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Published: Friday, 7/2/2004

Tough times for true believers

CONVENTIONAL wisdom says the country is hopelessly polarized four months from the presidential election. Most people, or so the prevailing opinion goes, made up their minds about their candidate a long time ago.

Nothing between now and November will sway those who know they're voting for either President George Bush or Sen. John Kerry. The pundits say Americans are locked into their ideology and not open to further discussion.

But I think the reason many people refuse to even consider other points of view, be they liberal or conservative, is that they might actually make sense, and where would that leave true believers?

Without an anchor, that's where. Doubt can weaken the line to the mainstay. Losing a sure hold invites fear of the unknown.

Once that happens the domino theory could topple everything that's sacred.

And nobody wants to go down that road again. Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days when government stumbled and bumbled its way through a losing war in Vietnam, staying the course as the number of dead American soldiers flew past 50,000.

Nobody wants to relive the deep malaise of a time when the bad got worse and culminated in Watergate.

Americans want to believe the painful deceptions they experienced in the 1960s and 1970s are old history. They have to believe the country turned a new page after hitting its depressing nadir. It was too hard to exorcise most of the demons of the past. To even entertain their return to prominence is unthinkable, which is understandable to a point.

The fierce reluctance of half the population to admit any reservations about U.S. leadership, and where it is taking the country, explains why, after all is said and done about the controversies and contradictions emanating from the Bush White House, the race between President and senator remains too close to call.

If bipartisan panels, congressional investigations, and a slew of corroborating weapons, intelligence, diplomatic, and defense experts testifying that the Bush war against Iraq was grossly overrated and largely irrelevant to the war on terrorism don't affect partisan positions, what will?

It's much less discomfiting to simply dismiss the facts as pesky irritants to one's righteous creed.

That way they can be brushed aside as so much partisan rubbish.

That way believers don't have to flinch when the President and company continue to pretend that Iraq and al-Qaeda were tight as terrorists when there's no credible evidence to support such an imagination.

That way believers can repeat the President's mantra that the world is a safer place because he dragged the nation into war against Iraq when the opposite is true. (See State Department revised statistics on terrorism increases.)

That way believers can downplay the widespread prisoner abuse and deaths by U.S. captors, which played right into the hands of terrorist recruiters.

To admit out loud that America went to war because it could and is now mired in a mess that will require an enormous unilateral commitment in American lives and money for years to come is to admit grand scale hubris and squandered sacrifice.

To admit to the more than 850 grieving American families that their loved ones died fighting a war sold on false pretenses because the Bush Administration could, is to admit a brand new chapter on the bad old days of yesteryear.

Some observers insist the country would be less polarized about the direction the Bush Administration is taking the nation if the draft were reinstated. Anyone can drape himself in patriotic trappings, wave car flags, or display United We Stand bumper stickers.

But attitudes change when it's your son or daughter forced to fight a war started not to protect national interests, or to eliminate huge caches of weapons of mass destruction, or to rout the terrorists behind 9/11, but to sack a niggling nemesis and save oil fields.

The truth hurts but it can also set one free. Now more than ever it is in the national interest of this country for both liberals and conservatives to stop expanding the great divide for the sport of it and start finding common ground to steer a troubled ship of state through increasingly dangerous straits.

Serious debate - not uncivil discourse, Mr. Cheney - is desperately needed between now and November to give closed minds a reason to open.



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