LAST MONTH, when President Bush donned his coronation clothes and landed on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln, I felt like the skunk at the victory party. I went around asking the partygoers: Where were the weapons of mass destruction?
What bothered me wasn't just whether we'd find the weapons we were warned about with such terrifying, repetitive certainty. The question was whether it would matter.
Would the American people care if they'd been conned into conflict? I was haunted by a congressional aide who said the absence of the smoking guns of WMDs wouldn't ''sway public opinion much,'' because ''everyone loves to be on the winning side.''
The column on the con job filled my e-mail box with hundreds of incoming missives that ranged from an accountant who protested my ''whiny screed'' - ''Get over it. You lost. We won.'' - to a Californian who rued the ''outrage fatigue'' dulling the public's mind.
Since then the Search for the WMDs has become the subject of O.J. Simpson jokes and milk carton images as well as some solid reporting. The president has switched seamlessly from proclaiming certainty about the weapons to certainty about the weapons programs. There's now a congressional inquiry asking whether the intelligence community offered faulty ingredients or the executive chef cooked up a recipe for war.
But public opinion has yet to sway in this breeze. For openers, the most recent Washington Post/ABC poll reports that 24 percent of Americans thought the Iraqis did use chemical and biological weapons in the war and another 14 percent weren't sure. That's better than an earlier poll that showed half of all Americans falsely believing the Iraqis were among the 19 hijackers, but it's still fairly startling.
More to the point, two-thirds of those in the current poll still believed the war was justified even if we didn't find weapons of mass destruction. Maybe they love to be on the winning side, maybe they're happy to see one dictator bite the dust. But they think it was, in short, justified even if the justification wasn't just.
I have had trouble believing there are no WMDs, and we may find evidence more compelling than a couple of broken-down trailers dubbed as mobile labs. But we haven't found the ''thousands of tons of chemical agents'' or the ''massive stockpile of biological weapons,'' and the imminent threat of nukes turned out to be a scam.
As this becomes apparent, a lot of folks are busily parsing the difference between a lie and an exaggeration, a spinmeister and a fabricator. But by any definition, the script for a preventive war of preemptive self-defense was a craftily designed White House sales pitch.
So we don't know whether there are WMDs. But more important, we still don't know the real reasons why Bush went to war and why he thought those reasons wouldn't ''sell.''
Did we launch this war, as one pro-war e-mailer boasted, to ''flex our muscles''? To tell the post-9/11 world not to screw around with a superpower? To rid the world of Saddam Hussein and gamble that democracy will come up on the dice, not fundamentalism? Was it for oil? Revenge? All of the above?
The real lie is that the administration didn't (dare?) make its essential case for war. And the real shame is not that we were conned but that, so far, we don't mind.
''As one who meanders around the middle on most issues,'' writes a St. Paul woman, ''I am as disgusted with the hypocrisy of the right as with the gutlessness of the left.'' Writes a Santa Monica, Calif., reader, ''Why is everybody being so freaking nice about it?''
A generation ago, ''Nightline'' began its tenure with each show announcing that it was Day 12 or Day 120 in the Iran hostage crisis. Where is the network today that would track Day 75 in the Search for WMDs? Where is the Democratic candidate who would adopt this admittedly high-risk strategy? Where is the member of the White House team - memo to Colin Powell? - willing to resign in protest over being misled into misleading?
Instead the president draws yet another link between 9/11 and Iraq, telling $4 million worth of donors in New York Monday night that ''terrorists declared war on the United States of America, and war is what they got.'' And he gets away with it.
It's being said that this war marked the beginning of the American Empire in our relationship to the world. How about domestically? An empire doesn't have citizens, it has subjects. Subjects don't expect to challenge the emperor or even to be told the facts.
This New American Empire begins at home. The famous flight suit may end up at the Smithsonian as the emperor's new clothes.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.