Every time I see a photo of President George H.W. Bush (Here he is being a witness at a same-sex marriage ceremony) I feel nostalgia for the time when he was in The White House. Even though I suspect history will judge him as a fairly successful President, it’s less so his presidency that I miss than the way the country felt about it.
If you are young you may not believe this, but there was a time when you could have political conversations with strangers (e.g., on a bus, airplane, train, at a bar) with minimal risk of your interlocutor immediately launching into a quasi-violent denunciation of whoever was President that lambasted not only his policies, but also his moral character and his legitimacy as a political leader. G.H.W. Bush was the last President whom you could you just casually talk to strangers about. They might like or dislike his policies, but their head would not explode at the mention of his name.
The poison that has been with us for over a generation since is that a large proportion of the country has regarded the President as not just a terrible leader but also a stain on our national character who cheated his way into the office he is now disgracing. Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama have not just been opposed, but loathed and viewed as illegitimate sources of authority by a plurality of Americans. Such blind, distorting rage makes productive political debate almost impossible, and I wonder whether we can ever go back to the national sensibility about Presidents that we used to have. I am optimistic or pessimistic about our prospects depending on what causal theory seems more plausible to me that day.
The optimistic causal theory is that this is a generational phenomenon. George H.W. Bush was the last President from a generation that had a strong sense of E pluribus unum. Its members also believed that while you were not required to like the President, you had a duty to accept his political legitimacy because it derived from the voters of your democratic society. The boomers who followed GHWB’s generation had deeper political disagreements with each other that overpowered their sense of e pluribus unum. They are still fighting those bitter battles today (If it’s a Bush vs. Clinton race again in 2016, the 1960s culture war issues will no doubt be refought for the 1000th time in some form). The boomers were less likely than their parents to believe in the concepts of honorable disagreement and a loyal opposition. You agreed or you were a (insert appropriate character assassination here). If a generational change in political attitudes and tactics is what created our quarter century run of Presidential Derangement Syndrome, then this fever will break as the boomers fade from political life.
The pessimistic causal theory is that after the “big sort” within the political parties, the arrival of niche media that tells everyone that their political opinions are facts, and Internet-based technologies that allow unprecedented levels of insularity among like-minded people, we will never return to a time when most Americans said things like “I don’t agree with him at all, but I respect the fact that he is the elected leader of our country” and “I never liked his policies, but I always thought he was a good man”. If those sensibilities about the person we choose to lead our country have truly been consigned to history, it’s a terrible loss for our national political culture.