Perhaps the most important divide in the US presidential campaign is between fact and fiction. There are, of course, other sharp distinctions based on region and religiosity, guns and gays, abstinence and abortion. But were the election to be decided on domestic concerns alone, US President George W. George Bush would be near certain to join the ranks of one-term presidents -- like his father after the aura of the Gulf war evaporated.
But one year after Bush's triumphant May Day landing on the deck of the USS Lincoln and appearance behind a "Mission Accomplished" sign, his splendid little war has entered a Stalingrad-like phase of urban siege and house-to-house combat. April was the bloodiest month by far -- 122 US soldiers killed compared with 73 last April in the supposed last month of the war. The unending war has inspired among Bush's backers a rally-round-the-flag effect, a redoubling of belief.
They believe in the cause as articulated by Vice President Dick Cheney, this week in his speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, where Winston Churchill delivered his "iron curtain" oration. "You and I are living in such a time" of the "gravest of threats," Cheney said. Once again, he explained the motive for the Iraq war, implicitly conflating former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein with al-Qaeda and oblivious to the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction.
"His regime cultivated ties to terror," he said, "and had built, possessed and used weapons of mass destruction." And Saddam "would still be in power," he continued, coming to the point of his allegory, if presidential candidate Senator John Kerry, cast as Neville Chamberlain to Bush's Churchill, had had his way.
These misperceptions are pillars of Bush's support, according to a study by the University of Maryland: 57 percent of those surveyed "believe that before the war Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda," and 45 percent "believe that evidence that Iraq was supporting al-Qaeda has been found." Moreover, 65 percent believe that "experts" have confirmed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Among those who perceived experts as saying that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, 72 percent said they would vote for Bush and 23 percent for Kerry. Among those who perceived experts as saying that Iraq had supported al-Qaeda, 62 percent said they would vote for Bush and 36 percent for Kerry. The reason given for their views was that they had heard these claims from the administration.
These political pulp fictions are believed out of faith and fear. This is a classic case study in "the will to believe", as the American philosopher William James called it. The greater insecurity would be not to believe Bush. It would mean the president had lied on issues of national security. And how could the Iraq war be seen as a pure, moral choice once good had been shown to be false? The idea of proof has shifted from fact to fervor.
The attack lines against Kerry are that he is an opponent of national security and un-American. When Kerry committed the gaffe of uttering the truth that many world leaders secretly hope for his victory, he provided the Bush campaign with an opening. The secretary of commerce, Donald Evans, has repeatedly said that Kerry "looks French." The Republican house majority leader, Tom DeLay, begins every speech: "As John Kerry would say, bonjour."