Anatomy of an epithet
Appearing on MSNBC’s Situation with Tucker Carlson (2/14/06), conservative talkshow host and film critic Michael Medved linked an Oscar nomination he disapproved of to a mental illness he called “Bush hatred”:
“Bush-hater” has been a favorite epithet of Republican partisans since 2003. A Nexis search shows the term appearing 45 times in 2001 and 38 times in 2002, before burgeoning to 493 mentions in 2003, mostly near the end of the year as discussion of the 2004 presidential campaign began in earnest. The term went stratospheric during the election year, with 1,340 mentions, before settling down to 621 in 2005.
As Medved’s peculiar analysis demonstrates, the Bush-hater tag—especially when coupled with words like “disease” and “obsessive”—is meant to pathologize and marginalize opponents. After all, to be called a “hater” in itself suggests irrationality, and commentators like Medved leave little doubt that they see their opponents as actually imbalanced. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer (9/26/03) described Ted Kennedy’s blaming the Iraq War on White House “fraud” as evidence of “blinding Bush hatred” and “partisanship on its way to pathology”; MSNBC host Tucker Carlson (10/20/03) warned of the “crazed monomania” resulting from “Bush hatred.”
The trope calls to mind Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC memo, the mid-’90s document put out by the then-House speaker’s political action committee that cynically advised GOP colleagues to use words such as “sick,” “destructive” and “traitor” to denigrate their political opponents. If you can establish that your opponents are irrational or deranged “Bush-haters,” according to this strategy, then there is no need to marshal serious rebuttals to their criticisms.
Columnist Tom Teepen, one of few mainstream commentators who have taken on the Bush-hater epithet, neatly summed up the cynical thinking behind the use of the term in a Cox News Service column (10/2/03), calling it “a blank check to cash against any disagreement with the president.”
Indeed, even those who support many of the White House’s central projects are fair game. Opposing the Iraq War, perhaps the defining policy of the Bush presidency, can get you branded a Bush-hater: According to conservative writer Christopher Hitchens (Albany Times Union, 12/12/05), the anti-war movement has “subordinated everything to its hatred of Bush.” But supporting the war is no protection from the charge: The pro-war New Republic magazine is “a pretty hardcore Bush-hating magazine,” according to Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes (Washington Post, 2/7/05).
The first great wave of pundit concern over “Bush-hating” occurred in the summer of 2003. At the time, National Review columnist Byron York wrote “Annals of Bush-Hating” (National Review, 9/1/03; Hill, 9/3/03), which became something of the landmark of the genre. York argued that left-wing loathing for Bush equaled the right-wing animus that plagued Clinton’s presidency. (York’s failure to raise his voice during the Clinton assault may be due to the fact that he worked for the American Spectator, the leading “Clinton-hating” journal, from 1996 to 2000.)
In his exposé of Bush-haters, York drew spurious parallels between Bush’s and Clinton’s treatment at the hands of their opponents. In what would have been his strongest example, had it panned out, York argued that both Bush and Clinton were targeted by people linking them to murders and other crimes.
The high-profile attacks on Clinton are easy to document. Religious broadcaster and GOP stalwart Rev. Jerry Falwell used his nationally syndicated Old Time Gospel Hour to hawk tens of thousands of copies of The Clinton Chronicles, a film linking Clinton to numerous murders (New York Times, 2/23/97). Broadcasters like Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh, and newspapers including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, promoted the fantasy that Vincent Foster, a Clinton friend and aide who took his own life, was actually the victim of a shadowy White House conspiracy.
In making a parallel to Bush-hating, York was only able to cite an obscure website, BushBodyCount.com, that attempted to link Bush and his family to murders—in no way comparable to the relentless and high-level assault Bill Clinton was subjected to in the 1990s.
The problem with York’s analogy was well expressed in a headline on Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler website (9/26/03): “York Searched Google to Find Bush-Hatred; With Clinton, It Was Right on TV.” Somerby recalled how Clinton scandal figure Gennifer Flowers appeared on Chris Matthews’ CNBC show Hardball (8/2/99) calling Bill Clinton a “murderer.”
Another wave of concern over Bush-hating occurred in July 2004, when a number of conservative pundits made strikingly similar claims during the Democratic Convention. Bill Bennett explained to Alan Colmes (Hannity & Colmes, 7/26/04) that Bush hatred was “what unifies the people here. It’s a terrible thing to bring people together under the banner of hatred or bile but I’m afraid that’s what it is.” In the July 27, 2004 edition of USA Today, columnist Jonah Goldberg explained that the conventioneers “were holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ for one reason: They hate George W. Bush”; in the next day’s edition (7/28/04), he reported that the Democrats were “fueled by a violent, irrational hatred of George W. Bush . . . an almost glandular paranoia.”
The Democrats were “subsumed temporarily by their common hatred of Mr. Bush,” according to the Washington Times’ Tony Blankley (7/28/04). On CNN’s Inside Politics (7/29/04), Pat Buchanan explained: “What keeps the Democrats together right now at that convention and across this country is their hatred for George Bush.”
Appearing on Fox’s Special Report With Brit Hume (7/30/04), U.S. News columnist Michael Barone described the convention as “united by hate, hatred of George W. Bush.”
The “Bush-hater” brand may be a conservative staple, but it isn’t just for White House partisans anymore; centrists and even liberals have embraced it. CNN political analyst William Schneider, for example, used the phrase in a March National Journal column (3/25/06) speculating whether John McCain might win the presidency in 2008 “by gaining the support of Bush-hating Democrats and independents.”
Non-Bush partisans seem to use the term as a kind of inoculation against charges they may be part of the irrational left—perhaps even “Bush-haters” themselves. Thus John Dickerson of the liberal online magazine Slate, in a survey of books critical of George Bush (2/22/06), warned readers away from those by “Bush-haters” and “partisan hacks,” directing them instead to books by less bilious critics like Bruce Bartlett, a conservative currently at odds with the White House.
Sometimes, however, the inoculation doesn’t take. In November 2003, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof chided fellow liberals for Bush-hating (11/12/03), citing a Progressive magazine column, “Call Me a Bush-Hater,” by Molly Ivins (11/03). Too bad Kristof didn’t read past the headline. The column, a response to being branded a Bush-hater by Kristof’s Times colleague David Brooks, challenged the practice of smearing Bush critics with the hater tag. To show the silliness of the label, Ivins granted that if opposing Bush policies makes one a Bush-hater, she must be one—but her central point was hard to miss:
Kristof accurately cited New Republic editor Jonathan Chait’s column, “The Case for Bush Hatred” (9/18/03), where the writer enumerated the reasons he hated Bush. But in researching this article, we could find no other prominent media or political figure acknowledging hatred for Bush. (Among the general public, just 3 percent of respondents told a December 10, 2003 Quinnipiac University poll that they hated Bush—fewer than the 5 percent who told the poll they hated Hillary Clinton.)
Kristof’s genuflections to the right—a year earlier he had scolded the left for threatening to slip into a “cesspool of outraged incoherence” (11/5/02)—gained him few points with White House supporters; months later, he was denounced as someone “who hates Bush” by conservative columnist Robert Novak (CNN Saturday Morning News, 7/10/04).
Kristof’s attempt to provide evidence for the Bush-hating charge is an exception; usually it’s just asserted that anyone who criticizes Bush policies must be a “Bush-hater.” On Fox’s Hannity & Colmes (10/13/03), conservative host Sean Hannity repeatedly insulted and interrupted Harper’s magazine publisher John MacArthur’s attempt to make an argument for Bush’s impeachment by enumerating White House lies. (See Extra!, 11-12/03.) Hannity dismissed MacArthur’s careful argument as “hatred of George W. Bush,” announcing that MacArthur was “full of crap” before beginning a friendly exchange with the show’s other guest—Ann Coulter, who once wrote that the debate over Clinton should be about “whether to impeach or assassinate” (High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton).
The Bush-hater epithet may have become part of the political lexicon, but its growth has been more than matched by increasing public doubts about Bush. Poll after poll documents the Bush slide; a March 16 Gallup Poll showed his overall disapproval rating at 60 percent. A recent Pew poll found 48 percent of Americans choosing words such as “incompetent,” “idiot” and “liar” to describe George W. Bush (CNN, 3/15/06).
Using the Bush-hater tag might have made some cynical sense in 2003, when Bush approval ratings were in the high 50s and the people who “hated” Bush were a minority. Today, by the standards of Medved and Hannity, a majority of Americans “hate” the president.