War - or is it the politics of war? - has confirmed the vast disconnect between Washington and The People out yonder.
Americans by a startling majority - 81 percent according to the most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll - support President Bush's war on terrorism and, implicitly, his commitment to indefinitely pursue terrorists and the countries that support/tolerate them.
Also implicit in this record-setting, sustained approval rating is Americans' support for whatever steps the commander in chief deems necessary to ensure national security, even occasionally protecting a military plan of action.
Yet in Washington, with all the outraged talk of a "shadow" government, which turns out not to have been such a mystery after all; and charges of "false cloak(s) of patriotism"; and increasing insinuations that we're war-mongering rather than self-defending, you'd think that we, like Solzhenitsyn, were trapped in the Gulag with only one roll of toilet paper left and 20 chapters to go. Disconnect.
Without prescience, one can reasonably predict that our next national election season will be even more crystallizing. Americans are natural scorekeepers - blame Little League - and they're out of patience with those who play politics when lives are at stake. "America: love it or leave it" - a slogan that 30 years ago would have sent baby boomers lurching for Dramamine or the Canadian border - has become a mandate of the highest moral order.
Thus, recent skirmishes in the nation's capital - sophisticated word games that have raised "spin" to a new level - give Americans yet a new reason to reach for the anti-nausea tonic. As politicians debate whether Congress and the president are co-equals in government and compete for "most patriotic" in the superlative sweepstakes, we are reminded once again that politics knows no shame.
The spin game began in earnest when Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle complained that Bush wasn't sharing enough explicit war information with Congress and questioned the war's direction. Democrat spin: Good. Undermine president's authority and ethics without seeming unpatriotic, lay groundwork for next election season. Republican spin: Bad. Democrats are behaving unpatriotically.
We'll call that Act I. Subliminally, Americans are provided the message that while everyone supports the troops (but not necessarily the president), Democrats are the open-door sunshine guys with more Purple Hearts per capita and Republicans are obfuscators, untrustworthy National Guard elitists operating a shadowy government.
Act II, Enter Stage Right: Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott and House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas jump on Daschle for his comments, which they characterize as divisive and unpatriotic. Enter Stage Left: Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., decorated Vietnam vet, defends Congress' right to question war policy and accuses DeLay and Lott of "shield(ing) policies from scrutiny behind a false cloak of patriotism."
Kerry, by the way, did not directly criticize Bush's war policies, as I wrote in an earlier column. Rather he took the high road. Invoking lessons he learned in Vietnam "fighting in a war they (Lott and DeLay) did not have to endure," he admonished Lott and Delay for "missing the real value of what our troops defend."
It's hard to argue with Kerry's artful - and perhaps presidential? - defense of what makes democracy tick. But one
could argue that defending Daschle against critics - who, incidentally, hide behind false cloaks of patriotism and who defend a shadowy (ahem, non-combat) president - is just a more discreet way of endorsing criticism of Bush's policies. Give that speechwriter a raise.
Act III: Americans struggling to get back to normal are busy but not dumb. They understand that full disclosure of war operations to Congress is tantamount to sending a press release to CNN. They understand that Congress has a right and a duty to ask questions, but that war imposes different rules of dialogue and debate.
Sometimes that means certain questions - especially those that telegraph to our enemies a lack of national cohesion - might be better posed in private rather than splashed across the international news wires. Presumably, the Senate majority leader can get an appointment with the president.
Politicians can tell Americans that a duck is really a rooster, but at least 81 percent of Americans hear the quacking loud and clear.