P.T. BARNUM'S AMERICA No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, the famous circus man once said. Alas, some things never change. I confess, I've found myself getting slightly optimistic these past few weeks about the possibility of a premature end to the presidency of George W. Bush. After all, he gave what was by all accounts a mediocre State of the Union Address. His own chief WMD hunter has now admitted that there are probably none to be found in Iraq. And with the leading Democrats like Kerry, Edwards and Clark all seeming to have grown in stature as the primary season has begun, the prognosis for November looks suddenly less bleak. Even the once-cowed mass media has begun to whisper about how the President is facing a stiffer challenge than anyone ever expected. Then today I happened to pick up the current Newsweek, and my pseudo-euphoria turned rather quickly into gloom. The reason? The magazine's latest opinion poll, conducted January 29-30, a poll that still includes the now-famous question about Saddam and 9/11: "Do you think Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq was DIRECTLY involved in planning, financing, or carrying out the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, or not?" The President himself, of course, has admitted that no links between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 have been established. Not a single credible intelligence report, domestic or foreign, has ever confirmed the existence of any connection; the rest of the world guffaws whenever the subject comes up. But do you think the American people would let a little thing like the facts get in the way of their opinions? Not on your life. Believe it or not, fully 49% of respondents STILL are answering that question in the affirmative. Despite the enormous media attention already given this absurdity, half of the people in this country still believe Saddam is/was the Great Boogie Man behind the Twin Towers tragedy. The mind boggles at what else they must think. Do half of us still think the Moon is made of green cheese? Or that the Tooth Fairy would make an ideal presidential candidate in 2008? I do not mean to sound smug or condescending, but this is serious stuff, friends. When the people of a country prefer believing in fantasy to accepting reality, that country is in deep, deep trouble. Particularly when that country uses democratic elections to choose its leaders. Forget about the pen being mightier than the sword; when the power of innuendo is mightier than the power of fact, democracy becomes little more than farce. The danger in which we as nation find ourselves was driven home to me by a personal experience Wednesday morning; allow me to relate it. I was in a little diner here in downtown Memphis at breakfast time, where Wesley Clark spoke on his swing through Tennessee in advance of next Tuesday's state Democratic primary. At 8 am, General Clark could be seen standing atop the lunch counter of the Arcade restaurant, delivering his standard stump speech to a crowd of several hundred locals crammed into a room that holds seventy-five. I'd been told he's way better in person than on television, and while I'm not an ardent supporter, I can testify that this is indeed the case with Clark. As someone nearby said to me, "The man can burn barns." I was standing just beside the General while he spoke, so close that when my cell phone began ringing unexpectedly, the folks nearby immediately shoosshed me, with the usual looks of disapproval. I whispered quickly into the mouthpiece, telling the caller that I was at a political breakfast, and quickly turned the damned thing off. After the event, I returned the call of this business acquaintance (let's call him Bill), apologizing for having to cut him off. "I knew you were at one of those Democratic rallies," he replied, referring to the fact that John Edwards was also campaigning in Memphis on the same morning. "Which of those two communists was it?" I realize that this guy, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, no doubt, was probably just being smart. But we're not close friends, so his remark took me aback. I was struck by his choice of descriptors. "Gee, Bill, I didn't know we had any communists speaking here in town today. I was at General Clark's breakfast, though." Bill sort of laughed. No big deal, but the conversation stuck with me all day. So did the image of an angry American -- a guy who actually grew up in the same country I did, and was roughly the same age -- willing to throw around an incendiary term like that to describe General Wesley Clark, who, of course, served 33 years in the U.S. Army, after finishing first in his class in West Point, who served with distinction and courage, as his Vietnam War battle scars and no end of stories would attest. In a way, Bill's comment bothered me way more than the silly Newsweek poll. The Newsweek poll demonstrated that a significant portion of the American population is bone-headed stupid. That's nothing new. P.T. Barnum could have told us that, a century ago. No, good old Bill's communist throwaway line demonstrates just how cleverly and maliciously the Bush Administration has capitalized upon that ignorance, manipulating truth to protect its interests and implement policies, at home and abroad, which as recently as a decade ago would have been dismissed as madness. I honestly don't believe that Bill would have called Wesley Clark a Communist four years ago. Bill Clinton, maybe, but Wesley Clark? No. But that was then, and this is now, now being the post-9/11America that the Bush Administration will do anything to continue to divide so that it can reconquer next November. It is a sad time for America. Dick Cheney and his minions have successfully made fear a more powerful weapon than anything Saddam Hussein ever possessed, and like that tyrant, they've had no qualms about using that weapon upon their own people. "You're either with us, or with the terrorists," George W. Bush told us after 9/11, and his administration has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams in using that mantra to stifle legitimate criticism, to protect their self interests, and to poison the well of political discourse in America. The well is so poisoned that Wesley Clark can be called a communist. Go figure. And go cry.