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Political Exploitation

This column from The Weekly Standard was written by Noemie Emery.



Looking back, there is nothing surprising about the carefully plotted spasms of outrage at the reference, in a Bush campaign ad, to the terrorist attacks of September 11 through the fleeting shot of a flag-covered stretcher, and the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center in downtown New York. This has been done, done before, and done for all the same reasons: Democrats have been steadily working to take September 11, its cause, effect, and aftermath, off the table of election-year politics since . . . oh, possibly . . .

September 12. Or, perhaps, to be fair, since some weeks later, when it became clear that George W. Bush's response to the attacks would be an electoral plus. Since then, a campaign has unfolded to move it off limits, using the charge of obscene exploitation, of unseemly use of the dead. In January 2002, when Karl Rove made the obvious point that the president's handling of terrorism would be a plus in the elections that fall -- "We can go to the country on this issue, because they trust the Republican party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might" -- Democrats denounced this as "shameful." They threw a fit in May 2002, when an innocuous photo showing Bush on Air Force One on September 11 was included in a set of three offered to Republican donors. The pattern of attacks accelerated on the news in January 2003 that the Republican convention would be held in New York, and hit new heights when the president made a surprise visit to Baghdad over the Thanksgiving holiday, where he committed the gross indiscretion of dishing out food to the troops. Last week, some even objected to the president's presence at a groundbreaking ceremony for the dead of September 11 -- to which Bush had been invited. Rather brazenly, and with some success, Bush's opponents have manufactured controversy over a presidential campaign discussion of the central concern of our era. Soon, we will no doubt hear denunciations of any mention of the president's constitutional duties as commander in chief.

From the start, a cadre of Democrats, backed by a chorus of friends in the media, kept up a steady drumbeat of carping intended to deny George W. Bush any credit for his leadership in the war on terror. Think back to that May 2002 flap over the RNC's offer to donors of three photographs from Bush's first year in office, including one of the president on September 11. It was taken on Air Force One, with the president looking out the window as he talked on the phone to the vice president. There was no rubble, no bullhorn, no victims, no sign of smoke, much less of fire, not a policeman or a fireman in sight. The emphasis was not on the attack, but on Bush doing his job.

"While most pictures are worth a thousand words, a photo that seeks to capitalize on one of the most tragic moments in our nation's history is worth only one -- disgraceful," said Al Gore, Bush's embittered ex-rival, who had twice used the pain and suffering of his nearest relatives to plead his own case for high office. "Incredibly disrespectful to the families of the thousands of Americans who lost their lives just hours before this photo was taken," asserted Terry McAuliffe, without explaining just why. "With all the class of a 1:30 A.M. infomercial...the GOP pitched donors, for a bargain price, a pictorial triptych of W.'s 'defining moments,'" chirped Maureen Dowd the next day in the New York Times, as if on cue. "Bush's selling of that third photo, taken on September 11, sets a new, disgusting low in political fund-raising," said liberal pundit Bill Press, suggesting an epic naiveté on his part.

Think back, if you will, to flap number two -- the decision to hold the Republican National Convention in New York City. "You chose New York City . . . specifically to exploit 9/11," charged a liberal website, ignoring the fact that the city had courted both parties. Bush "cynically made 9/11 the cornerstone of the Republican 2002 election strategy," said Terry McAuliffe, as if the biggest event in several decades should not be discussed in campaigns. Other Democrats found fault with Bush's appearance on the deck of the Lincoln, when formal hostilities ceased in Iraq. "This is not some made-for-TV backdrop for a campaign commercial," intoned Robert Byrd on the floor of the Senate. "It is an affront to the Americans killed or wounded in Iraq for the president to exploit the trappings of war for the momentary spectacle of a speech" -- as if a commander should not welcome and address the troops. Of course, Bush's Thanksgiving visit to the troops in Baghdad was yet another cynical use of war. How dare he appear in front of the troops, and worse yet, be cheered lustily? Bush "handed around a fake turkey," fowl maven John Kerry complained.

Let's see -- an American president in a season of war should not make use of pictures in wartime, mention the war in a midterm election, visit an aircraft carrier, visit the troops in the field, mention the war while running for office, go to Ground Zero, go to New York at all, or draw attention in any way to his role as commander in chief. All of this is gross, crass, coarse, and highly insensitive.

Has any president in all of American history been quite so unfeeling and cynical? Well, yes. The only American president since Abraham Lincoln to run for reelection in wartime was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, after another surprise attack on American soil three years beforehand had set off another big war. On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes struck the U.S fleet at Pearl Harbor, killing around 3,000 Americans. Roosevelt did not hold his convention in Hawaii (which at that time was not yet a state of the Union, and was a bit difficult to travel to), but he did the next best thing. After the convention, he headed straight for Pearl Harbor, and it was there he kicked off his campaign, meeting conspicuously on the destroyer "Baltimore" with the two chief architects of the Pacific war. "A tremendous crowd was gathered at the pier when the President's cruiser pulled in," writes Doris Kearns Goodwin. "As far as the eye could see, men in whites were standing at attention at the rails of a dozen Navy ships. A rousing cheer went up as the gangplank was lowered to receive Admiral Nimitz and some fifty high ranking officials. . . . Stepping out from his limo, wearing his leather flying jacket, MacArthur acknowledged the tumultuous applause." After the meetings, FDR toured the island, inspecting training grounds, shipyards, and hospitals, paying special attention to the amputee veterans, with whom he identified because of his paralyzed legs. The visit made for great photos of the president, bringing back not only the memory of December 7, but emphasizing his own role as commander in chief.

So was FDR "exploiting" the attack and its victims? FDR-haters certainly thought so. But he was also reminding the country of the blow it had suffered, while directing attention to the war effort he commanded, which, though not without its mistakes and failures, had been a strategic success. He had every right to do so, as it was his achievement, and it also was the most important part of his job. Most of the people who complain the loudest about Bush also believe he benefited unfairly from the events of September 11; that he lucked into a wave of patriotic emotion he did not inspire, and did nothing at all to deserve. This is nonsense. Bush did not benefit from September 11, but from his response to it, which was not inevitable or foreordained.

"When the country really needed a president, he was there, his words and his actions serving as the rallying point for a shaken nation," noted David Broder in his March 11 Washington Post column. September 11, 2001, like December 7, 1941, was a national disaster that belongs to all people. But the responses to them belong to Bush and to Roosevelt, who developed them under pressure and duress, with great stores of vision and will. "Bush is a piker compared with FDR when it comes to wrapping himself in the mantle of commander in chief," Broder continued. "If you accept President Bush's premise that this nation is at war with terrorism, then you have to applaud the restraint that his campaign has shown so far."

Presidential politics is, at bottom, about making the most of your opportunities. And if those opportunities involve the anguish of others? Well, shows of restraint are rare. The Democrats should understand this well, as it was certainly the case with their last successful president. As explained by Joe Klein in his book, The Natural, here is how Bill Clinton came back from the political dead:

On the morning of April 19, 1995, the day after the press conference in which Clinton had been forced to defend his own relevance, a powerful truck bomb destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 163 people.... Dazed and bleeding federal employees were seen suffering on the streets of Oklahoma City; their demolished children were carried out of the ruin of the building's day care enter... Clinton delivered a moving eulogy at a prayer service commemorating the victims, four days after the bombing. And then, on May 5, he delivered a fighting commencement speech at Michigan State University: 'I say this to the militias and all others who believe that the greatest threat to freedom comes from the government instead of from those who would take away our freedom... How dare you suggest that we in the freest nation on earth live in a tyranny? How dare you call yourselves patriots and heroes?' ... Clinton later told me [Klein goes on] that the House Republicans were as much the target of this speech as were the right wing militias. The Gingrich Movement had been built on government bashing in the name of patriotism. The president now had not only a tactical strategy... but also an intellectual rationale for his campaign against the Republican revolution, and a passion for pursuing it.

Whoopee! The president of the United States deliberately linked the opposite party to the perpetrators of a vile attack on American citizens, and climbed back to power on the backs of its victims. Did the people of Oklahoma (a red state, after all) like the fact that their president made use of their grief to enhance his own interests? The Democrats probably didn't mind; the Republicans certainly did.

George W. Bush is under attack for reasons of naked partisanship. The fuss over his ads comes from people eager for him to lose, for reasons having nothing to do with the ads themselves. We've seen this sort of thing before. In May 2000 there was a media frenzy over the Million Mom March, organized by a "typical" housewife and mother who turned out to be a PR professional and liberal activist with ties to the Clintons. Something like this is true as well of the protesting family members of 9/11 victims, who turn out to be well connected to left-wing networks (see Matthew Continetti's report on page 24). "We are a long way from the land of political innocents," noted a March 10 editorial in the Wall Street Journal. "What we have, instead, are politically motivated activists standing willingly as a front organization for the Democratic party. They've traded on the press's reluctance to question their motives, hoping for a free run to impugn Mr. Bush every time he discusses terrorism from now until the election." Indeed, if there is exploitation going on, it is on the part of those who willfully exploit the immense sympathy the American people have for the terrorists' victims and their survivors for partisan purposes.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

By Noemie Emery
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