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CYNICISM IN AMERICA? WHAT A SURPRISE!

Writing his Vietnam memoirs 30 years too late, Robert S. McNamara explained that he had decided to come clean at last because of "the cynicism and even contempt with which so many people view our political institutions."

Reflecting on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Clinton lamented that FDR was no longer "here to deride those who are cynical."The French are born cynical; Americans are born gullible. If Americans are cynical about the government, it's probably because they've seen the government in action.

Pointing to the achievements of the new Republican Congress, Newt Gingrich struck out at "the skepticism, even cynicism of Washington Beltway insiders."

The French are born cynical; Americans are born gullible. If Americans are cynical about the government, it's probably because they've seen the government in action.

The disillusionment can be traced back at least to Roosevelt himself. It is unfashionable, I know, to hang back during the apotheosis of the president who "saved us" from the Great Depression, but what really saved us was the timely arrival of World War II - a war that, right up to Pearl Harbor, FDR described as "an old European quarrel" that he was going to keep us out of.

This is hardly a unique instance of high-level duplicity, as McNamara makes clear in his confessions.

Some 58,000 Americans died fighting a war that McNamara, Lyndon Johnson's defense secretary and chief war planner, now says was "terribly wrong."

If this were a new discovery, the admission might be applauded. Instead, McNamara only breeds more of the cynicism he deplores. By his own admission he knew at least eight years before the Vietnam war ended that "no amount of bombing" could bring the enemy to his knees, yet he left the Defense Department with his lip tightly buttoned.

Such was McNamara's association with America's Vietnam policy - the war was variously called "McNamara's War" and "Johnson's War" - that any public expression of his misgivings probably would have compelled Johnson to terminate American involvement. McNamara said nothing, and young Americans continued to be hurled into the abyss.

And what, if not cynicism, is the correct response to the oily maneuverings of Lyndon Johnson?

No one should marvel that "no amount of bombing" was going to end the war. Johnson, whose combat experience consisted in having gone along as an observer on a single bombing run during World War II, prohibited the Air Force from hitting vital military targets - an encumbrance McNamara chose not to explore in his book.

Partly for reasons of domestic politics, Johnson also discouraged honest criticism.

According to Stanley Karnow, the respected author of Vietnam: A History, LBJ was "infuriated" that McNamara, in closed congressional hearings, had raised doubts about Vietnam. LBJ "needed support from conservative Democrats like Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi for his liberal Great Society programs."

To counteract his defense secretary's belief in the futility of the American war effort, says Karnow, Johnson "circulated the word that Mr. McNamara was suffering from a nervous breakdown."

How uncharitable of Americans to be cynical about their political leadership.

President Richard Nixon, who needed his successor's pardon to stay out of prison, and Vice President Spiro Agnew, who left office in disgrace and pleaded no contest to evading taxes on bribes he got from Maryland contractors - these contributions to public cynicism have become a part of American folklore.

So let us move along to the incumbent paragon.

Never mind Whitewater. Clinton ducked the draft, thus avoiding McNamara's War, which might be forgiven under the circumstances. But he also told lies in order to do so, which is not so easily excused, and during the 1992 presidential campaign he told more lies about having lied.

It may be premature to assess Newt Gingrich's efforts to put a patch on American civilization. Even so, we need not suffer in silence his criticism of a public whose idealism is out at the elbows.

It may be premature to assess Newt Gingrich's efforts to put a patch on American civilization. Even so, we need not suffer in silence his criticism of a public whose idealism is out at the elbows.

Americans have been deceived in war and peace. Their wealth has been squandered, their institutions have been dishonored, their best and brightest have been needlessly slaughtered, and now they're blamed because they've finally noticed.

Skepticism might be a preferable frame of mind, but cynicism certainly can be excused.