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Who can you trust?

These are murky times in Washington, when getting a handle on the truth seems especially difficult. By Howard Fineman.

WASHINGTON – In the fall of 1999, I was in Austin, Texas, in the garden of the governor’s mansion, asking George W. Bush to name the world leaders in history he most admired. His answers — Winston Churchill and Harry Truman — struck me then as unremarkable boilerplate. Boy was I wrong.

As controversy rages over the war in Iraq, as his poll numbers shrink to new lows, as American leadership of the West comes under fire in ways we haven’t seen in a generation, you have to wonder: who does Bush think he is?

Well, if he is to be taken at his word — the word he spoke to me six years ago when he was governor of Texas — he thinks of himself as a reviled, underestimated figure whose struggle against totalitarianism will be vindicated by history.

And yet these days, voters seem to be yearning for another kind of presidential leader: Abraham Lincoln. At least that’s the conclusion you have to draw from the soaring sales of presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book about him, “Team of Rivals.”

Interviewed by Don Imus this week, she explained the reasons why, in her view, the Lincoln story resonates so loudly: he was open to competing views; he staffed his cabinet with the “rivals” of the title, tapping the energy of their antagonism to educate himself and lead the nation; he was skeptical of war (he had been a foe of the Mexican War) even as he became a warrior himself; he was always eager to immerse himself in the “great assemblage” of the people from all walks of life in Washington.

But the leading characteristic Goodwin noted was the sense of trust that Lincoln created (at least in the North!) and maintained with the voters.

In the early days after 9/11, polls demonstrate, President Bush created that same kind of trust. He came across as an unflinchingly straight shooter. But the chief casualty of the war in Iraq has been his own, and his administration’s, claim to candor.

These are murky times in Washington, when getting a handle on the truth seems especially difficult.

What do the Pentagon generals really think about how Iraq is going? Are Condi Rice’s denials about CIA torture camps to be taken at face value? What is really happening in Iraq outside the Green Zone in Baghdad? Bush and Vice President Cheney insist that American forces will stay until the war there is “won.” But what do they really mean by victory?

Judging by the polls, voters have become more than dubious about the Bush-Cheney version of events, no matter how many bullet-pointed “plans for victory” the White House churns out. On the other hand, voters aren’t inclined to trust ANY information delivered to them from on high.

The same polls show that the Democrats are viewed with great skepticism on the war. And the “mainstream media” has sullied its own reputation for credibility with readers and viewers. In an era of Photoshop and the Web, everything seems plausible — or phony. Is the video from Baghdad real? We don’t really know. In an era of bitterly competitive media universes, there is no consensus reality.

Against this backdrop, I see where Karl Rove and the White House strategy team are headed. After months of distraction and lassitude, they are back in attack mode.

The first salvo came the other week, when Bush and Cheney asserted that the war in Iraq was in fact being won (just read the bullet points). And now they have the Democrats in their gun sights, as the Mommy Party of “cut and run,” confusion and weakness in the face of global evil.

Rove’s plan is to divide the Democrats even if his Boss can’t unify the country. The White House will not attack Rep. Jack Murtha, the anti-war war hero. Rather, Bush & Co., will focus their fire on Howard Dean, John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi — even as the president and vice president embrace the “good Democrat” Joe Lieberman.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, is about to get caught in the crossfire, increasingly criticized from the left of her own party as she tries to demonstrate her own Golda Meir-like military toughness.

The attack-the-Dems strategy already is having some success. “I’m afraid we’re going to tear ourselves apart over the war, just as we did over Vietnam” a prominent Democrat told me the other day. “I fear it is going to be 1968, and 1972, all over again.”

If that’s true, then Bush’s historical model for political survival ultimately won’t be Truman or Churchill, let alone Lincoln. It’ll be Richard Nixon.