President a uniter of angry rivals


WASHINGTON -- It has taken some doing, but the Republicans have finally produced a president the Democrats love to hate almost as much as they hated Richard M. Nixon. His name is George W. Bush.

Not since the days long before the Watergate affair, when Nixon's excesses as a political hatchet man made Democrats' blood boil, has a Republican leader unwittingly been such a unifier of the opposition party in its visceral dislike of him as the man starting his second term in the Oval Office.

How did the second President Bush achieve this exalted position of partisan disfavor after only four years in national office and a relatively obscure five years as governor of Texas?

It took Nixon six highly visible years in Congress -- four in the House as a Communist-hunter and two in the Senate -- and eight years as vice president, all of them as bete noire of all right-thinking (or, especially, left-thinking) Democrats, to reach the comparable pinnacle.

The differences in how Nixon was perceived by Democrats and how Bush is seen are, however, notable. Democrats hated Nixon for the man himself, not so much his policies. They don't dislike Bush as much as a person; it's his ideology and policies they can't stand.

Beyond Nixon's longer public exposure, he earned the special enmity of the Democrats with a history of personal slander and attacks. It started in 1946 with his characterization of his first congressional foe, a progressive named Jerry Voorhis, as "more Socialist and Communistic than Democratic."

Moving up to the Senate in 1950 by beating another liberal, Democratic incumbent Helen Gahagan Douglas, Nixon called her "The Pink Lady," for which he earned from her the nickname he never lost, "Tricky Dick."

Campaigning for vice president in 1952, Nixon added to his reputation as a hatchet man by calling Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee, "Adlai the appeaser ... who got a Ph.D. from [Truman Secretary of State] Dean Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment."

There was more of the same from Nixon as vice president, leading President Dwight D. Eisenhower to consider dropping him from the ticket in 1956. But Nixon would not go quietly, and an internal "Dump Nixon" effort by former Minnesota Gov. Harold E. Stassen, then an Eisenhower aide, failed.

Even when Nixon sought several times to recast himself as the "New Nixon," the hostility of Democrats toward him never diminished. Running for president in 1960 and again in 1968, he tried to shake the hatchet man image by conspicuously making conciliatory remarks about his Democratic opponents. He only succeeded in reinforcing the "Tricky Dick" image and triggering new Democratic and press taunts as "the new New Nixon."

Finally, Nixon was always perceived by Democrats as supremely devious. Just one example: On the final weekend of the 1968 campaign, when President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a breakthrough for Vietnam peace talks, Nixon had an aide suggest to reporters traveling with him that it was a political ploy to help Democratic nominee Hubert H. Humphrey.

When confronted directly about the matter on Meet the Press, Nixon said, "No, I don't make that charge." But then he added, "I must say that many of the people supporting my candidacy around the country seem to share that view." It was typical Nixon, disavowing the allegation while giving it wider publicity. Democrats despised Nixon all the more for such transparent tactics.

But Nixon never was a right-wing ideologue in the sense that Bush is widely perceived by Democrats today. Nixon was determined not only to hold onto his party base but also to enlarge it where possible, and so he peddled himself to the public as a pragmatist. Bush seems content to play to his deeply conservative base and to hell with the Democrats, and it has worked for him.

In the process, though, Bush has made himself a bigger target for partisan attacks on specific issues dear to Democrats, such as calling for private investment of Social Security funds in the stock market.

Bush rankles many Democrats because they see him as an intellectual lightweight who shouldn't be where he is in the first place. In thus dismissing Bush, they more often than not denigrate his authorship of the policies they most despise, from his huge tax cuts that predominantly benefit the rich to his grandiose ambition to export democracy to the Middle East and beyond. They see him unflatteringly as an empty vessel into which scheming ideological aides pour their reckless ideas.

Nixon, by contrast, was somewhat excessively viewed as a brilliant thinker and strategist who was his own chief conceptualizer and hands-on implementer, especially in matters of foreign policy. Democrats by and large respected Nixon's brain power. Many of them, seeing Bush as less smart and less informed, rate him as much more dangerous in the White House than Nixon ever was.

Stylistically, the two GOP presidents could not have been more different. Nixon was a card-carrying introvert, constantly striving to compensate for it without much success. Bush is a bouncy extrovert, frank and blunt sometimes to his own detriment in things he says, but on the whole able to come across as likable, and he lacks Nixon's propensity to go for the jugular.

Nixon is remembered as an ambitious man driven by his insecurities more than ideology; a man governed by petty jealousies and fears about what others thought of him. He seemed always a man on the outside of life, looking enviously within.

Bush, on the other hand, is seen as thoroughly secure in himself, in his political and religious beliefs, in his privileged position in the world and, most notably in contrast with Nixon, in his assumed acceptance by most others; a man dwelling comfortably on the inside of life and looking contentedly out.

The fact that Democrats for different reasons don't cotton to Bush any more than they did to Nixon might not matter much. After all, both men won re-election in spite of the level of opposition-party antagonism toward them. Nixon never finished his second term, but more than Democratic dislike did him in.

Bush embarks on his next four years with no Watergate scandal or other scent of corruption hanging over him, and strengthened in Republican support in both houses of Congress. He seems unfazed by how the Democrats feel about him.

While promising to cooperate with them in his second term, he has already made it clear that it will have to be on his conditions. He's not explicitly repeating his pledge of four years ago to be "a unifier, not a divider," and by all odds he's not likely to be, whether the Democrats like it -- or him -- or not.

Jules Witcover, a Sun political columnist, is the author of "The Resurrection of Richard Nixon" and 14 other books on American politics and history.

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