Imagine for a moment that a ghostly Alexis de Tocqueville returned from old Europe to reassess democracy in America. What would he notice a century and three quarters after his famous first visit? A certain puerile resentment of French civilization, perhaps, inasmuch as those cheese-eating surrender monkeys Chirac and Villepin seem to have been better informed about Saddam Hussein's alleged horror arsenal than the warriors of Washington? Or that the political system in which he glimpsed the mixed promise of popular sovereignty had sunk into a state of snarling triviality? Or that our first two post-Cold War presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, are the targets of what one of them called "the politics of personal destruction," with no holds barred -- an obsessive culture war reminiscent of Bismarckian Germany in Tocqueville's own era? Or that the alleged issues in this kulturkampf often have a Southern flavor?

The answer, unfortunately, appears to be yes, considering the evident diversion of focus this year from serious problems of health care, income disparity, job loss and fiscal responsibility to "wedge" issues of a cultural resonance, issues not clearly amenable to the normal processes of political debate and resolution -- the latest being the burning issue of gay marriage. Indeed, it may be to the point that our last two presidents have hailed from southerly climes, where cultural issues continue to be unusually central, and that both are attuned, in different ways, to the South's continuing revolt against the Democratic Party and, to some degree, against the modern age.

The South, however, has always harbored a secret internal dissidence, and that continues to be true today. In Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent (NewSouth, $24.95), edited by Anthony Dunbar, 12 eminent Southern lawyers and academicians register their dissent from the present Republican ascendancy. The title, of course, echoes an earlier manifesto of 1930 in which a dozen Southern literati, calling themselves Agrarians, attacked the materialism and tycoon worship of the '20s: forerunners and counterparts of the market worship and nationalistic triumphalism of the present. And in fact there was a time when to be Southern was to be somewhat out of the American mainstream in the sense articulated in the historian C. Vann Woodward's great essays. The South had been schooled by a tragic history in poverty and defeat, rather like much of the wider world. It was anchored to the land, and the intractable evils of slavery and white supremacy had made it pessimistic; it did not buy into the prevailing myths of American innocence and exceptionalism.

That tradition has faded, but Southerners still seem at times to define themselves more culturally than politically, to the enduring frustration of those who would shape political alliances based on economic interest rather than what Sheldon Hackney, in one of the best of these essays, calls "identity politics." The Southern congressional dominance long ago turned the South into a bastion of military-industrial boodling, and it still reflexively supports, for a time anyway, just about any war that Washington cares to wage. Now trending Republican, the South is still at war with certain aspects of modernity, at least as perceived by George W. Bush's main constituency, the Christian evangelicals, the ancient suspects being Darwinian evolution and Supreme Court decisions hostile to school prayer and religious displays in public places.

Where We Stand appears to have been carpentered together in time for the presidential election, and there is more than a bit here of what an old editor of mine used to call pious piffle. But there are serious and compelling essays by Dan Carter on the war in Iraq, Gene Nichols on Southern income disparities, Dan Pollitt on the Ashcroftian experiments with our liberties. They make a case that the Dixie Rip van Winkles have overslept.

Texas Two-Step

Notwithstanding his Connecticut ancestry, George W. Bush is a card-carrying Texan, Southern in a way, steeped in the culture of Midland and the oil patch. Friends like him, and millions obviously follow him. The question just now is why, then, he excites such rabid enmity among Democrats. He did lose the popular vote in 2000, and he was installed by a judicial coup d'etat. And he did proceed even so to govern as if he'd won by a landslide, and in the process to alienate much of the wicked world. But does all that explain the intense personalization of anti-Bush fervor? Or its obverse, a similar contempt of his predecessor? Is it something in the water or a sign of our impatient times?

Molly Ivins, Bush's fellow Texan, contends in her amusing collection Who Let the Dogs In? Incredible Political Animals I Have Known (Random House, $22.95) that the president is a parochial man, though far from stupid, amiable enough and good at politics, but bored by policy issues and marked by a suppressed resentment of what he observed in the East in the 1960s. Ivins has been watching the second Bush for a long time, certainly since he beat her friend Ann Richards for governor of Texas a decade ago. Some readers of her pungent prose may be distracted by an occasional unladylike locution, but behind the cornpone pose lurks a keen intelligence, a deadly wit and, not least, a passion for factual reporting.

Nothing escapes Ivins. She even reads documents! The record here shows that in her syndicated column she continually warned voters lulled in 2000 by George Bush's "compassionate conservatism" theme and promise of modesty in foreign policy that he would govern in Washington as he had in Austin: from the nationalistic right, with the interests of the deserving rich ever in mind. "If you want to understand George W. Bush," she writes, "you have to stretch your imagination to a weird Texas amalgam: religion, anti-intellectualism and machismo."

Right-Hand Man

How much of that amalgam is enough, or perhaps too much? Which question brings us to Bush's influential counselor Vice President Dick Cheney, the subject of John Nichols's muckraking Dick: The Man Who Is President (New Press, $23.95). The subtitle is presumably hyperbole. But Nichols, an editor and correspondent of the Madison (Wisc.) Times, seems to mean it. He believes that Cheney is indeed the de facto president, and he argues, in so many words, that the younger Bush has an oedipal need for elder supervision, which Cheney and his Pentagon civilians are only too glad to provide. Nichols calls attention, right off the bat, to a recent White House emergency in which the Secret Service found Cheney at work in his office and the president exercising in his gym. This passes for proof. But aren't there occasions when Bush works while Cheney rests his heart?

Cheney is, however, undoubtedly influential, and not merely as the chief tout of the war in Iraq. Cheney, as Nichols tells the story, has a long history of questionable judgment. For instance, as Gerald Ford's chief of staff he was influential in persuading our most underrated recent president to drop Nelson Rockefeller from the 1976 GOP ticket (probably forfeiting the electoral vote of closely fought New York) and to demote Henry Kissinger to appease the Reagan right. As CEO of Halliburton he made some calls that cost its stockholders a bundle. In the Vietnam years, Cheney by his own admission had "other priorities" than military service. But he does not blush on that account to emerge now as the chief detractor of John Kerry, an authentic hero of the conflict he avoided. Cheney advised the first President Bush not to consult Congress before the Gulf War, and his son against going to the United Nations (for what "W" calls a "permission slip") before the present successor conflict. One wonders whether Cheney and his star pupil have read a notable passage in a recent presidential memoir: "Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally extending the United Nations' mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression. . . . Had we gone the invasion route, the U.S. would conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land." That was the prescient comment of George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, on the price of chasing Saddam to Baghdad in 1991. It helps to know from personal experience the perversity and unpredictability of war, as the senior Bush and Gen. Scowcroft do.

Martial Maneuvers

And speaking of war, Stephen Tanner obviously knows a great deal about its history, tactics and strategy. That mastery of the subject shows in The Wars of the Bushes: A Father and Son as Military Leaders (Casemate, $27.95), an invidious comparison between the professionalism and caution that the first President Bush brought to warfare, in the Gulf and in Panama, and the lunging impulsiveness of our current "war on terrorism" ("war on a noun," as Ivins puts it) in Afghanistan and Iraq. The second Bush, advised by the martial quartet of Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle and Feith, has plunged the country into an open-ended conflict, in which there is so far neither decisive result nor achievable political goal nor easy exit. Tanner asks just what has been accomplished. As for Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden is still at large, the Taliban still intact and now lodged beyond easy reach in the mountainous recesses of the Pakistani borderlands, and power is again flowing to the tribesmen we hired to "overthrow" the Taliban, rather than the legitimate Karzai government we installed in Kabul. As for Iraq, the situation at this writing speaks for itself.

The Wars of the Bushes is an informed, sophisticated and subtle book, rich in anecdote and laced with a veteran military historian's sardonic doubts of the credulity that amateurs bring to warfare. Tanner dissects the apocalyptic language in which George W. Bush defines (or misdefines) American strategic interests. He tells us that none other than Winston Churchill, certainly no thug or evildoer, advocated in his time the use of a primitive weapon of mass destruction, poison gas, an assertion we must take on faith since Tanner doesn't favor his readers with footnotes. Even so, anyone in search of a sober take on our current military enterprises should read this brilliant book.

Unreliable Sources

The Post recently reported that A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush (Sentinel, $24.95), Ronald Kessler's rosy "inside" portrait of George W. Bush and his administration, is recommended on the Bush-Cheney campaign Web site. As well it should be. Those persuaded of the excellence and wisdom of George W. Bush will find this reverent book an undemanding sermon to the choir, easy on credulous ears and overflowing with caricatures of the opposition and of those amorphous entities "the media" and "the Democrats." Thus, John Kerry is "a caricature," Wesley Clark "a brown-noser," Bill Clinton "spineless," and Hillary Clinton "unbalanced." So there.

A Matter of Character is in the nature of a sweetheart polemic, but surely it is high time to halt the hijacking of a good and complex word, "character," to mean merely private personal and sexual behavior, as if statesmen (Kennedy and Jackson and many others spring to mind) are defined by how many ladies they secretly kissed. Kessler clearly benefited from cooperative interviews with the president and his team. And while this is far from "investigative reporting" (advertised as Kessler's forte) as commonly defined, it is well within the traditions of campaign biography. Not so Kessler's frequent citation of Secret Service sources for scurrilous tittle-tattle, usually about the Clintons. The laxity with which Secret Service agents now gossip is presumably a byproduct of Kenneth Starr's co-optation of the president's guards as peeping toms in the Lewinsky inquisition. The dangers are obvious. One of these days a president who objects to having her private life or that of her family blazoned in the papers or minced on the talk shows may give the slip to the Secret Service hall monitors, with dire results.

Tocqueville, call your office! There was a time when ladies and gentlemen did not traffic in gutter gossip. But that was before democracy in America became a take-no-prisoners culture war, with little resemblance or relevance to serious political discourse or to the gathering problems we face. *

Edwin M. Yoder Jr.'s memoir "Telling Others What to Think: Recollections of a Pundit" will be published in early September. He can be reached at yoderem@aol.com.

Clockwise from top left: Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, John Kerry, Hillary Rodham Clinton