A new ritual has come to the Letters page of The New York Times . Once or twice a week there appears a unit of half a dozen letters responding to the last column by David Brooks. Most of them are from people in high-principled, high-income states-Oregon or Vermont. At least one is from an associate professor at the University of South Central Iowa. All the letters ask the same question: Wu-wu-why did God let Mr. Wigglenose die?
They don’t use just those words, though they use the tone. What they actually say is: Ha-ha-how can I be reading this in The Times ?
One of Mr. Brooks’ most recent provocations was to suggest that liberals’ hatred of George W. Bush, like conservatives’ hatred of Bill Clinton before it, has poisoned discourse and harmed the country. Mr. Brooks found no takers for his case, so let me make a narrower, lower-browed case. Bush-hatred will hurt liberals, just as Clinton-hatred hurt conservatives.
I do not believe in the politics of niceness. Opposition, yes. Political warfare, yes. The zest for the struggle that united the late Lee Atwater and James Carville-if that is your bliss, follow it. But hatred inflames the joints, shortens the breath and clouds the mind. I know; I was there. I Tiresias have foresuffered all / Enacted on this same divan or bed.
One of the first effects of hatred is the loss of principle. In the presence of the loathed object, all the sacred scruples and tender reservations, all the treasured intellectual honor that felt the stain of inconsistency like a wound, goes down the toilet. Once it becomes your goal to crush the infamy, you will grab any blunt object that comes to hand. Thus in the Clinton years conservatives found themselves relying on the independent counsel and on sexual-harassment law. The first is a constitutional monstrosity belonging to no branch of government, but adulterating all three; the second was the greatest fount of petty bullying until the advent of Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-smoking campaign. Yet conservatives looked to Ken Starr and Paula Jones to rid them of the infamous Bill. I shall not instruct liberals in their own principles; I only say, watch for the warning signs.
A second, ongoing effect is the diversion of energy from more useful tasks. El Dorado might beckon, or some little 9-to-5 change that will make the world that much saner. But everything falls by the wayside in pursuit of the chimera. In the 1970’s and 80’s, The American Spectator was one of the most exciting magazines in America, as intelligent as it was quirky. Bob Tyrrell, the founder and editor, boasted, correctly, that he first introduced the liberals who would become neocons to plain old cons in his pages. But once Bill Clinton was elected, it became an Arkansas police blotter. The editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal -the equivalent of the guns of the U.S.S. Iowa , thundering five days a week on Capitol Hill and on the express from Greenwich-wasted its salvos on sleazy lawyers and Asian bagmen. Conservatives won a great victory in 1994, early in the Clinton years, when Newt Gingrich captured the House for the G.O.P. But they were unable to build on it, partly thanks to Newt’s limitations, but partly because everyone was so focused on the fun stuff.
So you lose your soul, and the main chance. But do you get what you wanted? Do you drive the demon from the light of day? This is the third pitfall of hatred-the overwhelming odds that your victim will escape. After all our most determined efforts, after all our appeals to republican virtue and demonstrations of Democratic vice, there in December 2000 sat President Clinton, finishing out his term in a blaze of pardons. There he is today, crisscrossing the nation and the globe, accumulating whatever honors strike his fancy, like a glowing constellation of himself, set in Heaven by an indulgent Zeus. And it’s not as if he hadn’t helped us, dumping evasions and indiscretions on the nation’s doorstep. Surely, we thought, as each steaming new load appeared, we have him at last. Yet he withheld the one thing that the hated object must not give his pursuers-a commensurate hatred in return.
That was the downfall of Richard Nixon. I recently heard, secondhand, a story attributed to Frank Shakespeare, Nixon’s director of the United States Information Agency. After the 1972 election, Shakespeare went to the Oval Office. Naturally, he expected his chief would feel vindicated by his splendid triumph. Not a bit of it. Nixon still spit fire at his ancient foes. Not one graduate of the Ivy League, he told Shakespeare, would ever enter the White House in his second term! Nixon pressed a button, which summoned Bob Haldeman. Tell Frank, Nixon said, what I just told you. Not one graduate of the Ivy League will ever enter the White House, said Haldeman. But very soon, Archibald Cox and Eliot Richardson were entering the White House and leaving it, and soon thereafter Nixon left. One side’s hatred is not enough to bring a leader down; it must be redoubled. Bill Clinton survived because he could split off his dislikes and stay focused on the task at hand. So, it seems, can George W. Bush. To him, his enemies are like infestations of deer ticks-forces of nature merely. He just keeps on keeping on.
The final pitfall of hatred, if I might sneak some high-mindedness in at the end, is that it leads you to misunderestimate the world, as our President might say. When everything takes on the colors of the struggle, then many things lose their proper field markings. Remember the moment, in the depths of Hurricane Monica, when President Clinton shot cruise missiles into the Sudan and Afghanistan? We now understand that he was targeting Al Qaeda. This episode will go down, with the Anschluss and Munich, as a precursor to a main event. At the time, however, conservatives suspected him of following the script of Wag the Dog . Didn’t that paranoid fantasy, the best political movie of the Clinton years, show a beleaguered incumbent whipping up a non-war to save himself? So instead of asking whether the cruise-missile barrage was a sufficient response, or who this Osama bin Laden fellow was and what had he done already, we harped on Mr. Clinton’s self-interest. We saw a trailer for the Iliad of the new millennium, and we thought it was an episode in a 1990’s sex farce.
Liberal Bush-haters are making the same mistake about many aspects of the war in Iraq. The Kay report found no W.M.D. sitting in warehouses in Iraq. So liberals charge Bush with incompetence and bad faith at best, the wilder ones muttering about Halliburton contracts and goosing the price of oil. But the Kay report also found that Iraq had clandestine programs to build W.M.D. Given Saddam’s past use of poison gas and his years of stonewalling, it would have been grossly irresponsible in a post-9/11 world to let him continue playing cat-and-mouse with U.N. inspectors.
Maybe Mr. Bush has dropped the ball on Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Who will find out, if liberals follow conservatives in rerunning the old tape of Wag the Dog ?