Last Throes of the Vice Presidency?

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