Evoking national tragedy

Sept. 11: Bush draws criticism for his new ads showing images from Ground Zero, but some say the attacks were the defining moment of his presidency.

Election 2004

March 05, 2004|By David L. Greene and Jean Marbella | David L. Greene and Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As he revs up his re-election drive and takes aim at John Kerry, President Bush begins the delicate task of reminding voters of the horror of Sept. 11 and the leadership he displayed afterward without seeming to exploit the tragedy for political profit.

Aides say Bush has every intention of reminding voters of the worst terrorist attack in American history - the defining event of his presidency. The political logic is self-evident: He wants voters to hark back to when they rallied around their president and his approval ratings soared.

This week, the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign released its first TV ads. Several of them flash images of a billowing American flag at the wreckage of the World Trade Center, and one ad shows New York firefighters solemnly carrying a coffin. The president, a banner tells viewers, displayed "steady leadership in times of change."

The Sept. 11 images are fleeting, lasting barely two seconds. But critics have pounced on them, calling it wrong for the president to invoke memories of Sept. 11 to court voters. Judging by the immediacy of the criticism, some of Bush's opponents may have been holding their fire until given an opening to accuse him of politicizing a day of national loss. Yesterday, they let loose.

A tug of war over the memories of Sept. 11 has begun, and it will likely last through the November election.

Democratic officials called attention yesterday to statements from New York firefighters and families of Sept. 11 victims who said they found the commercials offensive. The International Association of Fire Fighters, a powerful union closely allied with Kerry, called for the ads to be removed, labeling them "disgraceful."

In a letter to the Bush campaign, the union president, Harold A. Schaitberger, accused Bush of "trading on the heroism of those 343 brothers of mine who were FDNY members who fell in the terrorist attacks, not to mention the [other nearly] 3,000 people who lost their lives at the World Trade Center." Schaitberger also complained that some of the ads included close-up images of actors in firefighter uniforms.

Asked about the new ads, David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, said bluntly, "The outrage of so many of America's firefighters and the families of September 11th's victims speaks for itself."

Bill Doyle, a New Yorker who lost his son in the trade center, said he hadn't seen the ads. But he said his wife had, and he heard her reaction from another room.

"I heard her saying, `This can't be happening,"' said Doyle, who described himself as a conservative who voted for Bush in 2000. "She was very upset."

"It's disrespectful," he said. "It's a grave site. Using 9/11 as a background prop for anything political is totally inappropriate."

Not a `distant tragedy'

In response to the criticism, Karen Hughes, a former top adviser and still a confidante to the president, defended Bush's decision to remind Americans of the attacks as part of his re-election campaign.

"September 11 is not just some distant tragedy from the past - it really defined our future," Hughes said on CNN. "It changed forever our national public policy, and it's important that the next president knows that and realizes we are still at war today because of that day. We are at war against terror."

Another senior adviser to Bush, speaking on condition of anonymity, said campaign officials had discussed whether the ads might offend some voters or seem overtly political.

"It's important to consider the impact of any ad," the aide said. "But in this instance, we believed this was a powerful reminder of the tragedy of September 11 and a tribute to a nation that has gotten back on its feet."

Bush's team has scheduled the Republican National Convention in New York just before the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. In other ways, his campaign is also likely to keep the attacks on voters' minds, so long as it can avoid seeming insensitive. Reminders of a time of swelling popularity for the president could distract voters from current events that might become liabilities for Bush - the prolonged and bloody effort in Iraq, for example, or the tight job market.

Yesterday, the president spoke emotionally of Sept. 11 in the most political of settings - a California fund-raiser, where he raked in $700,000 for his campaign.

"On September 14, 2001, I stood in the ruins of the twin towers," he said.

"I remember the workers and the hard-hats who were shouting, `Whatever it takes.' I remember the guy who pointed his finger at me and said, `Don't let me down.' As we all did that day, these men and women searching through the rubble took it personally. I took it personally. I have a responsibility that goes on."

Democratic strategy

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