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Bush-contempt, Kerry-scorn: Is it 'hate thought'?

Intense anger satisfies a lust for absolute certainty, but it erodes the possibility of political compromise

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These attachments or dislikes can be strong, explaining why in moments of pique we may kick our shoes at the TV. John Hinckley infamously attempted to impress Jodie Foster by shooting President Reagan. He had met neither Ms. Foster nor Reagan. Yet, his emotional connection seems commonplace in our media-saturated society. O.J., Princess Di, Madonna, and the pope - we know them all. Likewise, John Kerry and George Bush live in our neighborhood.

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Of course, we only know their public actions and personas. What they are like in their private moments is hidden behind curtains of privacy. Surely each man has his ennobling characteristics and his sodden flaws. Like the rest of us, each is a mix of hero, knave, and fool. When we attribute to them a purity of evil or nobility, we are misleading ourselves into blind hatred or naive hero worship. We properly need to see their mixed identities and further to recognize the limits of our knowledge. Most significant, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they are committed to good works, even when we may disagree vigorously with what those good works are and how they might be achieved.

In researching "despised presidents," I discovered something surprising. In the cases of Richard Nixon andBill Clinton, it was not their policies in office that stirred anger. Nixon was a moderate Republican, while Clinton was, famously, a "New Democrat." If both sometimes tipped their hats to their parties' traditional constituencies, these gestures did not represent the heart of their policies. So, too, is the case with Bush a matter of judgment, but a plausible one in a nation in which we can still breathe the air, in which income taxes have not been radically restructured, and in which Medicare has been expanded.

These presidents - Nixon, Clinton, and Bush - were hated for who they were decades before being elected. For Nixon, his service on the House Un-American Activities Committee created a cadre of Americans who could never forgive him. Clinton suffered from the image of this "man from Hope" being a "child of dope," seemingly representing the destructive excesses of the 1960s. Add a persona that opponents found insufferable, and significant numbers of voters responded with ire. George W. Bush - with his image of a feckless child of privilege, a man born on third base, awarded the presidency - faces a similar problem. Stir in what critics call a smirk, poor syntax, and an absence of curiosity, and you've concocted a malign elixir of which many drink.

Perhaps these images are not total fantasies, but they are surely incomplete perspectives of the mature men who wish to lead us. They contribute to an illusion of great or evil men, ignoring the flawed humanity of each of us, politician or voter. We surely can judge what a politician has done during a political career and what policy prescriptions he or she is proposing, and we can be noisy in our support or rejection. We should judge the recent past and the alternative futures proposed. This is productive civic engagement; anger and vituperation over imagined youthful failures is not.

Understanding this may help us step back from the precipice of our politics of passion. Intense anger may satisfy our lust for absolute certainty. But in a society in which we must negotiate, this anger hardens our souls and debases our options. Politics becomes war, not persuasion.

And not only that, such anger prevents us from answering our children's question by saying that our leaders are honorable because we chose them.

Gary Alan Fine is John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University and the author of 'Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of Evil, Inept, and Controversial.'