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Published: Wednesday, 10/1/2003

Bush: The man (half of) America loves to hate

They hate him for his smirk, his policies, his background, his gestures, his breezy familiarity, his long vacations, his sense of faith, his botched syntax, his bookish wife, his rambunctious daughters, his corporate allies. Mostly they just hate him.

Not everyone, of course. Half the country still likes him, and a good portion of that half is really quite loyal to George W. Bush. But the people who don't like, don't trust, and don't feel comfortable with Mr. Bush is stunningly high, and the intensity of their feeling is stunningly strong.

Indeed, according to the most recent Gallup Poll, a third of Americans registered strong disapproval of the President's performance. This trait - the ability of a mild man like this president to inspire such resentment - has begun to attract notice in political circles. Just this week, in fact, the New Republic took stock, approvingly of course, of what its editors called “Bush Hatred.” In its piece, the liberal-oriented journal quoted columnist Robert Novak, a devout conservative, speaking of a hatred directed toward the President “that I have never seen in 44 years of campaign watching.”

It is remarkable that at a time of national unity there should be so much division about the commander in chief. In the early stages of war, and no one argues that this is anything but the beginning of the war on terrorism, Americans customarily rally around the flag - and the President. But this has been a very brief rally.

Some of the reasons are beyond the President's control. He won the White House in a contested election that went into triple overtime. One of the reasons the struggle for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination has such an air of urgency about it is the conviction, widely held in Democratic circles and equally widely dismissed in GOP circles, that the President didn't quite win the prize he was awarded five weeks after Election Day. A CBS News/New York Times Poll in the spring indicated that 38 percent of the public didn't consider Mr. Bush a legitimate winner of the 2000 election.

As a result, Mr. Bush began his presidency with the highest disapproval rating of any president in polling history. “Some people haven't regarded him as a legitimate president and still feel that way,” says George C. Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A & M University who is not regarded as being hostile to the President. “But remember that he is a radical - on taxes, on education, on Social Security, and on foreign policy. That doesn't make any of these policies wrong. But whenever you call for major change you make major enemies.”

That's what Mr. Bush has done. But for all the evidence that so-called Bush Hatred is sweeping the land (or at least the blue states, the ones taken by Al Gore three years ago), there's even more compelling evidence that Bush Hatred isn't something new but merely the logical extension of what has been going on in American politics for a generation. And that is simply a growing distrust of politicians.

The first of the modern presidents to experience this was Lyndon B. Johnson, who was Velcro for vitriol. The people who disliked him really disliked him, and as the glow from the Great Society faded and the dissidence over Vietnam rose, LBJ increasingly became a reviled president. No matter that historians and commentators now regard him favorably. He was chased out of the White House, not even daring to run for re-election in 1968.

His successor fared no better - no one had a gift for dividing people like Richard M. Nixon - and his ability to cause divisions ended the short presidency of Gerald R. Ford, whose major crime was to pardon Nixon - an act that today is so widely respected that Ford received an award from the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library citing him for courage. Then came Jimmy Carter, hated for his energy policies, hated for his goofy cardigan sweater, hated for the Iran hostages, hated for his “malaise” speech, and never mind that he never used the word in the speech. People hated him.

A lot of people hated Ronald W. Reagan and, worse than that, dismissed him as a dummy, even though he asked more fundamental, searching questions about the role of government than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was so hated that his rivals, refusing to let his name pass his lips, referred to him simply as “that man in the White House”). People hated George H.W. Bush for the fey way he (mis)handled the economy, even though today he is widely regarded as a statesman and, more important still, a gentleman of the old school. And, yes, people hated Bill Clinton. Did they ever hate Bill Clinton.

“But,” says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, “if we had polled Abraham Lincoln, we would have found high negatives, too.” High negatives, to be sure, plus half the country committed to breaking up the Union, by force. Talk about polarizing.

What's a political analyst to say? That the haters are always with us. That presidents are always polarizing. That Bush isn't the first, nor the last, president to inspire strong feelings. And one thing more: That this is why we have elections.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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