Bad Boys II

The hating of the presidents


In the acidly witty 1999 movie Election, a meek-mannered high school civics teacher becomes consumed with his hatred of an obnoxiously perfectionist, overachieving student—to such an extent that he decides to sabotage her campaign for student body president. When I first saw the film, I wondered if it was meant, to some extent, as a clever metaphor for many Republicans' Clinton obsession, which went far beyond normal political opposition.

Now, the much-discussed phenomenon of "Clintonophobia" has a parallel on the other side of the political spectrum. A lot of the criticism directed at President Bush crosses the line into irrational, visceral hatred. The similarities can be quite uncanny. In the most extreme example, both presidents have been accused of murder. In the case of Clinton, there were the whispers about the allegedly suspicious suicide of presidential aide Vincent Foster, as well as allegations that a number of strange deaths in Arkansas were linked to Bill and Hillary Clinton and that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's death in a plane crash was no accident. Today, Bush-o-phobes on the Internet traffic in similar rumors about the plane crash that killed Senator Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota Democrat. Bush-bashing websites urge that the president be impeached for "treason" and repeat preposterous claims about the Bush family's alleged Nazi connections.

In both cases, the wild allegations are circulated on the political fringes—but the bashing spills over into the mainstream as well, including the rhetoric of other prominent politicians. During the Clinton presidency, much of the Republican Party base as well as the Republican House leadership caught the Clinton-hating bug; the Clinton presidency was viewed as not just wrong about specific policy issues but downright evil.

Today, Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic nomination for president relies heavily on stoking the Bush-hating among the Democratic Party faithful. Simon Rosenberg, a political activist from the New Democrat network, has said this sentiment is "beyond normal partisanship": "The feeling in the Democratic base about Bush's presidency is that he's a dangerous leader, as opposed to a bad leader."

Why the hatred? Partly, it's the change in the political climate, which has become nastier and more polarized over the past decade. Partly, it's that the Internet and talk radio have made it easier for marginal and extreme voices to be heard (and to affect mainstream discourse). But the phenomenon also has to do with the personalities of Clinton and Bush, and with the circumstances of their rise to power.

Both presidents are widely perceived by their political opponents as illegitimate. Clinton got only 43 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 election but nonetheless won the presidency in a three-way race among himself, the first President Bush, and H. Ross Perot. Bush, of course, not only lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000 but won the electoral vote after a protracted, bitter election dispute in Florida. Many Democrats, including some who cannot in any way be classified as right-wing extremists, sincerely believe that the election was "stolen" by Bush and his cronies.

Another element is the kinship between the two presidents' political strategies. Each has borrowed liberally from the other side's issues and agendas. Clinton ran as a centrist, pro-business, law-and-order Democrat; Bush, as a "compassionate conservative." To the haters, that makes them wolves in sheep's clothing.

The hatred is personal as well as political. Clinton was (and still is) seen as "Slick Willie," the artful dodger who gets away with everything, from draft evasion to sexual shenanigans, thanks to his cleverness and lack of scruples. Bush is perceived as the ultimate rich kid who has everything handed to him on a silver platter and gets away with everything because of his privileged status.

Finally, on both a personal and political level, the conservatives' revulsion against Clinton and the liberals' revulsion against Bush has to do with the "culture wars." To the conservatives, Bill and Hilary Clinton embodied the ethos of the '60s with its emphasis on personal liberation and its rejection of traditional gender norms, which the right regards as permissive and destructive. To the liberals, Bush embodies the cultural conservatism of "middle America" with its traditional religious and social norms, which the left regards as oppressive and hidebound.

In Election, the teacher's irrational hatred of the overachieving student ends up destroying his own career. There may be a lesson there for real-life politicians. The Republicans' Clinton obsession ended up alienating many of their supporters. Today, the Bush-o-phobic Democrats run the same risk.