Susan Estrich: Is It So Bad to Be Bitter?

Is it so bad to be bitter? Or, more to the point, to recognize that many people are?

Of course, we all strive for a state of grace, for a sense of security, for the peace and calm that comes with knowing that, just for that moment, all is well with the world.

But it’s hard to feel that way when you’re afraid and insecure. For all the Hallmark talk about hard times bringing out the best in people, my lifetime of experience suggests just the opposite.

Good times bring out the best in people. Security breeds generosity. Insecurity breeds just the opposite. It isn’t an insult; it’s a description, of a problem to be faced and addressed.

I like Hillary Clinton enormously. I have the advantage of actually knowing her, unlike many of those who dislike her enormously, for reasons I fear have more to do with me and other successful women of her generation than they do with her, in particular.

I would like to see her win this nomination and the presidency, fair and square, as they say, because she’s smart and experienced and deserves it.

But not because at a fundraiser last week in San Francisco Barack Obama stepped over the line of PC-speak to describe the reality of what happens to people when they feel like their world is falling apart, their futures are no longer secure and they can’t provide for their children the hope of better days that their parents provided for them.

He may not have chosen his words with the dexterity that this "YouTubed" every-moment-captured-on-tape political cycle requires, but I don’t think he was insulting anyone by observing the realities of insecure life in America today.

Is religion solely the refuge for those who are angry and bitter nothing more than the opiate for the masses that its critics decry? Of course not. But that isn’t what he said.

What he said, what most of us have found in our lives, is that sometimes when we are frightened and forlorn, we cling to our own religions and view those of others with added suspicion in a world in which we don’t feel safe.

Ecumenicism is easier when you’re feeling secure. Distrust and misunderstanding is more common when you’re not.

Are gun owners a group of angry, bitter losers fondling their weapons as a defense to the wrongs visited upon them by the world? That wouldn’t be my description.

Sure, there are some people who buy guns out of anger and a sense of weakness, but for others, gun ownership is a tradition passed from father to son (or daughter), a sport, a skill, a pastime.

I’m not one of them, but I don’t think Barack Obama meant to condemn all gun owners as angry and bitter outcasts, only to point out that gun sales do increase — actually they do — when people are feeling stressed, insecure, under assault and unsure of the future. Problem is, so do gun accidents. Buying a gun doesn’t bring your job home, protect your house from foreclosure or even assure your personal safety.

And, yes, we all tend to be less generous to those who are different than us when things aren’t going our way. I wrote a book a few years ago aptly titled "How to Get Into Law School" and ever since, I’ve probably gotten more e-mails from would-be law students than the dean of admissions at Harvard.

And, yes, in tough years, and this is one, I hear all the time from students who say, "Listen, I don’t want to complain, but when I go on the Web sites where such information is shared, I can’t help but notice that applicants with numbers no better (and in some cases not as good) as my own get accepted at law schools that have rejected me, and then I look at their profiles and find their grandmother was a Mexican American, or that they’re an Ivy League black preppy, and it just doesn’t seem fair."

I’ve gotten quite a few of those lately. They’re right, of course. I’m the first to say that I wouldn’t want to teach a course on constitutional law to a room full of white kids, but that doesn’t make it easier to understand or accept the fairness of rejecting a working-class white kid in favor of a black preppy, or adding extra points for the blonde-haired blue-eyed cheerleader who suddenly discovers, or discloses, that her grandmother was Mexican.

The unfairness of life is a lot easier to swallow when things are going well.

So I don’t hold Barack’s "bitterness" comments against him, and I don’t think most voters will, either. It’s not a question of how people feel, but what the candidates have to offer. Barack Obama’s best suit is his ability to offer hope as an antidote to bitterness. It’s something we could all use more of lately.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for