Politics loves a winner


IT WAS our first TV war, and it held the global village in thrall, despite the fact the censors let us see little of it except personable generals in starched fatigues and gun-camera shots of smart-bomb bulls-eyes.

In the U.S., it was the most riveting living-room drama since the assassination of President Kennedy. Not surprisingly, given the immediacy and intensity of the medium, it produced wide mood swings and climaxed in a tidal wave of elation.

In keeping with TV's instantaneous timetable, it provided us overnight heroes, ranging from the shrewd but compassionate field commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, to the salty Pentagon briefer, Lt. Gen. Tom Kelly.

The unlikeliest new matinee idol was the most boffo, George Herbert Walker Bush, who looked a bit out of place but clearly pleased to be on his big white horse. With his pinched, bank-teller expression, fractured teen syntax and schoolmarm elocution, the president was not exactly the model of a warrior emperor, but who cared? Teddy Roosevelt had a squeaky voice and the look of a pop-eyed owl but became our quintessential Roughrider.

He and Bush have things in common. Old-money backgrounds, mossback instincts and a St. Vitus hunger for perpetual activity. Teddy was given to hyperbole, lurching from Armageddon to utopia and back again. Bush goes for understatement, except with Saddam, but he was steady, purposeful and right about Iraq. In politics, where winners take all and then some, he's entitled to his coronation.

On the day the world ends, residents of this hyper town will use the microsecond between realization and extinction to speculate about how Doomsday affects the fortunes of their political favorites. Its conventional wisdom now is that Bush is president for life, if not beyond.

In keeping with the golden rule of politics ("Never kick a man when he's up"), Democrats cower in the trenches while GOP hit men Newt Gingrich and Phil Gramm prowl the battlefield seeking to dispatch the wounded.

Both sides ignore the kaleidoscopic nature of omnipotent TV, a medium void of memory, much less gratitude. Ronald Reagan went from hero (the shooting) to bum (the recession) to beloved big daddy (morning in America) to befuddled old man (Iran-contra) and still retired at a new crest in the polls (longevity?).

Without begrudging Bush the popularity he sought so long and despaired of finding, there was something disturbing about that celebratory binge in Congress Wednesday night. As innocent as a high school pep rally to the participants, it sounded faint echoes of the jingoism at the Hitler rallies in 1939-40. After all, Germany's blitz of Poland and the Low Countries is the nearest historical analogue to what we did to Iraq.

In politics, victory erases all blemishes. It's clear now that Bush planned from Day One to go to ground war and deceived us for months with talk of sanctions. He also sounded an uncertain trumpet about why we needed to fight.

He got away with it because Americans rally in war (Vietnam stayed popular through the first three years of broken promises) and because politics loves a winner.

Some future president may not be so lucky. There are sound, democratic reasons why people need to know the full score before they take on a war.

A5Jim Fain is a columnist for the Cox newspaper chain.

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