Anyone who hobnobs with progressives knows by now that a fair proportion of these bright and articulate Americans hate George W. Bush. They abhor him. The embrace of Bush hatred has even appeared in otherwise sober journals of opinion such as the New Republic. Why? How is it that so many thoughtful people hold a belief that is surprising -- and troubling -- to the vast majority of Americans?
I came to realize the depth of this hostility a year ago during a discussion about politics with a distinguished social scientist. She explained casually, without preface or embarrassment, that she hated the president. I took it as rhetorical exuberance and called her on it: Surely she meant that she disagreed vigorously with the president's domestic policies, that she objected to the Iraq war, that she found his persona unappealing, that she was offended by his inarticulateness or that she remained vexed by the outcome of the 2000 election. But, no, she insisted that she viscerally despised George W. Bush. She felt nauseated and angry when she watched him. She was not just intellectually offended but morally so.
A few years ago I wrote an essay on "despised presidents." I asked why some evoke such intense feelings, while others do not. We speak of "Nixon haters" and "Clinton haters," but few Gerald Ford haters or Jimmy Carter haters. George H.W. Bush, mocked by many, was one of the least hated recent presidents. Not being hated does not necessarily mean being loved.
My argument was that presidential hatred developed not from actions the president took while in office but from images of the president as a young adult. The president represented critical cultural divisions of a previous generation, divisions that were never fully healed. I suggested that Richard Nixon was hated not because of Watergate but because of his role on the House Un-American Activities Committee in the conviction of Alger Hiss in the late 1940s. Many liberals never forgave Nixon for what they perceived as his witch-hunting and McCarthyism. For Bill Clinton, it was his "radical, hippie" past that produced ire, long before Monica Lewinsky reached public attention. He represented for traditional Americans everything that was wrong with the '60s: How could a draft-dodging, drug-smoking, war-protesting, free-loving radical be commander in chief?
It was not political ideology. Nixon opened the doors to Red China, started Head Start, and increased the size and scope of the federal government. Clinton reformed welfare, created a balanced budget and oversaw Treasury policies friendly to corporate growth.
Bush's administration is free of scandals. He has not eliminated federal programs, not even the National Endowment for the Arts. The retreats have been strategic and slight. Not to say that Democrats should agree with "W" -- but hate him?
Once again emotional juice bubbles from the springs of the past. This loathing derives from Bush's seeming life of ease. If Bill Clinton was a Zelig, present at every influential moment, George W. Bush is Forrest Gump. He has led a charmed life, in which mediocrity, error and failure have had no consequences other than to produce success. An indifferent student, Bush attended both Yale and Harvard, escaped service in Vietnam, escaped disgrace despite drunken driving, failed as an oil magnate only to be promoted to head the Texas Rangers baseball team and, lacking political experience, became governor of Texas. His family and mentors paved the way for this untalented scion of privilege. Bush was the frat boy who never grew up.
Indeed, the conclusion of the 2000 election contributed to this perception. A week before the voting Bush seemed solidly in the lead, but then Democratic operatives spread the story of Bush's youthful DUI arrest, and his support appeared to crumble. Once again, though, his irons were pulled from the fire -- by his father's Supreme Court. The outcome underlined Bush's image as undeserving heir. The frat boy triumphed; fecklessness was its own reward.
Most Americans, even most Democrats, do not abhor George W. Bush. We should be grateful for this. Yet, once again we see political animus tied to issues that are removed from policy. Judging a president's deeds and misdeeds, governing successes and blunders should provide enough ammunition for a lively debate. Why must bitterness toward the follies of youth so determine our politics?
Gary Alan Fine is the author of "Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial." He is John Evans professor of sociology at Northwestern University.