When Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge upped the terrorist threat level in the New York and Washington, D.C., areas from yellow to orange in August, the response from prominent Democrats was more predictable than a Zarqawi videogram.
Washed-out presidential candidate Howard Dean attacked the Bush administration for politicizing the war on terror. Why was it, groused the Green Mountain Screamer, that whenever the president has a bum week (or John Kerry has a good one), he jacks the rainbow up a hue? "I am concerned that every time something happens that's not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card—which is terrorism," said Dean.
However unfounded Dean's accusation was, Ridge's response on August 3 was equally dubious. "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security," he said. Of course you don't, Tom. After all, you're a political appointee in a presidential administration during an election year. Politics is the last thing on your mind. And you weren't playing politics on August 1, when you insisted that "we must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the president's leadership in the war against terror." Nope, you're the Officer Joe Friday of counterterrorism, a just-the-facts guy who somehow neglected to note that the intel which led to the new alert was several years old.
This isn't to say that the warning was in fact sent out to goose Bush's poll numbers. But it's totally plausible to wonder if, how, and when terror alerts are being politicized. And that plausibility underscores an often-overlooked problem in fighting the war on terror: The public has a justifiably cynical attitude toward all sorts of government proclamations, especially those emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In its current form, this national skepticism goes back to Lyndon Johnson's credibility gap on everything from how well he treated dogs at home to how well he treated dog soldiers in Vietnam. Then there was Richard Nixon, with his "secret plan" to end the war in Southeast Asia, his secret bombings of same, Watergate, and his insistence that he wasn't a crook. Gerald Ford's pardon of Tricky Dick stunk to high heaven of a different sort of secret plan, and Jimmy Carter's claims of doing battle with killer rabbits hardly restored confidence in presidential truth telling.
Ronald Reagan had more than a few credibility problems (e.g., asserting that ketchup was a vegetable, everyone loved jelly beans, and he would never trade arms for hostages). More to the point, he (legitimately) buttonholed government as the "problem"—a shtick that helped him take control of the very institution whose credibility he undermined.
Poppy Bush patently dissembled on Iran-Contra and, more notoriously, his no-new-taxes pledge. Then there was Bill Clinton. To confine it to terrorism: Does anyone really believe that the precise timing of Slick Willie's air strikes on Al Qaeda camps in Sudan and Afghanistan, which took place the evening before Monica Lewinsky's 1998 grand jury testimony, was purely coincidental?
And what about George W. Bush, whose election was almost undone by a last-minute revelation of a long-hidden drunk driving arrest? His administration's penchant for secrecy and the undermining of virtually all of the pre-war intelligence don't help him seem like a politics-free sort of guy. Neither does his half-assed capitulation to the 9/11 commission's recommendations about reorganizing U.S. intelligence operations (he has pledged to create a powerless new head of intelligence).
Given that Bush is president in no small part due to the anti-government rhetoric that the GOP has mastered during the last 25 years, it's more than a little ironic—and scary for the rest of us—that skepticism toward the chief executive may make it harder for him to prosecute effectively the war on terror.
But trust is easy to lose and hard to earn. It's harder still to keep. And the last 40 years of presidential pronouncements haven't made that any easier.