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Bush was a uniter after all

The country came together in its near-universal dislike of him and his administration.

January 15, 2009|ROSA BROOKS

Admit it -- you're gonna miss him.

No one exactly likes George W. Bush. No one's begging for a constitutional amendment that would let him serve another term. But isn't it hard to imagine life without him?

You know you're going to miss the guy who deplored the fact that "too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."

You know you'll miss the president who declared: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

You know you'll miss the man who showed his empathy by remarking, "You're working hard to put food on your family."

After W, who are we going to laugh at?

Don't look to Barack Obama for salvation. He's already caused an epidemic of hand-wringing among the nation's late-night comics. He's just not funny. He speaks in full, coherent sentences. Basically, he's a killjoy.

But maybe more important, with Bush gone, who are we going to hate?

Bush handed us plenty of reasons to dislike him. His mangled syntax and agonized grimaces induced giggles, but also anger and contempt. (Other nations produce leaders who act and speak like grown-ups; why were we stuck with this oversized 10-year-old?)

His incompetencies were maddening and often heartbreaking: Think "heck of a job" and "mission accomplished." The economy? You don't want to go there. Then there were the administration's crimes (yes, crimes). The interrogation practices Bush authorized violated any sane reading of federal laws prohibiting torture and war crimes.

All this -- and much, much more -- made Bush an easy target for widespread dislike. By late December, surveys showed that more than two-thirds of Americans thought Bush would go down in history as a "poor" president, a "very poor" president or the "the worst president the U.S. has ever had" (28% went for "the worst").

For years, Bush has made it easy -- sometimes too easy -- to be a liberal commentator. All you had to do was open the newspaper or turn on the TV and bingo, a fresh Bush outrage. With a large majority of the country thoroughly sick of him, potshots at Bush were a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. By the end, it felt almost unsporting.

But we owe Bush too. Ultimately, it was Bush who brought us Obama (whose approval ratings currently exceed 80%). Obama earned his right to be the candidate of "change" because, to most voters, he was manifestly the most un-Bush-like of the available candidates.

I don't mean to discount the positive pull of Obama's message and policies. Obama ran an unusually positive campaign, emphasizing hope, justice and a vision of a more harmonious, more giving and less fearful future. But I wonder if that positive vision would have resonated so much if Americans weren't already fired up with anger at Bush and the mess he made of our country.

Psychological research strongly (if depressingly) suggests that it's far easier to build social and political solidarity on negative emotions (fear, anger, disgust) than on positive ones (hope, generosity, love). What binds groups together, as often as not, is a collective sense of opposition to some force perceived as threatening to the group, whether external or internal (and regardless of whether the perceived threat is "real"). It's easier to be against things than to be for things, to stir up anti-communist venom than pro-capitalist passion, to whip up anti-Semitism or anti-Islamic feeling than a collective pride in religious tolerance.

That's not to say humans are never motivated by "positive" emotions or can't hold negative and positive emotions simultaneously. We can feel genuine delight and hope at the prospect of a more generous, brave and pluralistic nation at the same time we feel anger at Bush. But often the positive emotions seem to be less powerful drivers of political behavior.

So what will we do, in a post-Bush world? Will Obama's optimistic vision be enough to keep us all together, when Bush, our convenient (if deserving) scapegoat, is gone? Or will we flail around in search of a new threat to unite against? (The economic crisis may be Obama's best friend here.)

Bush broke many of his initial campaign promises, but he ended up keeping his promise to be "a uniter, not a divider," though hardly in the way he intended: He leaves behind a united nation, brought together at last by a heartfelt desire to see him gone.

We'll miss him.

--

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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