BOB GARFIELD: For most of the Bush presidency and especially since 9/11, the public has been eager to believe in the president, including his stated reasons for going to war in Iraq, and even when the central reason was proved to be largely groundless, a majority of the American people, polls show, still cling to it. Andrew Kohut is director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, and he routinely takes the temperature of public opinion. He joins me now to discuss how and why certain beliefs persist in the public's mind and what it takes to dislodge them. Andy, welcome back to OTM.
ANDREW KOHUT: Happy to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: Much has been made of the conspiracy theories that continue to proliferate in the Arab and Muslim world, for example that the United States was behind the attacks on 9/11 and so forth, and yet, two years after the 9/11 attacks, a Washington Post poll found that 69 percent of Americans believed it was likely that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. [LAUGHTER] What does it take to get an idea like this lodged in the public consciousness? And what does it take to dislodge it?
ANDREW KOHUT: I don't know, but it ain't happening. The percentage of people who think that the Saddam capture will lead to finding weapons of mass destruction, for example, is as low as 34 percent. But as many as 56 percent said it will lead to a revelation about the linkage between Saddam and Al Qaeda. This is a notion that's fixed in the minds of many Americans. Saddam has been our enemy. Al Qaeda has become our enemy, and they both come from the same part of the world, and disconnecting them in the American mind is not easy.
BOB GARFIELD:Now the Pew Center makes a living keeping its finger on the pulse of what the American public thinks about the press and the press's relationship with the government. Is there anything else striking that you've found --any more misinformation or even disinformation that the public seems unwilling to let go of?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well there are a lot of things that the public believes that no amount of information from the press or political leaders can change. One notion is that our percentage of foreign aid is so much greater than other leading nations. Americans believe this, and when you tell people how little it actually is, it doesn't sink in!
BOB GARFIELD:I want to get back to the question of how these ideas get dislodged from the collective consciousness. Historically speaking, are there any assumptions that the American people have made -- maybe on the basis of bad information from the government or elsewhere that people just sort of change their minds on, and what does it take to get there?
ANDREW KOHUT: What it takes to get there, basically, is some event which says this is no longer the case or this is not the case. Let's take the example of the war in Vietnam. Support for the war in Vietnam, despite mounting casualties, remained pretty high through 1966, 1967 and into the first two months of 1968. Then came the Tet offensive, and all of a sudden we had a divided opinion on whether the war was the right thing to do, and then slowly the divided opinion was transformed into majority opposition. But it took two and a half years and many, many casualties and high costs to get the public to change its mind. It wasn't convinced. Tet convinced it.
BOB GARFIELD:Presidencies have been lost -- in fact, Bush presidencies have been lost -- when the public stops deciding to, you know, read the president's lips on an oft-stated promise. I guess the risk of finally losing credibility is politically and otherwise a very serious one.
ANDREW KOHUT: In January, a CBS/New York Times poll found that only 33 percent thought that the administration before the war was telling us what they really knew about weapons of mass destruction, down from 44 percent in November. And the percentage of people saying they were either hiding stuff or out and out lying has risen from 53 percent two months ago to 60 percent now. At this point, this credibility issue is not affecting support for the war. Right now people are saying they weren't telling us the truth; they were exaggerating. Only 21 percent think they were out and out lying. But still people think it was worth doing.
BOB GARFIELD: Do any of your data suggest or do you have a sense that some sort of tipping point is approaching?
ANDREW KOHUT:Well, we do in fact have 63 percent of people in a ABC survey at the end of the year saying we can justify this war even if we never find weapons of mass destruction. The tipping point, then, is not the absence of these weapons but potentially the casualties getting to such an extent and such a level that people say the costs are not worth the benefits. And right now the equation is the benefits are worth the costs.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Andy, as always, thank you very much.
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, you're welcome, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Andrew Kohut is director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. [MUSIC]