Bush vs. Gore. Columbine wanna-bes vs. our schools. The US vs. terrorism.
BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI
IT’S NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE to remember now, but Americans began the year 2001 poised for civil war. A war of words and values, but a war nonetheless. The protracted 2000 presidential election put the United States’ culture clash into relief and called to mind John Dos Passos’s observation after the Sacco and Vanzetti trial in the 1920s: " We are two nations. "
One half of the country voted for George W. Bush; the other for Al Gore. Opinion makers, politicians, and pundits marveled at the divide between " Red America " (the down-home South and interior states) and " Blue America " (the coasts and old industrial Midwest). As David Brooks wryly noted in this month’s issue of the Atlantic Monthly: " In Red America churches are everywhere. In Blue America Thai restaurants are everywhere. In Red America they have QVC, the Pro Bowlers Tour, and hunting. In Blue America we have NPR, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and socially conscious investing. "
As the year dawned the two sides were at each other’s throats — if not literally, then figuratively. At the January 20 inauguration of George W. Bush as the 43rd president of the United States, the president-elect took the oath among teems of folks wearing high-school letter jackets, cowboy boots, and fur — the typical garb of his supporters. Meanwhile, master-of-the-mob Al Sharpton led thousands of protesters in a post-Inaugural march from the Capitol grounds to the United States Supreme Court to speak out against what they called " the anti-democratic " US electoral system. Riot police, wearing helmets and face masks, lined the courthouse steps as the throng waved signs declaring hail to the thief.
Bush stoked the flames of the culture war immediately upon entering the Oval Office. The newly installed president wasted no time advancing the battle lines on classic hot-button issues like abortion, the environment, and the death penalty. He used his first full day in office — which happened to fall on the 28th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — to re-impose a ban on federal aid not only to international organizations that perform abortions, but also to those that merely discuss the procedure as an option. Much to the chagrin of blue-liberals everywhere, he dealt another blow by selecting John Ashcroft as his comrade-in-arms-cum-attorney-general. This, lest you forget, is a man who believes that homosexuality is a sin. He is a man who gives interviews to the neo-Confederate journal Southern Partisan, holds an honorary degree from the racist Bob Jones University, and opposes abortion without exception — even in instances of rape and incest.
The double punch left liberals reeling. Too many, perhaps, had been lulled into a false sense of security by eight years of peace and prosperity under former president Bill Clinton. Maybe they wanted to believe Bush when he portrayed himself as " a uniter, not a divider. " Whatever the reasons, his early and extreme attacks on abortion rights stunned even the most paranoid pro-choice advocates, who scrambled to rouse the troops on college campuses across the country.
It didn’t take Bush long to storm the battlefield again. With abortion-rights advocates busily organizing and out of the way, the administration set the country’s environmentalist movement — that pesky conscience of big industry — in its cross hairs. First, Bush pushed his plan to drill for a pittance of oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Then he kneecapped his own Environmental Protection Agency chief, Christine Todd Whitman, when he reversed his campaign pledge to combat global warming by lowering carbon-dioxide-emission standards for power plants. Within weeks, he scrapped Clinton’s executive order to lower levels of arsenic in drinking water — an order that, to be fair, would have cost too much anyway. But taken together, the controversial decisions gave Bush a bad name among moderate voters who can swing either way in an election. So bad that William Saletan, in a May 10 column published in Slate, described environmental issues as " the best issue Democrats developed against President Bush in his first 100 days. " The beauty of it all, of course, is that Bush brought it on by himself. And he further sullied his reputation in July, when his administration refused to stand with most of the world in signing the long-sought agreement to ease global warming, the Kyoto Protocol.
These actions were an upset for environmentalists. But the hits taken by these activists pale in comparison with those endured by opponents of the death penalty. Of course, they had every reason to fear the worst from a man who, as governor of Texas, presided over 152 executions in that state. Their nightmare came true in June, just six months into Bush’s tenure, when two federal prisoners were put to death for the first time in 38 years.
Conservatives could actually make a good case for the execution of the first prisoner — Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh — which improved their standing in national debates over the issue. Why, they asked, should the convicted killer of 168 people in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building not die at the government’s hands? The question stumped many left-leaning types — until it came back to haunt the Bush administration. Days before McVeigh’s scheduled May 11 execution, the Federal Bureau of Investigation revealed that it had withheld as many as 4000 pages of documents that McVeigh’s attorneys should have seen during his 1997 trial. Opponents, naturally, seized on the oversight as an example of the dangers of state-sanctioned murder. But their momentum soon fizzled. On June 11, McVeigh died by lethal injection at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where 1600 reporters had flocked to cover the event. By the time the state executed the second federal prisoner — Juan Raul Garza, a drug dealer who murdered three people — the event received far less attention.
Issue Date: December 27, 2001 - January 3, 2002