Running on 9/11

September 06, 2004|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK - With President Bush's nomination acceptance speech behind him, will he move on from the drumbeat convention reminder that Sept. 11, 2001, made him a wartime president to details of what he would do with another four years in the presidency?

In the lead-up to the convention here, Mr. Bush and his surrogates spent much of their time questioning Sen. John Kerry's qualifications for the job even as his strategists promised that he would use the convention to spell out his intentions for a second term.

Instead, he spun off a long list of generalities about objectives that have long been part of his domestic agenda, from individual retirement and health savings accounts to permanent tax cuts and medical liability reform. It was hard to find a single new major initiative in the lot.

Politicians like to say elections are about the future, but Mr. Bush, like almost all of the other convention speakers, harkened more to the past. They focused specifically on two days - 9/11 itself and the occasion a few days later when the president went to Ground Zero and promised first-responders he would hit back at the attackers.

It is as if the president and his political strategists hope voters will act in November with that dramatic cameo of three years ago in mind and forget all that has happened in the war on terrorism - and particularly Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq - since then.

The 9/11 symbolism was obviously the reason for holding a Republican National Convention in New York for the first time. It was in keeping with the continuing effort to treat the Iraq adventure as an integral part of the war on terrorism rather than the diversion it was from the task of eliminating al-Qaida.

Throughout the four-day convention, there was remarkably little reference to the still-at-large Osama bin Laden amid repeated reminders of the captivity of Saddam Hussein, who Mr. Bush himself belatedly has acknowledged was not one of the 9/11 schemers.

It should not be surprising that the president, in an acceptance speech billed as a look to the future, instead again offered himself chiefly as a wartime leader whose decisiveness and resoluteness was best summed up by his timely visit to Ground Zero.

As former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York said in the most effective of the supporting speeches, that moment is seared in the memories of a grieving nation. The question for voters is whether it deserves to stand alone or should be part of a broader assessment of the president that includes all the misrepresentations involved in his selling of a pre-emptive war and the chaos that has resulted in Iraq.

Not surprising, either, was the Kerry-bashing that was also a dominant feature of the Republican convention. Politically, it was an essential element in the central message from New York that in time of national peril, strong and decisive leadership is what counts.

While wrapping Mr. Bush in 9/11, the Republicans deftly capitalized on Mr. Kerry's own masochistic explanations of his backing of Mr. Bush's war resolution and subsequent failure to vote for the $87 billion to fight it. When you're selling presidential leadership, such Kerry ambiguities are gifts from the opposition.

References to these Kerryisms by Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr. Bush triggered chants of "Flip-flop! Flip-flop!" from the delegates - taunts that no doubt will be heard again and again at Bush rallies between now and November.

This view of Mr. Kerry as indecisive and uncertain may in the end hurt him more than all the attacks on his Vietnam service and antiwar record. He was quick on the very night Mr. Bush chided him in his acceptance speech to respond that Mr. Cheney received five draft determents and Mr. Bush found shelter from Vietnam in the Texas Air National Guard. But the issue of decisiveness as a leader on some future 9/11 is likely to be more critical to voters.

For that reason, the Republicans clearly hope the image of a decisive Mr. Bush three years ago at Ground Zero will trump all else.

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

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