In the old Soviet bloc states, the official line of the ruling elites did not always come from the government itself. Often it was delivered by journalists who would amplify the party line with "independent" analysis and comment.
Thus, while officials dealt in vapid generalities about programs for the people, the opinion "commissars" would offer rigid defenses of the party line and demonize those who expressed even the slightest doubts.
Washington in 2003 is certainly different from Bucharest in 1953. But Americans seeking to get a flavor of the old inside-outside strategy of matching official "tolerance" for dialogue with semi-official ranting about the dangers of dissent need look no further than William Kristol's recent appearances on the Fox News Channel programs.
Kristol, the editor of Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, is a charming, reasonably soft-spoken figure who has a good deal of influence in the Bush White House and a passionate faith in the neo-conservative fantasy that people around the world wish their countries would be invaded. Of late, Kristol has been spinning harder than White House spokesman Ari Fleischer -- pulling out all the stops in hopes of convincing Americans that the war in Iraq is going as it should and that questioners of the war's wisdom or prosecution are, at best, irrational.
Though he is a magazine editor, Kristol was quicker than Fleischer to wag a finger at reporters who might question why the war is not quite the "cakewalk" that neo-conservative commentators and Vice President Dick Cheney predicted. Defending the administration, Kristol grumbled during a Fox appearance last week that, "They're doing fine, and remember the media does not represent the country. I want to repeat, there is no empirical evidence today that Americans are impatient for the end of this war."
Readers of the Weekly Standard got an extended version of Kristol's remarks. "Here's the good news about the American people: They're not affected by the silly mood swings of much of the media," he explained. "Americans outside newsrooms and TV studios understand that wars are often difficult and usually unpredictable."
If Mr. Kristol were to leave the comfortable confines of the Washington Beltway, he might be surprised to learn that a lot of Americans actually believed the pre-war spin of the Bush administration and neo-conservative commentators about how Iraqis were anxiously awaiting invasion, er, liberation.
Even on a short trip to America, Kristol would find plenty of empirical evidence of impatience, uncertainty, anger and questioning as regards the progress of this war. I've spent the past few days at country crossroads, in small towns and in big cities across the upper Midwest and I have heard intense discussions about this war's unexpected and troubling turns, about whether the Bush administration and its neo-conservative cheerleaders presented an "unrealistic" picture of what was coming, and about whether the best way to support the troops might be to bring them home.
The discussions on Fox News' "Special Report" and CNN's "News Night" may still be on the silly side. But the conversations in church basements in places like Viroqua, Wisconsin, have turned serious. "Did they really not know what to expect in Iraq, or did they just lie to us?" asked a teacher, summing up a line of questioning and comment I heard again and again.
Some of this shift in sentiment is captured in polling. An analysis by MSNBC of a survey conducted for that network over the weekend suggests that "while Americans support the president, the poll also found a growing unease with the progress of the war against Iraq. Nine percent of those surveyed said the war was proceeding better than expected, a drop from a poll conducted March 23, in which 25 percent expressed optimism with the war's prosecution. Conversely, 20 percent said the war was going worse than expected, a 100 percent increase from the 10 percent who expressed misgivings in the March 23 poll."
The MSNBC report adds that "Americans are largely split on whether the Bush administration properly assessed both the strength of the Iraqi military response and the support of the Iraqi people for President Saddam Hussein. The latest poll found that 48 percent thought the administration did underestimate the Iraqi military, while 46 percent did not. When it comes to the solidarity of Iraqis behind Saddam, polling was split down the middle: 45 percent thought the administration underestimated Saddam's popular support, and 45 percent did not."
In the African-American community -- which is paid scant attention by national media -- anecdotal evidence and polling suggest there is heightened concern about the administration's credibility and the wisdom of this war. According to a new Gallup Poll, 68 percent of African-Americans now oppose the war.
"Blacks are not willing to feel obliged to support the president's agenda," explains Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. "They are much more likely to feel that (Bush) is engaging in disruptive policies at home and using the war as a means of shielding himself from criticism on his domestic agenda."
That skepticism is healthy in a democracy. And my sense after spending a good deal of time in recent days with African-Americans and white Americans, Democrats and Republicans, city folks and rural folks, is that it is far more widespread than our neo-conservative commissars would have Americans believe.