WACO, Texas—How long until President Bush pledges to smoke John Kerry out of his hole? Or to “bring him to justice”? The president’s new campaign refrain about Kerry—”He can run, but he cannot hide”—signaled the return of Bush the Old West sheriff who pledged to hunt down Osama Bin Laden, “Dead or Alive.” The president has always affected a bit of a gunslinger pose on the stump, his shoulders hunched, his arms jutted out at his sides. But his campaign decided to throw in a little Texas lawman talk into the president’s stump speech after becoming enamored of Bush’s use of the “run, but he cannot hide” line in Friday’s debate.
The line sounded so familiar that reporters assumed immediately that Bush had used it in reference to Bin Laden at some point. (The boxer Joe Louis is credited as the originator of the phrase. But it’s had a new context since Sept. 11, 2001.) When Joe Lockhart was asked about the new Bush mantra on a conference call Saturday morning, the reporter said, “He used it with Bin Laden of course.” But a search of White House transcripts doesn’t turn up the phrase.
It’s certainly true that people think the president said of Bin Laden, “He can run, but he can’t hide.” One of the most frequent descriptions of a defeated al-Qaida is an al-Qaida that is “on the run.” More important, on the Nov. 9, 2001, edition of Crossfire, Bill Press said, “Well, when you think of presidents or leaders leading a nation during a time of war, you think of Franklin Roosevelt, you think of Winston Churchill, you think of statesmanship. And what do you hear from the lips of George Bush? It’s ‘Let’s roll.’ Bring them back dead or alive. They can run, but they can’t hide.” So, “You can run, but you can’t hide” isn’t just associated with Bin Laden in the fuzzy memories of reporters more than three years after the fact. Less than two months after 9/11, Bill Press was under the impression that Bush had said something like it about al-Qaida.
But the closest the president came to saying something like “He can run, but he cannot hide” after 9/11 appears to be this statement, uttered on the morning of Sept. 13, 2001: “This is an enemy who preys on innocent and unsuspecting people, then runs for cover. But it won’t be able to run for cover forever. This is an enemy that tries to hide. But it won’t be able to hide forever.” Here’s the closest example that I could find of anyone in the administration saying something like “You can run but you can’t hide”: During a press gaggle on Air Force One last April, Scott McClellan said, “But this is a clear reminder that terroristscan run, but they cannot hide. We will find them and bring them to justice.”
What was McClellan talking about when he made that statement? The capture of Abu Abbas, a Palestinian terrorist who was convicted of the 1985 hijacking of an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro. After that hijacking, President Reagan declared to the terrorists, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” So Bush’s use of the phrase is a twofer: It reminds voters of the post-9/11 Bush, the popular president on the hunt for the enemy, and the phrase also evokes the perpetually popular Reagan. Just this spring, the New York Times referred to Reagan’s 1986 bombing of Libya, carried out in retaliation for terrorist acts, as “the ‘you can run but you can’t hide’ airstrikes.”
There you have it: The president is definitively not comparing John Kerry to Osama Bin Laden. He’s comparing him to Abu Abbas. Or maybe Muammar Qaddafi. Mystery solved.