Ballot Box

Being There

What does 9/11 tell us about Bush? Nothing.

It’s not what you do, it’s how you look 

For the past month, a group of veterans funded by a Bush campaign contributor and advised by a Bush campaign lawyer has attacked the story of John Kerry’s heroism in Vietnam. They have argued, contrary to all known contemporaneous records, that Kerry was too brutal in a counterattack that earned him the Silver Star, and that he survived only mines, not bullets, when he rescued a fellow serviceman from a river. President Bush, who joined the National Guard as a young man to avoid Vietnam, has been challenged to denounce the group’s charges. He has refused.

Now the Republican National Convention is showcasing Bush’s own heroic moment. As John McCain put it last night: “I knew my confidence was well placed when I watched him stand on the rubble of the World Trade Center with his arm around a hero of September 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.”

Pardon me for asking, but where exactly is the heroism in this story? Where, indeed, is the heroism in anything Bush has done before 9/11 or since?

Two days ago at an Ellis Island rally, Dick Cheney described Bush’s 9/11 leadership this way: “In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on America, people in every part of the country, regardless of party, took great comfort and pride in the conduct and the character of our president. They saw a man calm in a crisis, comfortable with responsibility, and determined to do everything necessary to protect our people.”

Calm and comfortable. I appreciate that. This was a major selling point of Bush’s 2000 campaign: He would allow us to “look at the White House with pride.” But isn’t a president supposed to, um, do things? Isn’t it a bit strange to praise a man’s leadership not for doing something, but for maintaining a certain appearance?

Bush partisans point out that he did do things in the 9/11 aftermath. In his convention address last night, former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik recalled Bush’s famous visit to New York, “inspiring a nation as he stood on hallowed ground, supporting the first responders.”

OK, so Bush stood there. He “supported,” in a Clintonesque sense, the people who were doing something. He touched the mayor. As Rudy Giuliani told the New York Times over the weekend, “When he got off the helicopter, he put his arm around the back of my neck and said, ‘What can I do for you?’ It was a personal thing: ‘I know what you’ve been through, and what I can do to support you?’ “

Amid all this touching, did Bush put himself in any peril? He certainly did. As Giuliani explained to the convention audience:

When President Bush came here on September 14, 2001, the Secret Service was not really happy about his remaining in the area so long. With buildings still unstable, with fires raging below ground of 2,000 degrees or more, there was good reason for their concern. Well, the president remained there. And talked to everyone. … [A construction worker] grabbed the president of the United States in this massive bear hug, and he started squeezing him. And the Secret Service agent standing next to me, who wasn’t happy about any of this, instead of running over and getting the president out of this grip, puts his finger in my face and he says to me, “If this guy hurts the president, Giuliani, you’re finished.”

This is Bush’s heroism? Showing up three days later, “remaining in the area,” and enduring a hug?

The only moment of physical bravery any of last night’s speakers could find in Bush’s life was his secret trip to Iraq. “As I think about his leadership,” Kerik recalled, “I think of the courage it took for our commander in chief to land on an airstrip in the dark of night, a world away, to be with our troops on Thanksgiving.”

Thanksgiving? You mean, six months after we captured the airport and Bush declared victory?

And isn’t “the dark of night” normally a term we use to describe the preferred arrival and departure time of people who aren’t exactly overflowing with courage?

Or is Kerik pointing out the difficulty of landing a plane in the dark? Is he unaware, perhaps, that Bush wasn’t flying the plane? That once again, as in Vietnam, somebody else was doing the hard part and Bush was along for the ride? That Air Force One has more security systems than any other vehicle on Earth? That Bush went to Baghdad to “be with” the troops in the same way he went to New York to “be with” the firefighters? That waiting for a safe time and place to “be with” people who have braved unsafe places at unsafe times is the difference between heroism and a photo op?

Maybe Bush’s courage is moral rather than physical. Maybe it lies in the conviction Giuliani extolled last night: “President Bush sees world terrorism for the evil that it is.”

Calling terrorism evil? Answering a deed with a word? This is courage?

Not fair, says the Bush camp. Bush has answered terrorism with far more than words. “He worked effectively to secure the cooperation of Pakistan,” McCain pointed out last night. “He encouraged other friends to recognize the peril that terrorism posed for them and won their help in apprehending many of those who would attack us again and in helping to freeze the assets they used to fund their bloody work.”

Ah, diplomacy. Now, that’s courage.

The ultimate testament to Bush’s manhood, supposedly, is the two wars he launched. As McCain put it, “He ordered American forces to Afghanistan” and “made the difficult decision to liberate Iraq.” But the salient word in each of those boasts is the verb. Bush gives orders and makes decisions. He doesn’t take personal risks. He never has.

I don’t mean to be unfair to Bush. Vietnam was a lousy war. He wanted a way out, and he found it. But isn’t it odd to see Republicans belittle the physical risks Kerry took in battle while exalting Bush’s armchair wars and post-9/11 photo ops? Isn’t it embarrassing to see Bob Dole, the GOP’s previous presidential nominee, praise Bush’s heroism while suggesting that Kerry’s three combat wounds weren’t bad enough to justify sending him home from Vietnam?

Watching the attacks on Kerry and the glorification of Bush reminds me of something Dole said in his speech to the Republican convention eight years ago. It was “demeaning to the nation,” Dole argued, to be governed by people “who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered and never learned.”

You tell me which of this year’s presidential candidates that statement best describes.