Back in 2000, candidate George W. Bush described himself as “a uniter, not a divider.” If we didn’t all remember that, you’d think I’d made it up. Now Bush has dubbed himself “the decider.”
Well, things change, people change, and our perceptions of them change; but with Bush, everything has changed, and in the most startling way, beginning with his election. The electoral vote was so close that it came down to a single state where the popular vote was virtually even — and the governor of that state was Bush’s brother!
This set the tone for what I can only call the most improbable presidency in American history. Today the country is so bitterly divided, and Bush’s poll ratings are so abysmal, that it takes an effort to recall how successfully he did, at times, unite the voters. After the 9/11 attacks his popularity approached unanimity. He had a lock on patriotism. Support for his War on Terror, wherever he might choose to take it, was so impressive that one usually skeptical liberal pundit, Michael Kinsley, pronounced him “a great leader.”
Then, during the 2004 campaign, the polls strongly indicated that America was evenly divided again. It looked as if the Bush-Kerry vote might be as close as the Bush-Gore vote had been. But then Bush won a decisive victory, leading a Republican triumph and boasting of his “political capital.” Only a few months after his second inauguration, that capital was exhausted. As the war in Iraq went bad, he committed blunder after blunder. Gaffes like (to name just one) his nomination of the pitiful Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court made him look ludicrously incompetent.
Today Republicans are afraid to be associated with him, and the Democrats are murmuring hopefully about impeachment. Even his hard core is shrinking, as conservatives belatedly notice that Bush is, to say the least, a very odd sort of conservative. Under his rule, big government is bigger than ever, and is committed to even more explosive growth in years to come.
Another liberal pundit, E.J. Dionne Jr., rejoices that the country is reacting against “the failure of conservative policies and the declining appeal of conservative rhetoric.” Really? And just which “conservative” policies would those be?
Bush’s policies have in fact been so confusingly miscellaneous that it’s hard to know just what to call them. He has given us monstrous increases in government power with heavy doses of conservative rhetoric. The rhetoric, until recently, has assured conservatives that he is “one of us” at heart, which is the way Republicans usually snare conservative hearts.
Conservatives also rally to any politician who can make liberals hate him, as Bush has done more successfully than any pol since Richard Nixon. Like Nixon, Bush has a way of enraging liberals even while trying to appease them. On top of that, he must hold the record for irritating mannerisms, from smirks to swaggers to defiantly inept English.
Seldom has one man gotten on so many people’s nerves for so many different reasons. Some think he’s a war criminal, others think he’s just a boor. He’s miscellaneously annoying, like an unusually smug ax murderer with bad breath who can’t tell a joke and attends a weird church. When you try to put your exasperation into words, you hardly know where to start.
Some of the credit must go to Bush’s supporting cast, starting with his vice president. Dick Cheney is another source of miscellaneous irritations. John Nance Garner, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s veeps, once said the vice presidency “isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit” (though he actually named another bodily fluid), but Cheney seems to think that if you have a pitcher of warm spit, you should make lemonade. If Garner had a lesbian daughter, she kept it to herself and didn’t do books and interviews about it. I’m not sure what the moral is here, but I do know this: the Bush era makes even less sense than the Clinton era did.
It’s a crazy time, when the old verities don’t seem to apply anymore, except that Kennedys are still being arrested. Bush and his people have only aggravated the situation. One small consolation is that the Bushes are unlikely to have airports, schools, and stadiums named after them. It looks as if their place in history is already secure.