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FEAR AND LOATHING IN AMERICA

I DIDN'T LIKE IT, EITHER -- not when John Edwards did it in the vice presidential debate or when John Kerry did it in the presidential debate. That's because it was, both times, gratuitous and utterly transparent in intent -- a sneaky way to remind (or inform those who didn't know) the most knee-jerk conservative voters that Vice President Cheney has a gay daughter.

As if it mattered. It doesn't. What mattered was the sliminess of the ploy. No matter how out and proud and visibly public a candidate's family member might be, it is loathsome to try to cadge voters at her expense. Most of us, politics be damned, can feel that in our gut. It was an unambiguously low moment for the John/John ticket.

Then again, it was the only one in the debates. It confirmed what so many Americans -- especially in "blue states" -- have felt for four years: that there is nothing even vaguely "presidential" on television about George W. Bush. Added to an administration that so many of us blue staters see doing nothing right and an accession to the presidency that was, itself, more than a little rank, and you've got a White House horror that is unique in my lifetime (which has not been a short one).

I've been paying attention to presidencies since Eisenhower's second term. I've watched as television became THE presidential constituency. I saw John F. Kennedy dazzle it, Lyndon Johnson lose it, and Richard Nixon engage it in a dysfunctional need/hate relationship. I saw Gerald Ford trip over it, Jimmy Carter wilt under its attention and Ronald Reagan master it as no president ever had before or will again. I saw George H. W. Bush use it surprisingly well (until he looked at his watch at the worst possible time) and Bill Clinton fill it with truly extraordinary Oprah cum Reagan panache until he got caught acting like a weaselly cast member on "The Practice" or "Boston Legal."

I've never before seen anything like the hatred George W. Bush inspires. Hatred for LBJ -- another swaggering Texan who took us into war -- was close but with Johnson it was balanced by very real awe at his civil rights record and legendary previous life in the U. S. Senate.

What distinguishes all that from fear and loathing of George W. Bush is that the latter has become big business.

Now there is a development, even a knuckle-dragging paleo-con ought to be able to appreciate. If, in the immortal words of Calvin Coolidge, "the business of America is business, ain't it?", disgust at this president has become an American bonanza.

It has made Jon Stewart a star -- and, by the way, an ongoing challenge to the incredibly hide-bound and self-absorbed failings of contemporary journalism in its continuing nervous breakdown. "America," by Stewart and his "Daily Show" pals, is the No. 1 best-seller. It gave Michael Moore a nine-figure box office for "Fahrenheit 9/1 1" and is holding his book "Will They Ever Trust Us Again?" to No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list. Maureen Dowd's "Bushworld" sells like hotcakes in bookstores AND supermarkets and the two "Rock Against Bush" CD's have sold 500,000 copies (inside, purchasers can find 60 "reasons to hate Bush Jr.").

In the cable-TV and Internet world of omni-media, hatred for Bill Clinton wasn't exactly minor league. He did manage to get himself impeached, no mean feat for a modern president. But the best the media attack squadron and comics could do was turn him into a disingenuous, phrase-parsing caricature oof Lil' Abner with zipper problems. The real George W. Bush still can't pronounce the word "nuclear."

That so many find him reassuring is a function both of our time's insecurity and almost 15 years of dumbing down in our culture, of which he might well seem to be the ultimate political beneficiary. What, we might well ask ourselves, did we expect our president would look like in a "Fear Factor" world?

Then again, times change. The Internet fulminates with intelligence, amid all the raving, disinformation and slander. And the No. 1 TV show in America is "CSI."

Picture Gil Grissom and his bunch watching the presidential debates with no political preconceptions whatsoever, just judging by the evidence in front of their eyes. Now picture their ballots, and the names they mark.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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