The Magazine

That Man in the White House

From the December 8, 2003 issue: Reading the Bush bashers.

Dec 8, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 13 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Had Enough?

A Handbook for Fighting Back

by James Carville with Jeff Nussbaum

Simon & Schuster, 306 pp., $23

Big Lies

The Right Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth

by Joe Conason

St. Martin's, 245 pp., $24.95

The Lies of George W. Bush

Mastering the Politics of Deception

by David Corn

Crown, 337 pp., $24

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right

by Al Franken

Dutton, 377 pp., $24.95

Thieves in High Places

They've Stolen Our Country--and It's Time to Take It Back

by Jim Hightower

Viking, 280 pp., $24.95

The Bush Hater's Handbook

A Guide to the Most Appalling Presidency of the Past 100 Years

by Jack Huberman

Nation, 335 pp., $12.95

Bushwhacked

Life in George W. Bush's America

by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose

Random House, 347 pp., $24.95

The Great Unraveling

Losing our Way In the New Century

Paul Krugman

Norton, 426 pp., $25.95

SOMETIMES without straining I can remember the long-ago 1990s, when a number of people, including many of my friends--well, including me, to tell the truth--succumbed to what some of us came to call "Billy Bob Gasket Disease." That's not really the name we used, by the way. The real name came from a man who is still living in Arkansas and still intermittently in the public eye down there, and there's no point, at this late date, in dragging him into a discussion of an affliction that he, like most of us, has managed to survive.

Gasket Disease was closely linked to Bill Clinton. The man I call Billy Bob Gasket had been involved in Arkansas politics for thirty years or more. He was used to its homegrown scandals and the mostly harmless diversions enjoyed by members of its ruling class. In this spirit, back in the early 1970s, he became an energetic booster of the young Rhodes Scholar who'd come home from Oxford and Yale with the impressive hair and the glimmering eye and the semi-permanent catch in his voice.

Then, along about Clinton's first term as governor, Gasket noticed something. Bill Clinton was different. He was not just another in the long line of amiable cads and genial roués who had grasped power in Arkansas since Reconstruction. The new governor was, Gasket came to believe, the least principled, sleaziest politician he had ever seen at work. That the lack of principle and sleaziness were lacquered over with twinkly charm and vaguely progressive politics made the situation, for Gasket, all the more maddening.

And maddening is the word. As Clinton was returned again and again to office, Gasket was at first disbelieving, then agog, and finally crazed. Why couldn't his fellow Arkansans see the truth? Why couldn't they penetrate the governor's sheath of bogus empathy and concern to see the creature of seething ambition and power hunger and raw cynicism that writhed so self-evidently beneath? Gasket became a hair-puller, a lapel-grabber, a mid-sentence interrupter, a nut. When, in the late 1980s, national reporters began trickling into the state to look over the promising young governor with national ambitions, their search for knowledgeable Clinton watchers led them inevitably to Gasket, and they found a madman.

Clinton became president. Gasket Disease trailed him like a cloud. It laid waste to Republican ranks in Washington and far beyond, to vast stretches of the country at large--by the end, if I read the polls correctly, roughly a third of all Americans had succumbed. Those who caught the disease didn't just dislike Clinton, as, say, they might have disliked Jimmy Carter. The crux of Gasket Disease was not contempt but unendurable frustration. They could not fathom why everyone else didn't grasp his essential, transparent fraudulence: the phoniness of the lower-lip-bite, the moist insincerity of the smile, the vanity in every tilt of the carefully coifed head. As with syphilis, so with Gasket Disease: Some Republicans recovered, others were driven mad.

And now, according to an increasingly common view, George W. Bush has had the same effect on his political enemies that Bill Clinton had on his. He has driven them crazy; the nuthouse lately vacated by the Clinton-haters has suddenly filled with Bush-haters. Gasket Disease, according to this view, alights without regard to party or ideology--and indeed has become a professional hazard and fact of life for anyone who dares take sides in partisan politics.