Confidence Man

A new poll reveals that 70 percent of Americans now believe that any gains we’ve made in Iraq have come at an “unacceptable” cost, and 56 percent now believe the conflict was “not worth fighting.” Poll numbers are poll numbers, of course, but these seem significant if only because they suggest an interesting trend. A real majority now question the validity of the policy that most clearly defines the Bush administration. (And if Bush can call his margin of victory a “mandate,” then I can call 56 percent a “real majority.”)

Also headlining the front page of The Washington Post website are breaking reports of 22 dead in an attack on a U.S. base, Dana Milbank’s coverage of Bush’s elusive tactics at yesterday’s press conference, and a report of Bush’s confidence in his Iraq policy. What interests me is the juxtaposition of stories — the images of death and destruction jutted up against Bush’s “confidence.” Reminds me of another president.

Back in January, after reading Jeffrey Alexander’s The Meanings of Social Life, I predicted to a co-worker that the 2004 election would be a repeat of ’72, when Nixon won re-election with 60% of the popular vote despite the Watergate scandal. From my response to Alexander’s book:

In November 1972, just four months after the Watergate break-in, 84% of voters claimed that the scandal did not influence their decision on election night. Two years later, the event had taken on such symbolic significance that Nixon was forced to resign. “Watergate could not, as the French might say, tell itself. It had to be told by society; it was, to use Durkeim’s famous phrase, a social fact. It was the context of Watergate that had changed, not so much the raw empirical data themselves” (156). In his thoughtful analysis, Alexander explains how Watergate, as a symbol, came to transcend the world of petty politics and to touch upon fundamental moral concerns, thus polluting the executive office with the counterdemocratic code. This process was greatly influenced by the ritualizing experience of the televised hearings and by the release of Nixon’s taped conversations. “By his words and recorded actions,” Alexander writes, “he had polluted the very tenets that the entire Watergate process had revivified: the sacredness of truth and the image of America as an inclusive, tolerant community” (169).

As an example of how the Watergate context had changed, Alexander reminds us of Nixon’s infamous line, “I am not a crook.” In ’72 those words would have comforted Americans and reinforced their sacred faith in the presidency; by ’74, after the tapes and after the hearings, Nixon’s utterance of the word “crook” only reminded voters of their growing suspicions. Nixon had lost control of his rhetoric.

I was mostly joking when I mentioned all of this to my co-worker a year ago, but I’m starting to wonder if there might be some truth to it. In the last month, Bush has given America’s highest civilian honor to George Tenet, the man who most on the right scapegoated for his “slam dunk” on Iraq intelligence. He’s nominated a petty criminal for the nation’s top security position. And he’s repeatedly emphasized his support of Donald Rumsfeld. I think we’re reaching a point when Bush’s statement of “confidence” will be read quite differently from how it’s intended.