WASHINGTON — Back in President Lyndon B. Johnson's worst days when he was grappling with the Vietnam quagmire and raucous anti-war protests at home, he said that in the big decisions about war and peace: "The people should be in on the take offs as well as the landings."
Tell that to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who apparently could care less what Americans think — except every four years at election time.
Cheney made that clear in an intriguing interview with ABC News on his recent Middle East trip. Despite the difficulties surrounding the unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq five years ago, Cheney insisted, "It was the right thing to do."
When the interviewer told him that two-thirds of Americans say the war in Iraq is not worth fighting, Cheney scoffed.
The administration would not be "blown off course by the fluctuations in public opinion polls," he vowed.
Cheney went on to claim that Abraham Lincoln would never have succeeded in the Civil War if he had paid attention to polls.
White House press secretary Dana Perino later indicated that Bush was on the same page.
Asked about Cheney's remarks to ABC, Perino said the Bush administration realizes its popularity polls are very low (30 percent) "but largely that's because of people being unhappy about the war, about the fact that it has gone on five years. . .and we're aware of that."
She added that both Bush and Cheney have long believed the reason they are leaders is because they do "not chase popularity polls but. . . hold themselves to a standard that requires people not to like them."
She went on to explain that the administration would like people to support the president's decisions but that such a hope is "unrealistic" in time of war.
"And while we're not able to change public opinion, we have to follow a principle," she said, "and stand on principle."
Reminded that she was saying, in effect, that the people had no say about the war, Perino replied that they have "input" every four years, adding: "And that's the way our system is set up."
As long as Congress cowers sheep-like and does not retrieve its constitutional power to declare war, an imperial Bush-style presidency will prevail.
The war against Iraq was built on falsehoods — weapons of mass destruction that did not exist and ties to al-Qaida that were a fantasy. The administration used these phony rationales to scare the American people into fearing a threat from a third-world country.
Since the administration's original propaganda has now been revealed to be bogus, Bush has resumed his claim that it was necessary to rid the world of a tyrant, Saddam Hussein — a friend of the U.S., incidentally, in earlier times.
His aides remain loyal to their chant that Iraq is "the central front in the war on terrorism."
Any port in a storm seems to be the strategy of White House spin-masters.
Determined to ignore the reality that the war is a debacle and the killing will go on, Bush last year came up with the "surge" theory of dispatching 30,000 more troops to Iraq in hopes of bringing Iraqi submission.
There has been a lessening of violence in Iraq. Could it be that there are fewer attacks on American troops because we are paying huge sums of money to Sunni Iraqis to persuade them to stop attacking Americans and instead go after al-Qaida?
Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will leave Baghdad in May to report to Bush and Congress on the status of the war and talk about a timetable for a drawdown of more troops — or even propose a pause in withdrawals.
Next November, the American voters will decide on a new president. Before then, reporters will be remiss if they fail to nail the candidates on whether the views of the people on questions of war and peace will count with them.
c.2008 Hearst Newspapers