by Michael Tomasky.
The American Prospect
April 11, 2005
Did you notice this one? A Gallup-CNN-USA Today poll at the end of last week found that 50 percent of American adults now believe that the Bush administration "deliberately misled" them about why we had to go to war in Iraq. It seems fair to say that the average respondent will have understood that "deliberately misled" is a polite way of saying the word "lie"; so, in sum, every other American adult believes the president and his apparatchiks lied us into war.
That's an astonishing fact: The president of the United States has no credibility with half of the adult citizenry on a defining question of his tenure that happens to have sent more than 1,500 young Americans to their graves (and in another recent poll, 53 percent said the war wasn't worth the costs). This was never remotely true of Bill Clinton or any modern president going back decades. George W. Bush defenders will invoke Harry Truman, but while it's true that Truman was profoundly unpopular at the end of his second term over the Korean War, the American people at least didn't blame him for lying us into it.
Combine this finding with other recent polls putting Bush's approval rating at 44 or 45 percent, which is the lowest of any sitting two-term president at this point in his tenure in decades. Bush is objectively and without question one of the most unpopular presidents of the last 80 years: Herbert Hoover after the Depression; Truman after Korea; Richard Nixon after Watergate; Jimmy Carter after Iran. Bush is right there with them.
And yet: Why do I suspect that if you asked Washington's top 100 agenda-setting journalists -- Tim Russert, George Will, Tom Friedman, etc. etc. -- whether Bush deliberately misled us into war, no more than about 15 or 20 of them would acknowledge what the half the American public sees clearly? Why do I still hear some of these bigfoots speak emphatically of a "popular wartime president"?
In the spring of 2003, when I was a Shorenstein fellow up at Harvard, NPR's Linda Wertheimer came to speak. The audience of people on the Shorenstein Center's mailing list tilted -- I will not deny it -- heavily liberal.
The guests peppered Wertheimer with questions about why the press wasn't tougher on Bush. She instructed the audience to look at the polls; Bush's approval rating was above 60 percent, and when a president's that popular, it's tough for the media to do its job and place itself so out of step with public opinion.
Funny, I thought: Clinton's approval rating was higher than 60 percent pretty much throughout 1998, the year of Monica, but somehow the press didn't seem to mind being out of step with public opinion then. (In case you're dubious about this assertion: May 1, 1998, Field Poll, 64 percent; August 23, 1998, Los Angeles Times, the week after Clinton 'fessed up about having "inappropriate" relations with Monica, 65 percent; December 20, 1998, CNN, just after the House voted the articles of impeachment, 73 percent; et cetera.)
Of course, "Linda Wertheimer" and "Washington journalism" are not the same thing, but her comments about Bush struck me as awfully representative of the media as a whole after September 11 and in the run-up to the Iraq War.
But what about today? Bush is tanking. The public thinks that his war wasn't worth it and that he lied about it. His Social Security scheme is distrusted and detested by most Americans. His decision to fly back to Washington from Crawford to "err on the side of life" was opposed by a massive majority. He's still liked personally, but he's doing virtually nothing with which the people he was elected to serve agree. His Republican colleagues in Congress are even more unpopular.
But with all this, the media are still reflexively deferential to this administration. There's more reporting now that cuts against that narrative than there was a few months ago. But the underlying assumptions of coverage are still that Bush is a strong leader and that anything that doesn't go his way is an aberration.
Journalists love to say at awards dinners and such-like events that they are the people's eyes and ears, the watchdogs of the public. But the people, in fact, are way ahead of them. Again: Bush is objectively one of the least popular presidents in modern American history. Let's hope the day may come when you don't have to visit the Prospect to read that sentence.
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Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's executive editor.