Unlike my friends who get everything they need to know about the news from the Jon Stewart show -- the most trusted name in fake news, as they say -- I have just spent the whole week going over the tapes of the Petraeus-Crocker hearings, courtesy of C-SPAN2. I actually watched the Dynamic Duo's performance frame by frame, like the Zapruder tapes. I was thus able to conclude, with certainty, that we are going to be in Iraq for a long time. If not longer, judging by what the President had to say last Thursday night.
None of this surprised me. I had read all about it in my columns of 2003, in which I predicted the invasion would be the start of the next Hundred Years War. After all, the conflict we were now trying to resolve dated back to the year 661 CE, when a devout Sunni executed with the stroke of a poisoned sword Ali, who Shia's said Mohammed had delegated as his successor, while he was praying. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to know that we were embarking on a military adventure ranking with Napoleon's decision to go into Russia in 1812, and the first British-Afghan War (1838-1842), which ended with Her Majesty's draw down of her forces in Kabul, some 10,000 strong, a maneuver ending with a single survivor making it back to India.
Listening to the Congressional hearings and the debates they inspired amongst the pundits on the cable news networks all week, I was further able to conclude that once we complete the "return to success," however that might be defined, the next president, who surely will be a Democrat, will be in a mess for bringing the troops out. "Who lost Iraq" is the question that will be asked at the major media event of 2008-9 with non-stop Congressional hearings on TV and learned punditocracy panels. As sure as Sen. McCarthy blamed Owen Lattimore and the untold thousands of so-called Commies in the State Department and others for losing China, the gentleman from Wisconsin's spiritual clones will launch the same kind of debate that should fascinate us for decades.
It was reassuring to hear Tony Snow at the White House press conference saying that "returning without success" would lead to " bloody chaos" -- as if that's not what's been happening the last four years. But "the long term presence," defined as not an open-ended commitment while it sure sounded like an open-ended commitment -- left everybody I know thoroughly confused, regardless of party affiliation
They all seemed to be telling the truth on TV.
On the other hand, we are so accustomed to being lied to about this war by the administration and its spokespeople, so artfully disguised in double and triple talk, why should they stop now? Not to mention the lies coming out of the Justice Department and other arms of government, from environmental agencies to the FDA.
One approach to the credibility gap, which is as wide as the Cumberland Gap was during the founding of the nation, is to just assume that everybody, especially politicians, lie. This is not scientific enough for me. There is always the possibility that someone is telling the truth even accidentally.
What can be done about it?
Before appearing on TV, the FCC rules could require any witness to swear they are telling the truth on the Bible (for religious folks) or the Constitution (for atheists). Agnostics could swear on a stack of TV Guides.
Alas, this swearing business has its limitations for people at home.
It would be a lot simpler if "The Adventures of Pinocchio," the classic novel for children by Carlo Collodi, were based on anatomical facts. I could have sworn I saw Richard Nixon's nose grow longer during the Watergate hearings.
There is one way to reduce the dilemma for serious TV news junkies.
TV was improved as a medium of information by the addition of pictures (cameras) and sound (microphones). These basics are being enhanced by modern technology all the time. With better lenses they have eliminated the hot lights and blue shirts at hearings. The addition of color has made some people feel TV is more trustworthy. HD has made it possible to see better a witness sweating.
But still we can't tell who is telling us the truth. Hundreds of senators and congressman grilled Petraeus and Crocker and I was still in the dark about their veracity.
My suggestion is that we add to the camera and microphone another scientific device called the polygraph, which records emotional content in answering questions.
My plan calls for the testifier to be wired as if appearing live on a talk show. At the bottom of the screen, usually reserved for important news headlines, a needle would register the information that determines the likelihood of a response being true or false.
Polygraph findings are not admissible in a court of law. But we are talking about the court of public opinion here, a much higher court. The lie detector would be no more intrusive than the mike or cameras in telling a news story.
The beauty part of this solution is that it also would enhance televised debates.
A by-product of this improvement in coverage is that it will provide more statistics for cable network news pundits to argue over, joining latest poll results and who is ahead in the raising money race, which seems to be the major thrust of presidential election reporting these days. It would be useful to know, for example, which candidate is ahead in telling half-truths, quarter-truths and so forth.
I throw this out on the table for further discussion, knowing how serious television and cable news is in giving people at home the facts they need to figure out what the heck that was all about.
Then we can go back to making our own judgments based on who has an honest face or whether his eyes are set too far apart to believe him.