Which will prevail - facts or fear - as we gird up for what will indubitably be a spectacularly nasty election season here in the US? That was also the question that came to mind this week, when I read of the death of the woman branded "Tokyo Rose", who in 1949 was convicted of treason for broadcasting anti-American propaganda from Japan during World War Two
In fact, Iva Toguri D'Aquino wasn't "Tokyo Rose" at all. The case against her was built upon the coerced, and false, testimony of two Japanese Americans. The US government knew that too, but 1948 had also been an election year, and President Harry Truman, in the political fight of his life, desperately needed to prove he wasn't soft on traitors. So the show trial went ahead. Fear - or rather the exploitation of fear - had trumped the facts.
Almost 60 years on, here we go again. These are surely the most important mid-term elections in decades. They will revolve around national security and Iraq. The White House itself is not at stake in November, but the vote will be a referendum on President Bush, the terrorist threat to the US, and the disastrous Mesopotamian adventure that the terrorist threat was used to justify. And the battle lines are crystal clear. The Democrats will go with the facts. The Republicans will go with fear.
On the face of things, it's a lopsided contest. Consider the facts - just this week's batch of them. First came the extracts from the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the state of militant Islam around the world. A NIE, months if not years in the making, is the most considered and authoritative assessment of US spy establishment. This particular one confirmed what everyone on earth, barring President Bush, Blair and his apologists, knows to be true - that the Iraq war has increased, not diminished, the terrorist threat.
Then it emerges that US Army's chief of staff, its most senior uniformed officer, has broken all precedent and refused to submit a draft budget for his service, because he says the Army is not being given the money it needs to do the job in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have the latest book by Bob Woodward, the former Watergate sleuth who has metamorphosed into Washington's court historian. Mr Woodward, whose sources are as impeccable as his judgements are normally kindly, now charges in State of Denial that the White House ignored urgent warnings from its own officials that more troops were needed.
Then there is the continuing carnage in Iraq itself, and a poll showing that three-quarters of the Iraqi people (in whose name Mr Bush says he is fighting his war) say the US troops now cause more violence than they prevent, and should be pulled out within 12 months. One way or another, the facts should make the November elections - to borrow a phrase made famous by Mr Woodward in a previous book - a "slam dunk" for the Democrats.
But that is to ignore the fear factor. The Republicans are gambling they can make people, if not forget entirely about Iraq, then at least subordinate their opposition to the war to their fears about terrorism. At that point, the White House can play its most powerful card - the perception that Democrats are not as good as Republicans at keeping the country safe.
And so it has been this week. There was Mr Bush just yesterday, warning once more of the jihadists' ambition of a new "caliphate stretching from Spain to Indonesia". We had the Republicans in Congress, asserting that any Democrat who voted against the controversial bill governing the detention and trial of terrorist suspects, were virtual fifth columnists for Bin Laden.
In another gambit, Republicans tacked on amendments to a separate homeland security measure that they knew would be unacceptable to Democrats. But if they opposed the measure they would instantly be accused of voting against laws designed to keep the country safe. But we are still only in September. October is yet to come. It is the month of that hardiest of US election traditions, the "October Surprise" - the unexpected event, accidental or orchestrated, in the closing days of a campaign which turns an election on its head. And this year, the stage is set perfectly.
A surprise could benefit the Democrats; some especially appalling news from Iraq, say, (though it is hard to imagine much worse than what is already happening), or a devastating leak at home. But Republicans, the underdogs in the fight, stand to benefit more. What if Bin Laden, or his henchman Ayman al-Zawahiri, were captured? Or what if a new terrorist attack is thwarted - or, God forbid, carried out? Which brings me to another piece of news of the week.
Remember the anthrax attacks in October 2001 here? They killed five people in Miami and Washington DC, and caused panic on Capitol Hill, where anthrax-drenched letters arrived at the office of the then Senate majority leader among others. For a country still in shock from 9/11, the attacks were a ghastly reminder that even more deadly forms of bio-terror were possible. But the FBI has now determined that the spores were not military grade, as was first thought, capable of being produced only by scientists in a super-sophisticated defence lab. They were in fact a more rudimentary (though still lethal) concoction, for which there are a much wider range of plausible suspects - including, of course, Islamic terrorists. Just imagine a similar scare next month. That would be an October surprise.
Could Karl Rove dream up such a stunt? Perish the thought. But the triumph of facts over fear in 2006 is no sure thing. Do the Republicans deserve another two years in charge of a legislature that does Mr Bush's every bidding? Certainly not. But that is not to say they will not get it.
A generation after she was convicted, Iva Toguri was formally pardoned by Gerald Ford, in almost his last act before leaving the White House in January 1977. She remains the only US citizen to be convicted of treason and then pardoned for it. But her shameful treatment had long since served its purpose. Harry Truman won in 1948, in the biggest US electoral upset of the 20th century. You can't blame Republicans for thinking similar thoughts this time around.Reuse content