Having nothing better to do, Monday night I watched a rerun of the Congressional hearings following the Presidential pardon of Richard Nixon for his criminal activities involving the Watergate scandal. It was fascinating to watch then-President Gerald Ford testify before the Judicial Subcommittee. Alas, most of the players in that drama are now long gone.
But given the current political season, the program made me wonder when it was the American public began to distrust elected officials. Granted, in my limited political history I recognize that politicians have long been distrusted. It simply goes with the territory. But I'm talking about a massive level of distrust - the type of cynicism that makes you virtually hate a politician. The Nixon era might be a good starting point.
Nixon was unpopular for virtually his entire political career. There was much to dislike. But his mistakes during Watergate elevated that distrust to a new plateau. People began not just to dislike Richard Nixon but to hate him, to despise him and to ridicule him in the most vocal terms imaginable.
But then I recalled the level of distrust leveled against Lyndon Johnson from 1964-68 when his mistakes in Vietnam divided a nation in ways unseen before. Because of the emotions over Vietnam, large segments of the population absolutely hated LBJ and distrusted each and every word he spoke.
Before LBJ, President Kennedy enjoyed universal love and support. That's an over-simplification but not too far from fact. Eisenhower, before Kennedy, presided over a period of overwhelming support for elected officials. Truman had his faults but found support from the public for his policies. FDR - well four-terms as president should tell you the level of trust he enjoyed. Etc, etc. etc.
The point of all this is that today's voting public is a different animal than those we read of in the history books. George W. Bush is a prime example. About 40 percent of the public has a substantial distrust of our current President. The reasons for that distrust vary from voter to voter. It's not that these voters are gung-ho for John Kerry. Every single poll proves that. No, these voters are active and vocal because of their distrust and disdain for the incumbent. And I believe if Iraq had never happened, that distrust would still be there.
And that is my belief. I believe the voting public - for whatever reason - has changed. We now select our choices based more on opposition than support. Our distrust for one candidate outweighs our trust for the other. And for far too many, that distrust turns rapidly into hatred.
Maybe it's the fault of the mass media or maybe Watergate had a greater impact on my generation than I imagined. Whatever the reason, we are quick to draw battle lines and even quicker to sling arrows at the opposition.
I fear an election based on distrust rather than trust may bring some unintended consequences.