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The Politics Of 9/11: A Fine Line

By David Paul Kuhn,
CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer


It was only a matter of time until the Sept. 11 spin began. President Bush's first campaign ads, released on Thursday, with images of firefighters at Ground Zero, began what will be an ongoing argument over the politics of Sept. 11, 2001.

The ads provoked immediate backlash. The International Firefighters Association (which has endorsed Kerry) unanimously passed a resolution denouncing them.

"We are disgusted that for political purposes the president would show a firefighter draped in a flag, when we have a president that has cut funding for first responders," said Harold A. Schaitberger, general president of the firefighters union.

Some victim's families added to the fray by appearing on television and in newspaper stories, calling the ads unseemly, in poor taste. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (a longtime backer of Mr. Bush) immediately issued a statement to stem what had become a flood of anti-ad criticism.

"September 11th is the defining event of our times," the statement read, calling the day "central" to understanding President Bush's "continued leadership."

"This has been part of elections, going back to 1964, the Goldwater/Johnson race, in which the Vietnam War was a major topic of both men and particularly Johnson, who pledged that 'I will not send your boys to fight in an Asian war,'" said Lee Edwards, a presidential historian at The Heritage Foundation.

"And there was that very famous daisy commercial which effectively pinned the image of war maker and bomb thrower on Barry Goldwater," Edwards added.

The infamous ad showed a little girl picking petals from a daisy and ended with a countdown to a nuclear explosion. It was so controversial that it ran only once, as it suggested that Johnson's Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, might prompt a nuclear war if he were elected.

By any estimation, the Bush advertisements are much lighter, though the viewer does see a firefighter on a stretcher at Ground Zero, among other images. But in the inevitably bitter election year to come there is little doubt that the ads will get more controversial.

Totaling $4.5 million, the new Bush ad campaign was the most vivid sign yet that the general election is well under way. The ads are airing in 17 battleground states where the race was tightest during the 2000 presidential race.

"Franklin Roosevelt opened his campaign in the fall of 1944 on the deck of a destroyer, the guns were in the background, the workers were jamming the docks and he was talking to a nationwide radio audience," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "President's play the hand that they are dealt, it's just about that simple."

This leaves open the larger issue as to the suitability of using imagery from Sept. 11, certain to linger through the party conventions and into the debates. The Republican convention is unusually late this year, occurring in New York from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2.

Although Labor Day is the traditional start of the campaign season, it has been merely a symbolic date for decades. But with the Republican convention occurring 61 days before Election Day, lawmakers in Alabama, California and Illinois had to grant extensions, because the date was so late that it fell under the states' deadlines to get a candidate on the ballot.

The symbolism of the Republican convention occurring in New York in the week prior to the three-year anniversary of Sept. 11 is appropriate or, depending whom you ask, appalling. Either way, it was certainly deliberate.

"Sept. 11 has been an ongoing part of a campaign to ratify the president's leadership and to create a particular kind of national identity, sort of us and them, with respect to Americans and al Qaeda," said Sandra Silberstein, author of "War of Words: Language, Politics and 9/11."

"Here is 9/11, which is the signature both of patriotism and Bush's leadership and presidency, and to question the use of 9/11 in campaigns somehow means that you are not part of that level of patriotism and stability," said Silberstein.

The degree to which the Republican Party will push the references to Sept. 11 remains to be seen. Certainly, the party and president will attempt to walk a fine line.

"In order to demonstrate the leadership of 9/11, does President Bush need to invoke the trauma of 9/11?" Silberstein asked rhetorically. "He obviously feels he does and other people say it is in poor taste."

By David Paul Kuhn