The other day White House Press Secretary Tony Snow stirred the Angry Left by saying that if polls had been taken back during the famed World War II setback known to history as the Battle of the Bulge, Americans of the day would have been pushing for change in war strategy.
Faster then you can say “Internet” Snow was under attack by both the AOL “news” division, which quickly featured the story and provided a link to lefty blogger Joshua Micah Marshall’s Talking Points Memo website. As someone used to say: How convenient! There — surprise! — Mr. Marshall assails Snow’s very sensible point as “historically silly…morally obtuse and cynical.” A couple days later, triumphant, Marshall says that he has been contacted by — hold your breath! — a former graduate student! You can almost feel the reverence for the term sighing from Marshall’s keyboard. Graduate students are sooooooooo smart. The graduate student, Marshall alerts the world with the assistance of AOL, has discovered that way back during the Roosevelt administration one “Hadley Cantril at Princeton, did secret polling for FDR throughout the war on public support for the war, and specifically focused on trendlines, noting shifts from event to event…” To make sure we get the point of just how stupid Tony Snow’s reference was there is — sitting down? — a “helpful chart.” Yes! Really! A “helpful chart” to illustrate how dumb the newest Bush spokesman really is. “As you can see,” sniffs Marshall in the tone of intellectual superiority that seemed to blossom in the days when liberals claimed the best and the brightest were running Vietnam policy, “there was no downtick in public support for the war around the time of the Battle of the Bulge. Approval for President Roosevelt’s conduct of the war continued at around 70% where it had been for years.”
One always feels the need when debating the left to have Paul Harvey along so we can get the Rest of the Story.
The Graduate Student got one thing, at least, right. Hadley Cantril, who taught at Dartmouth, Harvard and Princeton, was indeed a very credible pollster. In fact, he was one of the founders of modern polling as we know it today. Yet both Marshall and The Graduate Student seem to have missed two…ahhh…small pieces of information that one can suppose Dr. Cantril himself would never have missed.
To get a really good understanding of what both Marshall and his Graduate Student blithely ignore, one only has to read a very good book called The Opinion Connection: Polling, Politics and the Press. The author? No less than one Albert Hadley Cantril, the son of Dr. Cantril. (For the record, the younger Mr. Cantril and his collaborator, wife Susan Davis Cantril, are friends of this writer.) In this book, published before the Internet factored in, Albert Cantril makes the glaringly obvious point that Mr. Marshall and The Graduate Student seem to have missed. To wit: TELEVISION!!!!!
“An understanding of how television has affected politics is essential to our consideration of the role of polling and of the pressures under which pollsters often have to operate,” Hadley Cantril’s son writes. No doubt Albert Cantril would throw in the Internet as well were he writing his book today. In short, FDR did not have to contend with 24-hour-a-day TV news. The dawn of the television age permanently changed the way the presidency is conducted. This particularly includes any modern president’s ability to conduct a war.
Ironically, this point is made by no less than liberal hero George Clooney in his recent film about CBS’s Edward R. Murrow. The entire premise of the film, which lionizes Murrow, is that he was able to undo Senator Joseph McCarthy with the astute use of TELEVISION. Left unsaid in Good Night and Good Luck is the obvious — no TV, no commanding forum to destroy McCarthy. The very name of the film is taken from Murrow’s signature sign-off at the end of his See It Now broadcasts. Note the name was SEE It Now, not hear it or read it now. It is also no accident that Murrow begins his famous show on McCarthy by telling the audience CBS is presenting “a report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy told mainly in his own words and pictures.” Translation? Murrow had film of McCarthy that was chopped up by a CBS film editor to make McCarthy look and sound the way Murrow wanted him to look and sound. One of the most powerful tools of the modern media had been born.
How would FDR and his conduct have survived if television and the Internet were around? We’ll never know. But even in Marshall’s citations of Hadley Cantril there are hints of the problems FDR would have faced in the age of TV and Internet. Dr. Cantril, it is said, was doing “secret polling” for the Roosevelt White House. Really? Secret? On whose dime? One can see the AOL News Banner now: “Did White House Use Taxpayer Money for FDR’s Secret Polls?” The Battle of the Bulge took place in December of 1944, a month after FDR had defeated New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. Dewey, it was discovered by his biographer, had been “asked to forgo a double dose of election year dynamite” by no less than Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall. The dynamite? That the U.S. had broken the Japanese Code before Pearl Harbor — and that information on a coming Japanese attack was available as early as three days before the surprise attack on December 7. Dewey, the soul of patriotism, swallowed hard and kept quiet. The idea of Al Gore or John Kerry doing the same is laughable.
This kind of information today would be aired before you could say “Fox News Alert.” And FDR’s 70 percent poll rating would, like George W. Bush’s post-9/11 ratings, have begun a slow descent to absolute bottom. Out would come the news of FDR’s secret Oval Office tapings, revealed not only decades after his death but long after Watergate and the presumption that Nixon was the first president to do this. One now-public tape catches FDR’s unmistakable voice musing about how to smear his 1940 GOP opponent, Wendell Willkie, with the news of Willkie’s mistress. By the time 1944 arrived, news like this replayed over and over would have shredded the Roosevelt presidency in the full glare of the TV lights and angry bloggers, and so too public confidence in the war.
And it would have been wrong, too. Like George W. Bush, FDR knew the importance to both America and the world of what he was doing. So did his opponents. And so did the press.
Those days are, sadly, long gone. Reading the musings of the Angry Left’s Mr. Marshall and his Graduate Student — quickly magnified by AOL — will help show why.
Jeffrey Lord, a former Reagan White House political director, is the author of The Borking Rebellion.