MAXWELL: Bush and the myth of great leadership 

3/7/2004 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

President Bush’s new campaign ads are on the air and generating unintended consequences.

Nov. 2, of course, will tell us if these ads were effective. We do not need to wait until November to know, however, that these ads are some of the most cynical, tasteless, deceptive and exploitative the nation has ever seen.

I have seen the ads, by the way. They make heavy visual use of the charred, smoldering remains of the World Trade Center. One clip even shows firefighters ferrying what appears to be the flag-draped body of a terrorist victim.

Remember now, these ads are the work of the same George W. Bush who, when seeking more money from Congress in 2003 to fight terrorism, said: “I have no ambition whatsoever to use this as a political issue.”

The president lied. The World Trade Center tragedy is being used politically. Americans can see for themselves by watching the ads on TV.

Although some families whose loved ones died during the attacks support the ads, many others do not. Andrew Rice of Oklahoma, whose brother died in the south tower, said on national television that he thought the image of “a real dead body” was “irresponsible to use in such a context.” One relative’s objection is enough cause to pull the ads.

The International Association of Fire Fighters, which supported Sen. John Kerry in the primaries, has asked the Bush campaign to take the commercials off TV.

Obviously, the ads are intended to portray Bush as “a steady leader” during dangerous times. To my mind, the ads perpetuate the myth of Bush’s leadership. I say myth because Bush did what any person in the White House would have done: stayed on TV reading speeches (which he did not write) that consoled the nation and promised to bring the terrorists to justice.

And anyone in the White House at this time would have sent the U.S. military into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban. Americans would have demanded as much.

A smart person in the White House would not have raced into Iraq, however. Bush did. And by doing so, he has increased terrorist threats in places where they did not exist with such ferocity. Only Republican ideologues claim that the world, including the United States, is safer now. Given the number of their flights that have been canceled, we would be hard pressed to find many officials of British Airways who believe the world is safer.

Such a state of affairs does not reflect steady leadership. It reflects the poor leadership of a man hell-bent on invading Iraq long before the World Trade Center attacks.

The Bush commercials exploit the suffering of the surviving relatives and friends of the dead, and they abuse the fears of the nation.

In an editorial, even the staid New York Times assails the president for his tastelessness: “When we think of 9/11, we think of loss, and of the heroism of average people who reached out in ways great and small to help their fellow men and women. Any political candidate who attempts to piggyback onto those emotions deserves to be shunned by the electorate.”

Bush and his supporters, of course, are defending the ads. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, got into the act _ after the Bush campaign asked for his help _ and praised the ads and Bush’s leadership.

“Sept. 11 is the defining event of our times,” Giuliani said. “This was a shared experience that the American people have all been through together.”

Giuliani has the same problem that Bush has: The World Trade Center tragedy created a myth of great leadership around the former mayor. Does anyone remember that Hillary Clinton ran Giuliani out of the New York Senate race? Does anyone remember that before the attacks many New Yorkers viewed Giuliani as an adulterer and a bully?

As with Bush, Giuliani happened to have been in office at the time of the attacks. He, too, delivered speeches that consoled residents. Nothing else about Giuliani changed. Many New Yorkers simply forgave his warts in the aftermath of the terror. Anyone who had been the mayor following the attacks would have done what Giuliani did.

As with Bush, Giuliani’s apotheosis is the result of his merely being in office at the time of the tragedy and for performing the duties expected of him.

Campaigns should be run on records. They should not prey on the suffering and fears of those who will vote.