Last Throes of the Vice Presidency?

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The legitimacy
of public opinion is rightly suspect. In Cornpone Opinions,
Mark Twain considers the example of the flared hoop-skirt, a 19th
century fashion that moved in just six months from an object of
near-universal scorn to an item of near-universal approval: "Public
opinion rejected it before, public opinion accepts it now."
Twain attributed such dramatic shifts in part to our tendency to
conform, in part to the fact that, "We do no end of feeling
and we mistake it for thinking." He refers to public opinion
as "that awful power… created in America by a horde of ignorant,
self-complacent simpletons" — the mutual handiwork of both
the shepherds (Mencken's "booboisie") and the sheep (Pound's
"bullet-headed many").

Public opinion
"will bear a great deal of nonsense," Emerson sighed.
Robert Peel called it a "compound of folly, weakness, prejudice,
wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy, and newspaper paragraphs."
"The public," sniffed Edith Sitwell, "will believe
anything so long as it isn't true." In contrast, Napoleon recommended
public opinion as "the thermometer a monarch should constantly
consult." Lincoln
believed that whatever its defects, it held "a strong underlying
sense of justice," and Lao Tzu noted that honorable leaders
naturally gain popular support. ("Fail to honor people, they
fail to honor you.") It seems that public opinion is something
to treat with suspicion and regard at the same time.

The fortunes
of the Bush Administration, in terms of public opinion, are firmly
linked to the misfortunes of the nation it was elected (sort of)
to lead. Back in the bonanza days of September 11 when Administration
popularity was soaring, a "jocular" Donald Rumsfeld was
whisking about in the public eye with the energy of Squealer in
Orwell's Animal
Farm
, arranging chummy press conferences and producing detailed
diagrams of terrorist cave complexes that appeared to rival our
own mountain burrow, NORAD, in sophistication…. Life was very Goodness
Gracious Golly Gee at the time, and it didn't really much matter
to most people that the sophisticated cave complexes (apart from
NORAD) didn't exist, or that Jessica Lynch wasn't heroically rescued,
or that Saddam Hussein didn't arrange the September 11 attacks,
or that Pat Tillman was shot in the back by his own team.

The mood today
is less goodnessly graciously jolly. Rummy still makes the odd rum
declaration (e.g., Iraq's civil war is Iraq's problem), but the
chummy times are over. His tag-team partner doesn't have much to
say either — the Vice President's approval rating is reckoned to
be around 23 percent. The figure may at first seem low. Yet given
Cheney's record of conflict-of-interest type eyebrow-raisers, inept
judgments, zest for wars that other people get to fight, and the
recent bid for the Elmer Fudd Cup, the figure of 23% approval is,
as Hendrick Hertzberg notes (New Yorker, 3/13/06) "shockingly
high."

Hertzberg's
remark begs the question — just what would it take to shave those
last 23 percentage points to nil? The following recommendations
are said to have been leaked by an undisclosed source close to "Curveball":

How Dick
Cheney Can Still Attain a 0% Public Approval Rating Before It's
Too Late

[Deduct a percentage
point per item unless otherwise indicated.]

  1. Replace
    the little flag pin on lapel with a Halliburton logo.

  2. Publish
    Rumbuck Mountain, a manly sequel to Mrs. Cheney's novel
    of the American frontier.

  3. Say something
    that sounded honest.

  4. Go on
    Oprah and reveal a 666 branded on scalp. (While this might seem
    dramatically damaging to ratings, Administration apologists
    would insist the mark be read 999 and call for an invasion of
    France. Deduct one percentage point only.)

  5. Act humble,
    e.g., say, "I may have been wrong on certain occasions."
    (A seemingly mild statement, but so shockingly out of character
    that three percentage points must be deducted.)

  6. Tell the
    American public to go asterisk itself. (Approval rating hits
    15 percent.)

  7. Agree
    to pepper eligible volunteers with birdshot at taxpayer expense.
    (One percentage point only. Some of the peppered would object;
    most would apologize for the trouble they'd caused.)

  8. Appear
    in half-time act and "accidentally" expose nipple.
    (Deduct four points, and allow four months for the press to
    cover nothing else. Ten percent approval.)

  9. Order
    a preemptive strike on Pittsburgh.

  10. Submit
    to Congress that coinage henceforth read "In Dog We Trust."

  11. Declare
    candidacy for 2008 presidential nomination. (Deduct six.)

  12. Appear
    in grainy film called Rumbuck Rumpus Room, featuring
    raucous dress-up session with Tom DeLay, Bill Clinton, and a
    goat.

  13. Look straight
    at the camera and say: "I did not have relations with that
    nanny."

And with that,
history will have been made. Zero % approval, a figure few public
figures have approached, let alone attained. It would be interesting
to know what the Vice President would say, and how many asterisks
he would need. But at this point, literally no one would be listening,
apart perhaps from a goat in a leather hoop-skirt.

March
14, 2006

John
Liechty [send him mail]
currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.

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