Just how much did Karl Rove hate not being one of the cool guys in high school in the 60's? Enough to hatch schemes to marshal the forces of darkness to take over the country?
A supporter of Nixon against Kennedy at 9, the teenage Karl was, in his description, "a big nerd," a small guy with a pocket protector, briefcase, and glasses almost as big as his head.
Even as a high school debater in Salt Lake City, "Rove didn't just want to win; he wanted the opponents destroyed," write James Moore and Wayne Slater in "Bush's Brain." "He would defeat them, slaughter them and humiliate them."
The Boy Genius, as W. calls him, the "architect" who helped him get the second term he dearly wanted to surpass his father, is happy to crush the liberal elites inspired by Kennedy's New Frontier under the steamroller of 19th-century family values.
Like the president, vice president and defense secretary, General Karl wanted to wipe out the gray, if-it-feels-good-do-it, blame-America-first, doused-in-Vietnam-guilt 60's and turn the clock back to the black-and-white Manichaean values of the 50's.
W. and Karl played up western movie stereotypes. After 9/11, the rugged frontier myth, the hunter/Indian-fighter hero in a war of civilization against savagery worked better than ever. But this White House's frontier is not a place of infinite progress and expansion, stretching society's boundaries. It doesn't battle primitivism; it courts primitivism.
Instead of the New Frontier, Karl and W. offer the New Backtier.
Even as a child, I could feel the rush of J.F.K.'s presidency racing forward, opening up a thrilling world of possibilities and modernity. We were going to the moon. We were confronting racial intolerance. We were paying any price and bearing any burden for freedom. We were respecting faith but keeping it out of politics. Our president was inspiring much of the world. Our first lady was setting the pace in style and culture.
W.'s presidency rushes backward, stifling possibilities, stirring intolerance, confusing church with state, blowing off the world, replacing science with religion, and facts with faith. We're entering another dark age, more creationist than cutting edge, more premodern than postmodern. Instead of leading America to an exciting new reality, the Bushies cocoon in a scary, paranoid, regressive reality. Their new health care plan will probably be a return to leeches.
America has always had strains of isolationism, nativism, chauvinism, puritanism and religious fanaticism. But most of our leaders, even our devout presidents, have tried to keep these impulses under control. Not this crew. They don't call to our better angels; they summon our nasty devils.
Jimmy Carter won the evangelical vote in 1976, and he won it in Ohio. He combined his evangelical appeal with a call for social justice, integrating his church and laboring for world peace. But W. appealed to that vote's most crabbed insecurities - the disparaging of the other, the fear of those godless hedonists in the blue states out to get them and their families. And the fear of scientific progress, as with stem cell research.
When William Jennings Bryan took up combating the theory of evolution, he did it because he despised the social Darwinists who used the theory to justify the "survival of the fittest" in capitalism. Bryan hated anything that justified an economic system that crushed poor workers and farmers, and he hated that the elites would claim there was scientific basis for keeping society divided and unequal.
The new evangelicals challenge science because they've been stirred up to object to social engineering on behalf of society's most vulnerable: the poor, the sick, the sexually different.
Yet the Bush conservatives do their own social engineering. They thought they could toughen up the American character with the invasion of Iraq. Now they want to reshape the country on "moral" issues - though their morality seems to allow them to run a campaign full of blatant distortions and character assassination, and to mislead the public about the war.
Back in 1994, Newt Gingrich said he wanted the government to mold the moral character of Americans and wipe out remnants of the "counterculture McGoverniks." He got derailed, but now he and his pious friends are back in full cry, messing with our psyches and excluding themselves from the rules they demand others follow. They'll eventually do themselves in, but will they do us in first?
Copyright 2004 NYT