THE 'CREDIBILITY GAP' RETURNS
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- When it comes to homeland security, the media might consider dusting off a term that was used during the Lyndon Johnson administration: "the credibility gap." How else to explain the almost comically skeptical reaction to warnings from the Attorney General about impending catastrophes, or to changes in the national stoplight from yellow to orange?
The was laid bare the other day when I heard a high ranking official of the Los Angeles city government refer to that multihued system of threat levels as the national "mood ring." It's hard to find a better way to express subtle contempt mixed with skepticism.
Why are we so skeptical about the new Homeland Security operation? What exactly are we skeptical about? Are we so cynical about our government that we make light of its supposedly most serious concerns?
It wasn't always so.
Growing up in the 1950s, I heard lots of people speak hatefully about Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency, but it seemed to be confined to the prewar period of the 1930s. There was substantial disagreement about the policies that became known as the New Deal, but little in the way of anti-war sentiment when it came to World War II. Somehow the national defense was off limits to the sort of infighting that has now become common.
What the Russian allies called the Great Patriotic War seems to have been treated with equal respect by the American people. There certainly were those who disdained all war, but it never reached the point where substantial numbers of people paraded in protest or refused to serve.
I am too young to remember much about the Korean Conflict, but I have seen little in the histories to suggest anything like what came later when my generation got its draft cards and Viet Nam became a part of the national vocabulary.
For at least the last 35 years, there has never been a foreign conflict for which the American people have been as unified, with the possible exception of the brief intervention in Afghanistan at the end of 2001. We might want to think about why this is.
Political ineptitude may be a part of it, but we should also ask what it says about presidential power over the past third of a century and, for purposes of this discussion, the role of the free press in helping to create the situation.
Historians may debate the reasons, but it is clear that something happened between 1963 and 1968 that has changed the way we as a people relate to government in general and to the presidency in particular. An attitude that was at once political but also worshipful has changed. Since the end of the Johnson administration, we have viewed our presidents in a way that might be described as jaundiced, and as a people we have become violently polarized. It has become painfully clear that Clinton-bashing has simply been replaced by Bush-hating.
At the same time, the antipathy towards President Bush's social and economic policies cannot entirely explain the lack of interest in efforts to forestall another major attack analogous to the September 11, 2001 assaults. For a serious government official to refer to the national alert level as a "mood ring" says something which ought to be of concern. That official, by the way, is obviously a hard working, competent administrator who is doing a difficult job in trying to prepare our region for the unpredictable, be it earthquake, fire or terrorist attack. It was the easy way he expressed the amused attitude we hold towards our national government that jumped off the page as it were.
Perhaps the answer lies in the way recent presidents have behaved. A joke that circulated during the Nixon presidency went like this: "He holds the truth in high regard, and therefore uses it very sparingly." President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush had their credibility issues. President Bill Clinton's equivocations became a part of our national lore.
Perhaps all presidents have bent the truth here and there, but the modern era has made a fetish of revealing them one and all.
It's a curious thing that the present Bush administration is marked by more downright dishonesty than any in living memory, its violations of the public trust are more serious than any in decades, yet the press has somehow failed to "connect the dots" and declare a Credibility Gap.
Over the past few days, the press has covered one of the new century's major scandals, the disparity between the prewar intelligence used by the president to justify a war versus the report from the bipartisan Senate committee which disputes those arguments in almost all their particulars.
On the business and editorial pages, economic news shows the continuation of the "jobless recovery," econo-speak for the rich getting richer while the rest of us do our best to tread water. The administration trumpets a healthy economy and predicts (as it has been predicting for three years) vibrant job growth. It is a lie, as much as you can call any economic statement a lie. Remarkably, Republicans have stopped believing the Wall Street Journal in huge numbers, according to a recent Pew Charitable Trust poll.
What has been missing from the mainstream press is the grand synthesis, the description of President George W. Bush that is equivalent to the exposure of LBJ's credibility gap.
In an age of media feeding frenzies, why has there been no such frenzy over President Bush's lies?
To a great extent, the mainstream press has been holding back. Where the writers on the internet have been blunt to the point of excess, the daily newspapers have told the story only in bits and pieces. We get the job loss story here, the weapons of mass destruction story there, but the task of putting the pieces together in the grand synthesis has been avoided.
The American people understand much of this implicitly, which may explain their lack of trust in the current administration's more excited warnings.
Whatever the validity of these conjectures, it is clear from our recent experience that the American people are not taking seriously the warnings in which orange replaces yellow. One acquaintance points out that official statements about terrorist threats coincide with upswings in Sen. John Kerry's popularity or with setbacks in the Iraq conflict. The fact that we even speculate at this level reveals something about how our national attitude towards government has evolved.
The attack on Pearl Harbor left this country as close to national unity as it has ever been or likely ever will be. Less than three years following the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, we are as far from unity as we have been, probably, since the days of the Civil War.
Is it just the Bush presidency, or is it something in addition? It is a serious question which historians and media critics will debate for years to come. I have one contribution to the discussion to offer.
On Septe. 11, we were unified in shock, grief and outrage. It was instinctual and natural. The members of congress stood elbow to elbow on the steps of the Capitol. It was an opportunity for the current administration to bring the nation together. For a brief moment, perhaps, it did.
But the "noise machine" of the growling right wing went back to work within weeks, if not days, and found the usual scapegoats. The former president along with anyone to the left of Trent Lott were blamed. The ineptitude of the current administration, now so thoroughly exposed by the Senate committee, was ignored. In the near religiosity of the right wing attack machine, it had to be the accursed liberals who were to blame. It went on day after day, week after week, over the radio and in the newly invented medium of right wing television "news."
Nobody likes to be called a traitor or a wimp, but a not insubstantial fraction of the electronic media were busy characterizing half the nation's people in these terms. It continues.
It is, in a way, Viet Nam redux. The hawks are busy trashing the doves, and the doves don't like it. People who are neither doctrinaire hawk nor ideologically dove find it equally offensive. The Bush administration, however. finds the system politically useful and therefore fails to repudiate it.
Where have the mainstream media been while all this has been going on? They have been silent, and in this silence is complicity.
The grand synthesis might involve the realization that we are in an era characterized by distrust of presidents. The news media should have told President Bush, "It is easy to lose your credibility and hard to regain it. Stop selling out to your contributors and start doing the right thing before you lose all trust."
Perhaps a Bush administration that had been more careful about maintaining its own credibility would have been less disdainful of the public good - and less thoughtless about losing the world's trust. Perhaps the American people would now take its warnings seriously.
To send such a message would have been a fitting role for a free press under the Bill of Rights. It did not rise to the occasion.