When voters went to the polls on November 7, 1972, they possessed more than enough information to pick the right president.
Republican incumbent Richard Nixon had reneged on his promise to withdraw from Vietnam, instead expanding the war into Cambodia and Laos. Debt from the war had triggered runaway inflation, requiring wage and price controls. In June Nixon's burglars had gotten caught inside the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. Everyone knew the guy was a paranoid, corrupt, lying warmonger.
Faced with this simplest of decisions, the American people screwed up. Sixty-one percent of the electorate voted for Nixon over George McGovern, one of the most fundamentally decent candidates to have ever run for the White House and the first to propose a national healthcare plan. McGovern scored a pathetic 38 percent of the vote.
In January 1973, two months after he carried 49 states, Nixon's job approval rating was at 68 percent. By the time Nixon resigned in August 1974, however, only 25 percent still backed his performance. Watergate had gotten uglier; Vietnam had dragged on a little too long. Had there been a Nixon-McGovern rematch in 1974, the senator from South Dakota would have prevailed.
Reminiscing about Watergate in 1997, journalist Haynes Johnson reflected the mainstream rah-rah view to PBS's Jim Lehrer: "The system worked. The press did its job.... The judges did their jobs. The grand jury did its job. The committee, Congress headed by people like Howard Baker and Sam Ervin did their jobs, and the public did its job..."
Actually, the public didn't do its job when it mattered—that would be on Election Day 1972, by voting for McGovern. During the two years it took for the public to turn against Tricky Dick, thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed or wounded in a futile, losing war. History heaps praise on Nixon voters who reconsidered, but these morons merit only contempt. Nothing changed between 1972 and 1974. No new information became available. They didn't see the light until the sun had begun to set.
George W. Bush's war against Iraq is the subject of a similar dollar- short/day-late opinion shift. Only 39 percent of respondents to a June 20 CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll—down from 71 percent in 2003—say they still favor the war. Bush's personal popularity has also plunged, from 91 percent just after 9/11 to 57 percent after his January 2005 inauguration to 47 percent. Were the 2004 election held tomorrow, John Kerry would defeat Bush.
Most Americans, in other words, have finally come around to my way of thinking. They see the war as a waste of blood and money and the war on terrorism, Bush's signature issue, as fiction. (Only 23 percent of Americans tell CNN that they trust Bush to protect them from future attacks.) Lefties like me ought to be crowing. After four long years of being insulted as "un-American," "terrorist apologists," and "traitors" by racist scum too dumb to understand that you don't bomb Osama in Afghanistan when he was in Pakistan all along and that you don't make friends by putting bags over people's heads, lefties who opposed Bush's war have been proven absolutely right: no WMDs. No rose-petal-paved streets. No turned corners. Not even cheaper gas: Oil, now $60 a barrel, was just $22 in January 2002.
Everything turned out exactly as we predicted. A rump Iraq, minus Kurdistan, is being ripped apart by a religious civil war. Iraqi women, once citizens of the Arab world's most secular and gender-equal nation, have been forced under the hijab. The museums were looted by local criminals; the oil fields were looted by Halliburton. Chaos has replaced autocracy as U.S. forces murder Iraqis faster than Saddam could ever have dreamed. Opponents of the war have been vindicated! Everyone knows we were right. Hurrah for us.
But this national change of heart prompts the question: Why did you fuckers change your minds?
Surely it's not the staggering mass murder of more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians. That shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone. That's what happens when the world's best-equipped military bombs a nation incapable of fielding a single jet to defend itself.
It can't be the incessant death toll among American forces. We're losing two to three guys a day, not a huge increase over the one to two we were sacrificing to the search for nonexistent WMDs a year ago.
Or maybe you were a member of the Chris Hitchens Muslim Liberation Brigade. Pro-war liberals said we needed to atone for installing Saddam's dictatorial ass; fortunately for the budget deficit they didn't suggest pursuing the same policy everywhere the U.S. had backed a despot. Democracy might spread throughout the Middle East, the Liberation Brigade argued, and Saddam was so evil that any successor regime would inevitably be an improvement. But Afghanistan, where the U.S. occupation had brought about a brand of anarchy that Afghans considered even worse than the Taliban, had already debunked this line of thinking. Entropy can always make a bad situation worse.
Afghanistan had also provided a case study of how the Bush Administration runs its wars—on the cheap, relying on unpopular and easily corruptible puppet politicians, wallowing in sleazy deals with oil companies and White House–connected contracting firms while construction projects to help ordinary people went unfunded. Bombs started raining on Baghdad a year and a half after they fell on Kabul. The United States didn't build a single house or pave an inch of road anywhere in Afghanistan during that period. We were torturing at Bagram before Abu Ghraib. No one should be surprised that the same idiots conducted their wars against Afghanistan and Iraq the same way.
Only a sociopath could rejoice in being proven right about the pointless carnage and mayhem in Iraq. I was correct, yes, but why didn't people listen when I played Cassandra on Sean Hannity? Hundreds of thousands of us marched through America's cities to warn of the perils of preemptive war. Why did you ignore us? How could you have voted, well over a year after he declared "Mission Accomplished," for a Bush without a single WMD to show for the thousands he killed? You didn't trust me then, but please believe me now when I say that we would have loved to have been proven wrong. The sight of Iraqis rejoicing in the streets of Baghdad (as opposed to the phony Saddam-statue photo op staged by 150 guys working for the army's psychological warfare division) would have been glorious to behold.
A perplexed Donald Rumsfeld wonders why so many Americans have changed their minds about a war that puttered along in the same gear for the last two years. Indeed, the news is always the same during the morning drive: "Three suicide bombers killed at least 67 Iraqis and four American soldiers in cities throughout Iraq yesterday... an Apache helicopter crashed in the Sunni Triangle, killing all seven men aboard...." Drip, drip, drip—you can live with a leaky faucet for an hour. After a week you'll pay the plumber anything he wants to fix it. Day after month after year of consistently bad news from Iraq has finally convinced J. Q. Public that past performance is a likely predictor of future returns.
If the 24 percent of the public who changed their minds about Iraq and Bush since the election had learned from their folly, well, then there might be cause for quiet celebration. But there's no reason to believe that. Consider, for example, a June 22 Rasmussen Reports poll about the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay. Years after reports of torture, mass suicides, and murder at Bush's Cuban gulag first emerged, a full 70 percent of the American public continue to believe that detainees are being treated "about right" or "better than they deserve."
As they have on Iraq, a significant portion of these torture apologists might come around to understanding the truth about the way America mistreats its Muslim POWs. But the damage—to the inmates, to our international reputation, to our souls—will already have been done. You may well have changed your minds, but you'll still be scum. ■
Ted Rall, the syndicated cartoonist and columnist, is working on a new book about Central Asia.