Vanished Towers, Vanished Leadership

By E. J. Dionne Jr. (THE WASHINGTON POST, 08/09/06):

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, are personal to every American. The day was not about politics or partisanship or elections. That’s why the country, divided more or less 50-50 on political matters the day before the terrorist attacks, immediately drew together in sorrow, solidarity and determination. The rest of the world stood with us.

Five years later, you look at the rancid state of our politics, the decline in America’s standing in the world and the behavior of our national leadership, and you want to shed tears for your nation. This year, so much of what’s being said about the events of Sept. 11 is about the political survival of the Bush administration.

Our household’s personal ties to that day pass through a neighborhood arrayed along the Atlantic Ocean in Rockaway, Queens, where my mother-in-law and two of my wife’s brothers live.

That middle-class community is the home of many firefighters, police officers and mid-level employees of companies that happened to be housed in the World Trade Center buildings. In Rockaway, terrorism is not an abstraction.

Something missing in your skyline, we learned, can be as powerful a presence as something that’s actually there. My kids always knew we were about to get to Grandma’s house when we crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Staten Island to Brooklyn. One of them would inevitably shout out, “The Twin Towers!” Whenever we cross that bridge now, the silence in the car and the absence of those buildings are a memorial to a day of pain and outrage.

Because Sept. 11 was experienced so personally, divisions melted. In our household my wife and I instructed our kids that all of us should wish President Bush well and hope for his success. Surely something like this happened in millions of other homes where Bush was not exactly a political hero.

For a while, Bush himself changed. He abandoned unilateralism in pursuit of a broad international coalition against terrorism. He cooperated with Democratic leaders, transforming a partisan administration into a coalition presidency. Perhaps Bush would follow the example of that unifying Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

History did not unfold that way.

Understanding the hope and truly national feeling of determination during that extraordinary moment five years ago is the only way to comprehend why hostility to the president has become so strong and why the country is now so divided. The temptation to use the nation’s abhorrence of terrorism as a political tool was simply too strong for Bush to resist.

By mid-2002, the fight against terrorism was a means for winning a midterm election. A significant portion of the Republican National Convention in 2004 was given over to turning Sept. 11 into the backdrop for the Bush reelection campaign.

And on Tuesday, there was Bush’s truly astonishing address to the Military Officers Association of America. Having not talked much about Osama bin Laden for years, Bush couldn’t stop talking about him. By my count, bin Laden got 17 mentions.

Bush touted bin Laden’s dream of a “caliphate” that “would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.”

Building up the theoretical threat of bin Laden’s “radical empire” is a nifty way to shift attention away from the questions on the minds of most voters. What will this administration do to fix its flawed and terribly executed policy in Iraq? And if bin Laden is the threat after all, what exactly are we doing in Iraq? And why have we allowed the situation in Afghanistan to deteriorate?

The president has no good answers, so he wants to lift the whole debate to a misty, ideological plane where he can bunch bin Laden with Hitler and Lenin as totalitarian threats. A president who kept quiet about bin Laden when doing so served his political purposes now revives him rhetorically just before the anniversary of Sept. 11, at a moment when his party is in grave jeopardy in another election.

Whenever the president gets into trouble, he tries to remind us of who he was in the months immediately after Sept. 11, 2001. Most of us respected that George W. Bush.

But maybe that Bush was just a figment of the imagination of all Americans who actually thought the events of five years ago transcended partisan politics. Too bad that was an illusion.