WASHINGTON - Someday President Bush may have to explain why he really went to war against Iraq.
But you won't hear it with his re-election at stake and his credibility on the line.
Public opinion polls continue to show a tight presidential race, which suggests to me that voters have devalued the importance of credibility in top government officials.
How else can one make sense of the fact that the president continues to do well in the polls despite the total collapse of his credibility about the reasons for invading Iraq?
This credibility problem was on full display Tuesday night during the spirited debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards, his Democratic rival.
During the 90-minute encounter, Cheney made it eminently clear that the administration has only one card to play in this campaign -- terrorism. By keeping the country scared, the administration hopes to be safely ensconced for another four years.
To his credit, Edwards quickly zeroed in on the administration's dishonest propaganda line that we invaded Iraq because of the 9/11 attacks.
These words that Edwards directed at Cheney should be emblazoned on every wall:
"Mr. Vice President, there is no connection between the attacks of Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein. The 9/11 commission has said it. Your secretary of state has said it. And you've gone around the country suggesting that there is some connection. There is not."
Administration spinners, from Bush on down, have cleverly tried to make that convergence, ever more desperately as the original rationale of Saddam's mythical weapons of mass destruction has gradually disappeared over the horizon.
The final nail in the WMD coffin came Wednesday when yet another White House-ordered weapons search came up empty.
Charles Duelfer, appointed after David Kay found no WMD in Iraq, is the latest weapons hunter to come home skunked. I wonder if Bush will send yet another searcher in hopes of satisfying this administration obsession.
No WMD and no links between Saddam and 9/11 leave Bush and Cheney adrift on an ocean of spin and stubborn insistence that, well, the world is better off with Saddam in jail. It would be funny if it were not so tragic.
Cheney, a hawk nesting nicely in a well-feathered administration, can't let go of his Saddam-9/11 rant even though Bush himself has said there were no links.
To those of us who have watched the Bush administration mush these two themes together, it was refreshing to hear Edwards tell Cheney Tuesday night that he was "not being straight with the American people."
Meantime, two administration leading lights have thrown the White House in a tizzy with their recent statements about the war and Saddam.
L. Paul Bremer, former U.S. administrator in Iraq, told an audience in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., on Monday that the Bush administration had failed to provide enough occupation troops in Iraq.
Asked about Bremer's statement, White House spokesman Scott McClellan simply reiterated that the president took his advice on the troop situation from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the military commanders in the field.
Rumsfeld was in more hot water -- as if he needed any more trouble -- for telling the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that he had "not seen any strong, hard evidence" of links between Saddam and the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11. (Dick Cheney, please note.)
But big men can recant especially when the White House apparently phones to rebuke them.
Bremer later backtracked and said there are now sufficient troop levels in Iraq. And the Pentagon said Rumsfeld was "misunderstood." Too bad these men cannot speak English.
The White House was so rattled by this bam-bam that it issued a statement several hours before the vice presidential debate, proclaiming that "there were disturbing similarities" between Saddam and the al-Qaida before the war.
It's no wonder the administration is trying to hold the line on the fleeting reasons for going to war with so much at stake. After all the voters could decide they were misled.
Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
© 2004 The Seatle Post-Intelligencer