from the right. But what is different is the willingness to call it "hatred" and to have the label blessed by much of the press, which has concluded that Bush is different from other modern presidents.
Perhaps it is just me, but I don't recall any shortage of people willing to describe their sentiment toward Bill Clinton as "hatred". To the extent that the press covered the hatred differently, perhaps it was out of a misguided sense of "fairness" and "balance" - to those criticizing Clinton. Outlets like Fox News, which have no particular interest in fairness or balance beyond sloganeering, don't much care if their treatment of "Bush Haters" is dismissive of the reasons for that hatred.

From his comfy chair, Samuelson hypothesizes,
In the end, Bush hating says more about the haters than the hated -- and here, too, the parallels with Clinton are strong. This hatred embodies much fear and insecurity. The anti-Clinton fanatics hated him not simply because he occasionally lied, committed adultery or exhibited an air of intellectual superiority. What really infuriated them was that he kept succeeding -- he won reelection, his approval ratings stayed high -- and that diminished their standing. If Clinton was approved, they must be disapproved.

Ditto for Bush. If he succeeded less, he'd be hated less. His fiercest detractors don't loathe him merely because they think he's mediocre, hypocritical and simplistic. What they truly resent is that his popularity suggests that the country might be more like him than it is like them. They fear he's exiling them politically. On one level, their embrace of hatred aims to make others share their outrage; but on another level, it's a self-indulgent declaration of moral superiority -- something that makes them feel better about themselves. Either way, it represents another dreary chapter in the continuing coarsening of public discourse.
I don't know about that. The people to whom I have spoken who most "hate" Bush, whether at home, in England, or in Canada, seem to have formed that opinion early in his Presidency, prior to 9/11 when his approval rating was anything but high. While it may be that some resent the fact that a large percentage of the population supports Bush, that development came after their contempt was fully formed. Also, obviously, those in Canada and England also don't fear being politically exiled or marginalized - they have no vote, and no direct stake in U.S. popular sentiments.

Also I am not sure that any of his detractors see much "success" in Bush's record - other than, that is, his amazing ability to slash taxes for the wealthy and to raise taxes for his reelection campaign. The jury's still out on Afghanistan and Iraq - although I certainly hope that the ultimate verdict is delivered as quickly as possible in our favor. I personally think that if Bush had achieved rapid democratization and redevelopment in Iraq, with the "candy and flowers" welcome we were implicitly promised following the invasion, a lot fewer people would be in the "haters" camp.

And then we have Bill Safire.... Bill talks about his lack of "cognitive dissonance" in distrusting the Clintons, and applauds his own "consistency" for insisting that Cheney, whom he trusts implicitly, disclose the facts and circumstances of his energy task force. (This created in poor Bill some "cognitive dissonance" because it meant that he "chose to stray off the Bush reservation" - and no, I'm not making that up. But that was okay, because he claims it would have been even more dissonant had he approved the inappropriate secrecy.)

As you might expect, he ends up taking pot shots at Howard Dean, for imposing a full decade of "executive privilege" on the records from when he governed Vermont. He suggests that this must create "cognitive dissonance" ("C.D.") in Dean's supporters:
They could deal with C.D. by (1) suppressing their cognition about executive-branch secrecy, or (2) changing their cognition about Dean or (3) calling on their hero to tear down that stonewall. There is also the choice of emulating the shrewd action of Aesop's fox: deciding that the grapes of wrath are sour.
Now, I'm all for transparency in government, so given those three choices I would say "tear down the wall". But... if Safire wanted to be honest, and to avoid another bout of cognitive dissonance in himself, perhaps he should have mentioned that President Bush has placed his own gubernatorial records under a reported fifty year seal in his father's presidential library. Even Fox News seems to think that a relevant fact when criticizing Dean.

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