One of the most pleasing aspects of the Obama presidency is that it disproves something that, deep down, many of us feared might be true: that America was a nation of idiots. The doddering quality of the entire Reagan presidency certainly gave rise to that notion. And the Bush presidency? Well where to begin? Didn’t most of us think Cheney was really president? Wasn’t reading The Pet Goat forever after being told we had been attacked on 9/11 a little too close for comfort? And then he went and invaded the wrong country. (At this point, it looks like Iran would even have been a better bet.)
Right-wing pundits made entire careers on the basis of slogans like “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” And right-wing politicians congratulated themselves for their witty accusations against liberals who “looked French.”
Obviously one could go on and on with this theme, but the point is, we re-elected these guys. (Or in the case of Bush, elected him legitimately for the first time even after we knew what we were getting.) And if you believed what you read and heard in the media while these guys were president, well, the whole country had no use for intelligence or even for what intelligent people consider “common sense.” You may have to be as old as I am to remember when, during the Republican convention of 1984—in which a triumphant Reaganite party prepared to crush Walter Mondale and company—the worst thing you could call your opponent was a “San Francisco Democrat.” Nobody had to spell out what it meant; you only had to watch those gay-pride parades at the time; hairy homosexuals parading their perversions and giving one another diseases that Republicans like Reagan could never even bring themselves to pronounce. (That’s true, by the way; Reagan never said the word “AIDS” in public as president.)
But here’s the good news. It was all nonsense. We’ve now got a president who’s not afraid of book learning and an entire country that has no problem with San Francisco or that other perennial punchline, France.
After all, in the Bush years, the only thing worse than San Francisco was France. Right-wing pundits made entire careers on the basis of slogans like “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” And right-wing politicians congratulated themselves for their witty accusations against liberals who “looked French.” (“Good afternoon, or as John Kerry would say, bonjour,” quipped that genius, Tom DeLay.) Morons in Congress insisted that “French fries” be renamed “freedom fries”—though this was actually an insult to Belgium. I even seem to recall Ed Koch seriously proposing an American boycott. Why? Well, few in the media bothered to ask. It was all so much fun. Sure they were right about invading Iraq, etc., but so what? Didn’t they overrate Mickey Rourke and go around pretending that Jerry Lewis was some sort of genius?
But now almost everybody likes San Francisco. Even Republicans. They also think France is, well, magnifique. In fact, there is only one demographic that differs, measurably from the rest of us in Real America. And that’s the South. Come to think of it, those numbers look a lot like the numbers expressing approval of George W. Bush’s presidency--only reversed—and Bush’s numbers are a bit lower.
Now for the bad news: Unfortunately, a significant percentage of those schmucks still have their own cable shows…
Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.