How much do Bush-haters hate George W. Bush? Those who hated Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan swung the hammer pretty hard, but you probably have to remember Johnson and Nixon haters to recall so many rings of the bell. Pundits don’t count; we’re paid to get mad and to get even. The pulse of Bush hatred is best measured in unusual wrists.
There are the people who don’t usually talk about politics. I was reading Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language , a stout anthology published by HarperCollins, from which I learned that Alexander Pope’s savage “Epistle to Augustus,” written in (dis)honor of King George II, is “as applicable to President George W. Bush …. ” Did Moors blow up the Bank of England during that king’s reign, then? Mr. Bloom’s remark doesn’t explain Pope or George II; it only eases his own mind, and coaxes a laugh from the cheap seats. Yet he thinks nothing of sticking it into a book that his publishers hope to keep in print for 10 or 20 years.
Last week’s New Yorker ran an essay by Louis Menand on documentary makers, from Robert Flaherty to Michael Moore. The polymath Menand is a comforting writer, since his air of easy superiority to all his subjects leaves us feeling intimidated only by him, not by them. Yet even Mr. Menand refers in passing to “George Bush and his brutish, arrogant, reactionary Administration.” Softly, softly: If you keep this up, you will lose your native wood notes wild.
Then there are the people who shouldn’t talk at all, at least not in particular situations. Last weekend I passed a woman on a sidewalk in a small upstate town. Beside us sat a traffic jam, caused by people going to the county fair. I made eye contact to smile. She made eye contact to say, “They should get out of their cars and stop bombing Iraq for oil, you know what I mean?” I did not.
The common features of the three instances are pressure and presumption: the pressure to express one’s opinion, at any time, whether in a discussion of Alexander Pope, or walking down the street; and the presumption that everyone shares the opinion, and feels the pressure (hence the expression will not be noticed).
At least Harold Bloom and the woman on the sidewalk are not running for President. Howard Dean, who did, thinks the heightened terror alert of last week was a political ploy of the Bushies, as if, somewhere in Hell, Lee Atwater put down his brimstone guitar and said, “Shoot, all I had to work with was Willie Horton and flag-burning amendments. If you’d’ve given me terror alerts, the little stuffed grape leaf would’ve carried only Massachusetts.”
There is a left which wants America to lose, whatever the war, whoever the enemy. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, they were still. They began to creep out during the slow-seeming start of the Afghan war, until the sudden fall of Mazr-i-Sharif, and the spectacle of men playing music and women lifting their veils shut them up once more. But they are a permanent feature of life in all free countries.
Far more numerous, and far more important, are liberals, who can be dismayed by specific blunders or setbacks. To them, the Iraq war is a colossal example of both. The year-long occupation, and the fighting in Najaf even now, bodes endless failure. The possibility that the costs of the Iraq war have been slight in comparison to other wars means nothing to them; liberals panic in the presence of violence, even as conservatives panic in the presence of sex. War to them is what President Clinton’s penis was to us. The one-step-removed quality of the Iraq war also makes it repulsive to liberals. They were willing to fight if Saddam had germ-filled warheads sitting in a shed somewhere. They were not willing to fight if an anti-American despot refused to tell us whether he had them or not.
Without care, however-and they are not showing much care these days-liberals can become infected with left-wing arguments and attitudes, adopting them as their own, or not balking when others do so. The idea that we are bombing Iraq for oil is a perfect example. Where is it flowing? Who is pumping it? What gas prices have dropped as a result? Another example of a left-wing opinion that liberals toy with is the notion that the Palestinian situation motivates the jihadists. This is a particular favorite of self-hating, self-loving Jews: self-hating because they want Israelis to be at fault; self-loving because they believe in their own omnipotence (if we were perfect, all would be well). If you think that greedy oil men and malicious Jews have led us into war in the desert, then you will speak in tongues, in poetry anthologies and to passersby.
How many tongue-speakers are there in America? The red and blue county map, the close balance of Congress and the polls suggest that they are about half the country. Half the country, and more of the talk. If George Bush wins re-election, it will mean that, though millions of people care about the clothes, lovers and twelve-step programs of the stars, they do not give a damn about their opinions.
John Kerry is not a left-winger. He was as a young man, when he accused the military of systemic war crimes in Vietnam. That was a foul charge, which makes nonsense of his veteran-based campaign now: Yes, I was in the SS, but how we sang “Val-de-re, val-de-ra …. ” But Mr. Kerry has been in the Senate for years. He has voted to authorize the use of force on several occasions. It has been a long time since he thought of the United States as Moloch.
Will he therefore rebuke Howard Dean, and all the unguided missiles like him? He won’t. And no one running for President, Republican or Democrat, could afford to. He will be President, not the nuts. But nuts vote, and he has an election to win.