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Pocket Veto

It’s easy to poke fun at President Bush’s new reelection ads. Even by the standards of the genre, they’re vacuous. Amid the montages of hopeful-looking children, resolute-looking firemen, and responsible-looking parents, I had to search hard for a statement of fact. And, when I found one, it was false. The Bush ad titled “Safer, Stronger” declares, “January 2001. The challenge: an economy in recession.” But, as The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has noted, the National Bureau of Economic Research, which officially dates these things, says the economy wasn’t in recession in January 2001—the recession didn’t begin until March. The two-month discrepancy hardly makes much difference to your assessment of Bush’s economic performance. Still, given that the president is hurting politically because many Americans no longer consider him trustworthy, it’s odd that he kicked off his reelection bid with a statement that’s demonstrably untrue.

But most critics haven’t called the ads dumb or dishonest; they’ve called them offensive. And, in so doing, they’re providing another case study in how identity politics threatens unfettered debate.

Three of Bush’s four new ads feature images from September 11. One—“Safer, Stronger”—briefly shows firefighters carrying a flag-draped casket from the wreckage of Ground Zero. Some critics have focused on the casket alone, arguing that campaign commercials should never show the dead. On that narrow question, reasonable people can disagree. (Although, I doubt many liberals would object to a ad portraying caskets returning from Iraq.) But most of the objections have been broader--against the use of any September 11 images in political ads. And they have gained media traction because of the people objecting: family members of the September 11 dead and spokesmen for firefighters—people with a special connection to that terrible day. “Nine-eleven families are very sensitive to someone using images of our loved one’s death for their own ends,”explained Kelly Campbell, co-director of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. “I think one needs to be aware that firefighters and those whose families died on September 11 bring a very strong emotional reaction to any use of images from that time,” added Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Of course they do. But recognizing someone’s pain doesn’t mean giving them veto power over the scope of debate. African American students often find racist speech on campus deeply hurtful, but that doesn’t mean it should be banned. In 1952, when Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion began negotiating reparation payments with West Germany, Holocaust survivors attacked the Knesset. Ben Gurion may have been insensitive. But, as a leader charged with promoting the national interest, he was right not to make sensitivity his primary concern.

But, for the Democrats condemning the Bush ads, sensitivity is the only issue. The Kerry campaign didn’t even suggest it believed there was anything wrong with the ads; it merely noted that they were offensive to the September 11 families, as if that were all that mattered. The hollowness of that strategy became clear almost immediately—when the Bush campaign trotted out other September 11 family members who thought the images were perfectly fine. It was a classic illustration of the way identity politics catches up with the left. Liberals often imply that affirmative action is good, or abortion is necessary, because the people most affected--blacks or women—think so. And so conservatives find black people who oppose affirmative action or women who oppose abortion. (The White House has done this time and again with its judicial nominees.) And liberals, having suggested that authority stems from identity rather than argument, are hoisted on their own petard.

Just as no political perspective stems inherently from being black, none stems from seeing a loved one die at the World Trade Center. For September 11 family members, as for the country at large, the event has been refracted through preexisting political beliefs. And so views about Bush’s September 11 ads closely tracked views about Bush himself. Patricia Reilly, whose sister died on 9/11, said, “I don’t have a problem with his pointing to his leadership at that time. He helped us to weather it.” By contrast, Wright Salisbury, whose son-in-law died at the World Trade Center, clearly thinks Bush’s “leadership” made things worse. “I think it’s outrageous that he should use our grief to promote his candidacy,” he said. “I understand why he’s doing this. He’s trying to cover himself with the flag. He’s trying to justify the war in Iraq by saying it had something to do with nine-eleven.” Harold Schaitberger, general president of the pro-John Kerry International Association of Firefighters, said, “Bush is calling on the biggest disaster in our country’s history, and indeed, in the history of the fire service, to win sympathy for his campaign. But, for two and a half years, he has basically shortchanged firefighters and the safety of our homeland by not providing firefighters the resources needed.” So, if Bush had adequately funded firefighters, his use of September 11 images would have been OK?

Democrats are missing the point: The real outrage isn’t that the Bush campaign plans to endlessly discuss September 11; it’s that it plans to do so while limiting other people’s ability to do the same. The White House censored a portion of the congressional September 11 report that fingered Saudi Arabia—denying voters information about our ally’s role in the murder of 3,000 Americans. House Speaker Denny Hastert, backed by conservative editorial pages (and perhaps the White House), tried to deny the independent 9/11 Commission time to finish its work—making the nakedly hypocritical argument that its findings shouldn’t be a factor in the 2004 campaign.And, when Democratic candidate Wesley Clark said Bush didn’t do everything he could have to stop September 11, Republicans denounced his comments as beyond the pale.

In the wake of last week’s ads, critics have thrown Bush’s 2002 statement that “I have no ambition whatsoever to use this [September 11] as a political issue” back in his face. But Bush was wrong then and right now: He’s entitled to make September 11 a political issue. In fact, Democrats badly erred in 2002 by ignoring it and focusing on domestic issues. But, if Bush can make September 11 an issue, other Americans should be able to as well—and this administration has tried to deny them the means to do so. That’s what I call offensive.

This article appeared in the March 22, 2004 issue of the magazine.