Steve Chapman

A new president, pursuing policies well within the political mainstream, evokes weirdly angry and intense denunciations from opponents -- a reaction hard to explain in terms of anything he has actually done. Does that suggest, as Jimmy Carter insists, that their true motivation lies in racism?

No, it doesn't, because I'm not talking about Barack Obama. I'm talking about George W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- both of whom, from the day they took office, managed to convince a minority of Americans that they were not just wrong but illegitimate, dangerous and thoroughly evil. Obama's troubles are not exactly unprecedented.

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It's generally forgotten that on Inauguration Day in 2001, Bush was greeted by thousands of protesters who threw eggs and bottles, made obscene gestures and carried signs jeering, "Hail to the thief" -- a reference to the legal fight needed to settle the outcome of the election. To the protesters, he was a corrupt enemy of democracy.

Clinton fared no better. He was reviled as a skirt-chasing, America-hating draft dodger. Eventually, he handed his antagonists the opportunity to impeach him, in one of the bitterest episodes in American political history.

What Obama may not have recognized before he arrived in the White House is that hating presidents is an irrepressible American tradition. The haters hung George Washington in effigy. They called Abraham Lincoln a dictator. They said Franklin Roosevelt was a Bolshevik.

Dwight Eisenhower's enemies suggested he was a "conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist conspiracy." Shortly before John Kennedy arrived in Dallas in November 1963, where he was assassinated, an ad ran in the local newspaper with his picture over the legend, "Wanted for Treason."

Looking back, all these claims seem bizarre and unwarranted. But that didn't count for much at the time. The furious denunciations against Obama are simply the latest installment in a custom that seems to have gotten more extreme as methods of instant communication have spread.

So you don't need to turn to race to explain the virulent animosity against Obama. What all the presidents who previously endured irresponsible slander had in common, after all, is that they were white.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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