Under the Sun
Sex, lies and venal politics tip trust over the edge
NEW polls out this week conspicuously display disapproval among Americans for Republican leaders in Congress and the White House.
With the unfolding scandal involving the now-resigned Florida congressman who traded sexually explicit messages with teenagers, the seething war in Iraq, more revelations about how the administration manufactured a rationale for going to war and the incompetence with which it has handled any number of operations from Katrina and homeland security to prescription drugs, the unfavorables weren't surprising.
But there was an element in the Washington Post-ABC News poll that caught my eye. About a third of the people surveyed suspected that the Republican Party and the White House somehow fiddled with gasoline prices to gain a political advantage as the November elections neared.
The notion has been brought up before, mainly by fierce critics of President Bush and his ex-oilman vice president, Dick Cheney. The percentage who hold the view isn't a majority, but among them were Republican conservatives, evangelicals and Southerners, people considered the foundation of Bush's support.
Americans are generally a trusting bunch who give their leaders the benefit of the doubt. Even Watergate -- when presidential disclaimers of wrongdoing became "inoperative," smoking guns shot down "misstatements" and non-denial denials evolved into art forms -- failed to squelch that trust completely.
However, ruthless politics in which facts are ceaselessly distorted, trimmed and embellished now prevail and leading the prevaricating pack is none other than Bush himself.
On the campaign stump to keep the Congress red, Bush last week stepped over the line when he described Democrats' vote against warrantless wiretaps as this: "One hundred and seventy-seven of the opposition party said, 'You know, we don't think we ought to be listening to the conversations of terrorists.'"
He knows that's not true, but he said it anyway, and when his staff was asked to name said Democrats, aides could not think of a single one. Still, they maintained that the statement was a sensible extrapolation of the vote.
In fact, Democrats weren't objecting to the surveillance, but to doing so without warrants. Neither did they object to interrogating terrorism suspects, another presidential claim, but disapproved giving the president the power to determine what exactly constitutes torture and denying suspects the right to defend themselves. They also objected to validating Bush's casting of himself as the "decider," the one person in government who can designate anyone -- citizen or foreigner -- as an enemy combatant to be held without recourse.
Supporters murmured assurances that this power will not be abused, but that may hold little comfort for people who already have been subject to executive abuse.
Take Steven Howards. Last June, Howards was walking with his young son through a public square in Denver when he saw Cheney shaking hands with people. He stepped up to the vice president and said, "I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible." A few minutes later, the Secret Service handcuffed him and arrested him on harassment charges, leaving his son unattended in the streets. Eventually, the charges were dropped.
Though Howards' situation isn't remotely close to being tagged an enemy combatant, it was an abuse of power and illustrates the danger of placing so much muscle in an administration that thinks nothing of intimidating a man who simply disagrees with its policies.
The polls showed that Howards isn't alone in his views of the White House's conduct and of the Republican-led Congress. The president's job approval rating fell to 34 percent in one, 39 percent in another, while Congress' has bottomed out at 32 percent.
The numbers reflect the lack of confidence Americans have in their elected leaders and though Democrats fared better, the overall sentiment is that politicians aren't to be believed.
In the bitter fight to hold on to power, trust has become a casualty.
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org