By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 12, 2006; 12:42 PM
Once upon a time, President Bush spoke for the entire nation. Three days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he stood atop the rubble of the World Trade Center and proclaimed, his voice husky with obvious passion: "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon."
They call it Bush's "Bullhorn moment".
Last night's prime-time address to the nation on the fifth anniversary of those attacks was, well, another kind of moment entirely.
The occasion called for reflection and an attempt to unify the nation in its grief and determination. In fact, it was billed as such by the White House.
Instead, Bush delivered a leaden rehash of his unpersuasive rationales for his response to the threat of terrorism. He made a carefully crafted attempt to terrify Americans into supporting his deeply unpopular war in Iraq. He was misleading. He mischaracterized his critics.
It's hard to imagine that he could have been more divisive if he'd tried. And with most Americans no longer trusting the president, it's hard to imagine the speech served him well.
Michael Abramowitz and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "'Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq,' Bush said last night in a prime-time address from the Oval Office, 'the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone. They will not leave us alone. They will follow us. The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.'
"That ominous language capped an emotional day that took Bush to each of the three locations where terrorists crashed hijacked planes five years ago and killed nearly 3,000 people. It also marked the culmination of a new White House campaign to tie what polls show is a unpopular war in Iraq to a broader campaign against Islamic radicals who, as Bush put it last night, are 'determined to bring death and suffering into our homes.'
"In weaving the two issues together last night, Bush melded one of the most unifying events in recent national experience -- the common horror and sadness of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- with one of the most polarizing, the war in Iraq."
Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush sought to place the war in Iraq in the context of an epic battle between tyranny and freedom, saying the campaign against global terrorism was 'the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century and the calling of our generation.' . . .
"Even by the standards of his latest round of speeches, Mr. Bush's language was particularly forceful, even ominous, with warnings of a radical Islamic network that was 'determined to bring death and suffering to our homes.' "
Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Bush began with a two-minute tribute to the 'nearly 3,000' victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, but most of his 17-minute speech was devoted to justifying his foreign policy since that day. With his party's control of Congress at stake in elections less than two months away, Bush suggested that political opponents who are calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq would be giving victory to the terrorists. . . .
"'The president should be ashamed of using a national day of mourning to commandeer the airwaves to give a speech that was designed not to unite the country and commemorate the fallen but to seek support for a war in Iraq that he has admitted had nothing to do with 9/11,' Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said in a statement. 'There will be time to debate this president's policies in Iraq. September 11th is not that time.'"Credibility Problems
Dan Balz and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post that "this president's capacity to move the public is severely diminished. . . .
"Setbacks in Iraq have soured a majority of Americans on that mission. Falsely optimistic predictions of progress have undermined the administration's credibility. A majority of Americans question fundamental elements of the president's argument, including his contention that Iraq is the central front in the campaign against terrorism."
To enhance its credibility, the White House is turning to, of all people, the terrorists themselves. (See Wednesday's column .)
Balz and Abramowitz write that press secretary Tony Snow and presidential counselor Dan Bartlett have "singled out the effort to quote the terrorists' own words as a tactic they hope will break through to ordinary Americans who may not be aware of the terrorists' aims. 'We may be having a debate in this country about whether Iraq is part of the war on terrorism, but our enemies believe it is,' Bartlett said."
But the terrorists have even less credibility than the White House. And Americans seem increasingly aware that the main source of violence in Iraq is not from Islamic jihadists, but from sectarian strife.
Balz and Abramowitz also note: "Bush's speeches have been sprinkled with what critics regard as factually questionable assertions -- adding to what even some allies have described as a credibility problem for the White House."
For instance: "In discussing proposed new rules for trying terrorism suspects at the Guantanamo Bay prison, Bush last week said flatly that 'the United States does not torture.' That may have been the White House interpretation, but the CIA has approved tactics -- 'water-boarding,' for example, in which interrogators simulate drowning -- that many military and international lawyers consider outside legal boundaries."A Nixon Moment?
David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "To Mr. Bush's admirers, this was the Texan president at his Reaganesque best: defining America's enemies broadly, vowing their defeat and promising to make the spread of freedom his legacy. To his critics, it was Mr. Bush at his most dangerous, approaching the world with little interest in how America is perceived and lumping together its many opponents, even if their agendas and interests are quite different."
Sanger notes Bush's historical allusions of choice -- then suggests his own.
The president "compared the situation now to those faced by Franklin D. Roosevelt in World War II and Harry S. Truman at the dawn of the cold war. But it also had echoes of another era, of a time in 1970 when Richard M. Nixon was urging the country to unify behind a Vietnam War that was expanding into Cambodia.
"Mr. Nixon famously warned that night that if 'the United States of America acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.'"Blurring the Truth
Peter S. Canellos writes in his Boston Globe column: "In his blitzkrieg of 9/11 speeches, Bush has lumped together numerous countries, foreign leaders, religious figures, and political movements under one banner -- as supporters of terrorism -- and ignored the differences among them.
"On the stump, this conveys a sense of moral clarity, of a battle between good people and evil people, suggesting a clean distinction can be made. But it also has led to a widespread misunderstanding -- that all the people cited by Bush are working in concert against the United States. . . .
"Understanding all those ideologies and agendas does not seem to interest Bush, and has not really captured the attention of the US public. Fighting for freedom against bad guys is all that most people want to hear about."Opinion Watch
The New York Times editorial board writes that if Bush's view of the war on terror "were actual reality, the president's call to 'put aside our differences and work together to meet the test that history has given us' would be inspiring, instead of frustrating and depressing."
But: "Where Mr. Bush sees an infant secular Iraqi government, most of the world sees a collection of ethnic and religious factional leaders, armed with private militias, presiding over growing strife between Shiites and Sunnis. Warning that American withdrawal would 'embolden' the enemy is far from an argument as long as there is constant evidence that American presence is creating a fearful backlash throughout the Muslim world that empowers the fanatics far more than it frightens them. . . .
"It's hard to figure out how to build consensus when the men in charge embrace a series of myths.
Keith Olberman had a blistering commentary on MSNBC (here's the video ): "Terrorists did not come and steal our newly-regained sense of being American first, and political, fiftieth. Nor did the Democrats. Nor did the media. Nor did the people.
"The President -- and those around him -- did that.
"They promised bi-partisanship, and then showed that to them, 'bi-partisanship' meant that their party would rule and the rest would have to follow, or be branded, with ever-escalating hysteria, as morally or intellectually confused, as appeasers, as those who, in the Vice President's words yesterday, 'validate the strategy of the terrorists.' . . .
"The polite phrase for how so many of us were duped into supporting a war, on the false premise that it had 'something to do' with 9/11 is 'lying by implication.'
"The impolite phrase is 'impeachable offense.'"Believe it or Not?
It would be entirely appropriate to consider everything Tony Snow says from now on in the context of this assertion at yesterday's gaggle : "As I said before, really it's a reflective speech, what we have learned since September 11th, where we're going. But it is, as I've been at some pains to say in the last few days, it's not a political speech, it's not trying to draw political distinctions or issue calls to action. I think this is a time to try to talk in a way that unifies the American people."Straw Man Watch
Tim Grieve writes in Salon: "'Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq,' Bush said, 'the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone.' In a single sentence, the president minimized his administration's colossal miscalculations and set up yet another straw-man argument about his opponents' views. Yes, it would be a mistake to think that withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq would cause the terrorists to leave us alone. But we don't know of any war critics who think such a thing; indeed, most critics -- and most Americans -- think the war in Iraq doesn't have much to do with the war on terrorism one way or another. Invading Iraq hasn't made us safe from terrorists; leaving it won't, either."Only the Beginning
A few overlooked lines from the speech:
"We are now in the early hours of this struggle between tyranny and freedom," Bush said, adding later: "America has confronted evil before, and we have defeated it -- sometimes at the cost of thousands of good men in a single battle."
Was he suggesting that the loss of 3,000 soldiers is only the beginning? Or that it is just a trifle?
And near the end of his speech, Bush pulled out some unusually religious imagery: "The attacks were meant to bring us to our knees, and they did, but not in the way the terrorists intended. Americans united in prayer, came to the aid of neighbors in need, and resolved that our enemies would not have the last word."Only in Election Years
Via Hotline , Washington bureau chief Nina Easton on Fox News last night: "It was a political speech. There wasn't a direct attack on his political foes. But there was a dwelling on Iraq. It's interesting, you know, he has not spoken about Iraq on a 9/11 anniversary, except in election years, 2004 and now. Last year, by the way, he just did a moment of silence on 9/11.'"
ABC News last night broadcast more of its interview with Bush last week. Charles Gibson asked Bush about his experience on Sept. 11:
Bush: "There is a fog of war. It was hard to get information. Communication systems were not as good as they should have been. In other words, I couldn't get information, I couldn't find out where Laura was, I couldn't find out, you know, where, uh, trying to get a hold of the vice president at times, I was constantly in touch with him, but they would have trouble getting him. Or I found the secretary of defense finally, after a period of time, just, it was. . . .
"Gibson: Did you feel a bit of a prisoner on this plane? That it was all going on down there, and they were keeping you up here?
"Bush: Well, you know I tried to get home and the Secret Service said, 'You're not going home. Matter of fact, you're heading to Omaha, Neb., where we will put you in a bunker.' . . . And it frustrated me because, you know, on the other hand I was able to stay in touch with people, you know. I had enough information to know what was going on. I was making command decisions. . . .
"Gibson: [B]ut is there an argument between the president of the United States and the Secret Service -- 'I want to go home.' 'No you're not, Mr. President'?
"Bush: Yeah. Yeah.
"Gibson: And . . . and the Secret Service wins those arguments?
"Bush: Oh well, you know, it was not just the Secret Service, the vice president suggested, others suggested, that it's probably best to let things cool down for a while, till we get enough information to understand."
Bush was widely faulted for his initial reactions to the terrorist attacks. First, of course, was the seven minutes he spent frozen at the front of a Florida classroom after being told the nation was under attack. But even after that, Bush flew from one Air Force Base in Louisiana to another in Nebraska before finally heading back to the White House to reassure a terrified nation.
The 9/11 commission report left it unclear who exactly made the call to keep Bush away from the White House. After Lousiana, "[t]he next destination was discussed: once again the Secret Service recommended against returning to Washington, and the Vice President agreed. Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska was chosen because of its elaborate command and control facilities, and because it could accommodate overnight lodging for 50 persons."
Bush alluded to the real decisionmaker in his ABC interview. On CNN yesterday, Gordon Johndroe, who was an assistant press secretary at the time, makes it utterly clear who was giving the orders: "The Secret Service, and -- as well as the vice president were telling him it's not just safe yet to return to the White House. And so, the vice president suggested that he go to the Offutt Air Force base in Nebraska."Cheney's Day
Faye Fiore and James Gerstenzang write in the Los Angeles Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney, in a morning speech at the Pentagon, took a swipe at Democrats calling for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. 'We have no intention of ignoring or appeasing history's latest gang of fanatics trying to murder their way to power,' Cheney said, quoting a 2002 speech by the president.
"The word 'appeasement' has carried an additional political charge in recent weeks, after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld compared critics of the Iraq war with politicians who sought to appease Hitler."
Here is the text of Cheney's speech. How clever of him to use Bush as cover.Cheney Interview, Revisited
From a New York Post editorial : "TV interrogator Tim Russert's cudgeling of Vice President Dick Cheney Sunday seemed intended more to elicit a confession than to produce news.
"But Cheney clearly held his own - and used the opportunity to make a point Americans need to hold on to as the War on Terror proceeds."
That point, of course: That debate over Iraq is aiding our enemies and hurting our friends. (See yesterday's column .)
E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Perhaps Vice President Cheney should quit his current job and work within a political system more to his liking, the kind in which those in charge can protect national security by telling everyone what not to say and what not to think. . . .
"If Cheney doesn't like 'the kind of debate that we've had in the United States,' is there any other 'kind,' short of a lock-step endorsement of all of Bush's choices, he'd endorse?"Poll Watch
A new Gallup Poll taken after Bush's series of major speeches last week finds his approval rating down three points to 39 percent from three weeks ago.
Joseph Carroll writes for Gallup: "Bush's approval ratings have averaged 39% over the last six Gallup polls conducted since early July, fluctuating between 37% and 42%."
CNN reports: "The percentage of Americans who blame the Bush administration for the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington has risen from almost a third to almost half over the past four years, a CNN poll released Monday found.
"Asked whether they blame the Bush administration for the attacks, 45 percent said either a 'great deal' or a 'moderate amount,' up from 32 percent in a June 2002 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll."Swing District Watch
Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times about the tone in Colorado's Seventh Congressional District, a swing district that is a bellwether in the battle for control of the House.
"[I]nterviews over the last three days here found Republicans, Democrats and independents all expressing degrees of skepticism about Mr. Bush's motives in delivering a set of high-profile speeches on terrorism and the war in Iraq two months before Election Day."More on Wednesday's Speech
Investigative reporter and author Ron Suskind writes in Time about Bush's momentous speech on detainee policy last Wednesday: "What the President wouldn't say, especially in a political season, is that he and the rest of the government have learned quite a bit from their early errors. What is widely known inside the Administration is that once we caught our first decent-size fish -- Abu Zubaydah, in March 2002 -- we used him as an experiment in righteous brutality that in the end produced very little. His interrogation, according to those overseeing it, yielded little from threats and torture. He named countless targets inside the U.S. to stop the pain, all of them immaterial. Indeed, think back to the sudden slew of alerts in the spring and summer of 2002 about attacks on apartment buildings, banks, shopping malls and, of course, nuclear plants. . . .
"To establish what was gathered, Bush, in the East Room, did what has consistently landed him in trouble -- take creative liberties with classified information. . . . This is the sort of thing that has steadily eroded Bush's relationship with the intelligence community: presidential sins of omission, or emphasis, that would be clear only if you happened to know lots of classified information."
And Suskind suggest one reason the White House is so opposed to trying terrorists using an authentic legal process. "The problem is not really with classified information. Most of what these captives told us is already common knowledge or dated; the U.S. hasn't caught any truly significant players in two years. However, discovery in such a case would show that the President and Vice President were involved in overseeing their interrogations, according to senior intelligence officials. Subpoenas on how evidence was obtained and who authorized what practices would go right into the West Wing."Tribunals Watch
R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration has won concessions from key Senate Republicans in proposed legislation on standards for detainee treatment and the rules for military trials of terrorism suspects, although some disagreements persist between the lawmakers and the White House, Senate sources said yesterday. . . .
"The Senate bill for the first time includes language supporting the administration's position that detainee abuse can be prosecuted only if it, in effect, 'shocks the conscience.' Legal experts say that instead of setting an absolute standard for conduct, the bill's language would leave room for judges to weigh the urgency of the information extracted from detainees during rough interrogations.
"The revised Senate bill also would bar detainees held by the United States from bringing legal action against the government to challenge the legality of their detention or treatment. It would bar the collection of damages by detainees for violations of the Geneva Conventions, which set the minimum standards for wartime treatment."Live Online
Bush confidante and under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs Karen Hughes asks an interesting question in USA Today: Where's the outrage?
It's a question I often ask myself, but in other contexts.
Here's Hughes: "Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, one essential ingredient is still lacking in our international response to terrorism: the concerted moral outrage of everyday citizens of every faith and country."
One possibility: maybe some people are torn between outrage over terrorism -- and outrage over Bush's response to terrorism.Alternate History
Jonathan Alter writes in Newsweek with an alternate history: "Five years after 9/11, the world is surprisingly peaceful. President Bush's pragmatic and bipartisan leadership has kept the United States not just strong but unexpectedly popular across the globe."AsLe Mondeturns
Dave Goldiner writes in the New York Daily News: "Five years ago, the French paper Le Monde proclaimed, 'We are all Americans.' Yesterday, its top editorial was headlined ' Bush's Mistakes ' and catalogued a litany of missteps that it said has made the world more dangerous.