Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Burned on Both Sides

What's especially aggravating to me about watching the Bush White House stagger about under the weight of its character flaws -- laziness, cronyism, intellectual murk -- is the déjà vu.

Maybe you got here by a silimar path to mine, and already know what I mean: Maybe you're a lifelong Democrat or independents of moderate-to-liberal inclination who rallied to President Bush when Islamist terrorists attacked the U.S., and stayed on his side, more or less, in part because the other side seemed as a whole incapable of grasping the threat, stomaching the hard work of war, and pronouncing basic American values like freedom as worthy of protection and promotion.

Something like that. But tell me, as you read the headlines, doesn't this feel familiar?

In 1992 I thought Bill Clinton would make a fine president. He seemed to have a good head on his shoulders and his heart in the right place. I felt inspired by his rise from a poor and splintered home. Even the baggage that he brought with him out of that upbringing -- a furious drive to succeed and to be admired -- seemed as though it would be turned to the benefit of the whole nation. A narcissist can be a great president, if he has democratic virtues. Watching the Democratic convention that summer, I practically stood up and cheered when Clinton steered the party away from the Jerry Browns and the Al Sharptons.

Clinton seemed to me then to be a man with a deep passion for America. No, seriously -- and that's the problem; his passion become his joke.

Clinton kicked off his first term with a controversial decision to overturn military policy on gays in service. I basically agreed with changing that policy, but doing so then was the absolute wrong step for a new president who literally embodied his party's generation-long ambivalence (shading toward contempt) for the U.S. military.

Then I watched as one initiative after another blew up on the launch pad or sailed off course into the woods. Health care reform, for instance. Some good things got done, but many died aborning. And even when Clinton did things I wholeheartedly approved, he often did them in a callously compromised way to serve political expedient.

Sending military force to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, for instance. I applauded it (though it was Sarajevo we should have saved first), but he was so anxious not to get any American servicemen killed (the old "how dare a draft dodger send my boy to war" thing apparently stuck in his craw) that he fought the whole military campaign from 10,000 feet and higher, and in the process killed a lot of civilians, Serb and Kosovar, needlessly.

Yet the rabid, howling Clinton-haters sent such a chorus of calumny screeching to the heavens that I found it impossible to judge the man dispassionately without reference to his enemies. Their yowling about mass murders and tyranny and depravity drowned out saner objections. By polarizing the discussion of Clinton's presidency, they steered the average American, like me, who is only casually a political animal, into a defend-him-or-revile-him relationship.

Clinton's character flaws finally tripped him up; it became inescapably clear that along with this urgent need to be helpful and successful came a weird libido and a flawed marriage that left the president at the mercy of his urges, and a bull-in-a-china-shop ego, and a moral compass too weak to know when to stand and what for.

And of course, his bitter enemies had told us all that since before we elected him, and we had to grit our teeth and admit they were right, and our only retort was to mutter that they told it in such lurid exaggerations that it beggared belief, and that they only got those things right because they basically accused the man of every infamy under the sun. It was buckshot marksmanship. I think it was not long after the blow-up over gays in the military that I saw my first "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Bush" bumper sticker. That seemed so petulant. Don't blame you for what? The best economy of my lifetime?

In 2000, by the time election day rolled around, I had no candidate. I saw two very weak men, and behind them a pack of demagogues of all stripes, salivating for the chance to control the man with his hands on the national steering wheel.

And of course, Bush wasn't even Inaugurated yet in 2001 when I saw my first "Impeach Bush" bumper sticker. I had pulled a lever for Gore, with roughly the enthusiasm of someone making a dental surgery appointment, but that seemed insane. Can't we at least go through the motions of political thinking? It reminded me of an old "New Yorker" one-panel cartoon: A fence at a construction site with the sign "Coming soon: Acme," and a picketer walking past it with the sign "Acme will probably be unfair."

"Smirking Chimp" Web sites sprang up like toadstools after a storm and crazy conspiracy theories filled them, about Halliburton and Christians and Bush's supposed continuing alcoholism. Weren't these the same people who had endured the anti-Clinton shitstorm? Didn't they learn a blessed thing?

The first "don't blame me" bumper sticker I remember seeing was circa 1974; it said "Don't Blame Me, I'm from Massachusetts" (the only state, with D.C., that the luckless George McGovern carried against Nixon in 1972). But that was during the meltdown days of Watergate, two years after the election. Only days after the 2004 election, one of my co-workers drove into the parking garage, his car sporting a bumper sticker with a U.S. flag (backwards, for some reason) and the slogan "Don't Blame Me, I didn't vote for him."

I thought about it and decided it was brilliant. Some very clever businessman had figured out you don't even have to wait for the election. You can phrase it like that, and print up a million of them in October, and start selling them as soon as the polls close on Nov. 2, if not sooner. Doesn't matter who wins. The other side is going to bury him or bust a blood vessel trying. Attitude is all.

But you know what? I do blame him, Mr. Bumper Sticker. For the rabid reaction to every mention of Bush's name, for compromising what little integrity remains at our newspaper by using his media position to personally attempt to undermine Bush's campaign, for helping to scorch the middle ground, for focusing so much on destroying the current administration yet so little on producing a candidate within his own party who is worth a sane patriot's vote.