A question of leadership

September 01, 2004|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK - As expected, dramatic recollections of Sept. 11, 2001, have been front and center at the Republican National Convention this week, with former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani leading the way in making that historic date Exhibit A in the case for President Bush's re-election.

After weeks of other Republicans softening up challenger John Kerry as an uncertain trumpet and flip-flopper on the war on terrorism, it was Mr. Giuliani, the host city's commander in chief at the time of the World Trade Center attacks, who landed the most focused blows.

He got right to the core of the case for Mr. Bush and against Mr. Kerry with his eyewitness account of that fateful 9/11 and the president's decisive response in the days that immediately followed.

In doing so, Mr. Giuliani gave short shrift to the whirlwind of later criticism of the misrepresentations and mismanagement of the war in Iraq.

Instead, he graphically painted the picture on which President Bush's re-election prospects largely rest: the image of a leader suddenly faced with catastrophe and acting swiftly and strongly to confront its perpetrators.

Brushing aside those moments captured on tape of the president sitting motionless before schoolchildren reading My Pet Goat, Mr. Giuliani recalled how he said to the city's police commissioner on 9/11: "Thank God George Bush is our president."

That, when all is said and done, may well be the tipping factor with undecided voters if Mr. Bush is returned to the White House on Nov. 2. The president's reputation as a man who makes up his mind quickly, without undue agonizing of the sort Mr. Giuliani and other speakers attributed to Mr. Kerry, could be the trump card, summed up in one word: leadership.

If so, what it will have trumped will be the tireless effort of the Kerry camp to claim the leadership mantle for him, not so much on his 20-year Senate record as on his brief but courageous combat service in Vietnam three decades ago.

Mr. Giuliani drew the leadership contrast in the sharpest and most positive terms for the president. "John Kerry has no such clear, precise and consistent vision," he told the cheering convention. "It's important and critical to see the contrast in approach between these two men: President Bush, a leader who's willing to stick with difficult decisions even as public opinion shifts and goes back and forth, and John Kerry, whose record in elected office suggests a man who changes his position even on important issues. John Kerry has made it a rule to change his position, rather than the exception."

In the same, if less forceful, way, Sen. John McCain of Arizona echoed Mr. Giuliani's focus on leadership by recalling Mr. Bush's visit to the Twin Towers destruction.

"I knew my confidence was well placed," he said, "when I watched him stand on the rubble of the World Trade Center with his arm around a hero of Sept. 11, and in our moment of mourning and anger, strengthen our unity and our resolve by promising to right this terrible wrong, and to stand up and fight for the values we hold dear. He promised our enemies would soon hear from us, and so they did."

It is, to be sure, politically advantageous to Mr. Bush to have voters focus on that moment rather than on all that came afterward, including his diversion from the perpetrators of 9/11 to Saddam Hussein and the resultant clinging chaos in Iraq. The challenge for Mr. Kerry is to move the focus beyond 9/11 to Mr. Bush's misrepresentations and misjudgments thereafter and the consequent divisions in the country.

With Mr. Kerry's troubles in conveying a steadfastness in his own positions on fighting the war in Iraq, the task will not be easy. From now to Election Day, both Mr. Giuliani and Mr. McCain will be on the campaign trail hammering the leadership theme, trying to freeze in voters' minds as best they can that brief moment when Mr. Bush spoke for a unified nation.

As the street protests here this week have clearly shown, that unity has been shattered, but the moment of the events that shaped it for a time remains indelible.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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