For four years, Americans watched and listened as President Bush was demonized with a savagery unprecedented in modern American politics. For four years they saw him likened to Hitler and Goebbels, heard his supporters called brownshirts and racists, his administration dubbed "the 43d Reich." For four years they took it all in: "Bush" spelled with a swastika instead of an `s,' the depictions of the president as a drooling moron or a homicidal liar, the poisonous insults aimed at anyone who might consider voting for him. And then on Tuesday they turned out to vote and handed the haters a crushing repudiation.
Bush was reelected with the highest vote total in American history. He is the first president since 1988 to win a majority of the popular vote. He increased his 2000 tally by 8 million votes and saw his party not only keep its majorities in the House and Senate but enlarge them. And he did it all in the face of an orgy of hatred.
The smears and rancor were bottomless and venomous. Michael Moore accused Bush of being in cahoots with Osama bin Laden. George Soros said the president's policies reminded him of the Nazis. Cameron Diaz warned that if Bush was reelected, rape would become legal. Randi Rhodes told her radio audience that Bush, like Fredo in "The Godfather," should be taken out and shot. Whoopi Goldberg headlined a New York fund-raiser in which Bush was called a "thug" and a "killer." Howard Dean speculated publicly about the "interesting theory" that Bush knew what was going to happen on Sept. 11 but kept silent.
The novelist Nicholson Baker went so far as to publish a novel that revolves around Bush's possible assassination.
John Kerry never sank to that level of slime, but he never repudiated it, either. Instead of condemning the foul things said about Bush at that New York fund-raiser, for example, Kerry told the audience that "every performer tonight . . . conveyed to you the heart and soul of our country."
If Kerry had urged his supporters to speak about Bush with the same courtesy they would want Bush's supporters to speak about him, voters would have been impressed. If he had made it clear that he is disgusted when Bush is compared to Hitler or Mussolini and ashamed that such comparisons could be made by people backing him, he would have won the public's admiration. If he had insisted that Michael Moore leave the Democratic convention instead of being given a place of honor next to Jimmy Carter, he would have been rewarded with a surge in the polls. Instead he said nothing -- and the voters noticed.
Bush-bashers reveled in their animosity -- many openly and proudly embraced the word "hatred" -- but I wondered all along whether they weren't driving away far more voters than they were attracting. "Their unabashed loathing may energize and excite them, but they are doing their candidate and their country no favors," I wrote in this space in July. "For most Americans, hatred is a political turn-off." Now that the object of their malevolence has won more votes than any previous president, will they consider giving up the politics of hatred in favor of something healthier and more constructive?
And now that the electorate has once again chosen to keep control of the White House and both houses of Congress in Republican hands, will the Democratic Party take a long hard look in the mirror and try to understand why it has fallen into disfavor?
I told several colleagues on Tuesday that I knew what I was going to write if Kerry won the election. I would have said that the refusal of so many liberals and Democrats to accept Bush as a legitimate president had badly infected American politics since 2000, and that it would be disastrous if conservatives and Republicans allowed themselves to become equally envenomed. I planned to write that while I'd had many tough things to say about Kerry over the course of this campaign -- and while I wasn't backing away from any of them -- the voters had now spoken and their judgment had to be respected. When he took the oath of office, Kerry would become my president, too.
Well, Kerry didn't win, so this is a different column. But 55 million people voted for him, and that is no small thing. However much I may disagree with the choice they made, I don't regard those voters as fools or knaves or idiots. I regard them as fellow Americans. That is how we should all regard each other when an election season comes to a close. In his concession speech yesterday, Kerry said that when he telephoned Bush to congratulate him, they spoke of "the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together. Today I hope that we can begin the healing."
It was a furious contest for power, but the election is over, and the fury should end. We are all Republicans, we are all Democrats. And none of us should be seduced by the haters.