Politicians are often eager to outdo their foes with media images of greater patriotism or piety. But in mid-May 2002, Republican and Democratic leaders also vied to appear more offended than their opponents.
The catalyst was a GOP effort to boost campaign donations by offering the faithful a Sept. 11 photo taken as President Bush spoke on a phone aboard Air Force One. At the Democratic National Committee, rainmaker-in-chief Terry McAuliffe called the move “grotesque” and
declared: “We know it’s the Republicans’ strategy to use the war for political gain, but I would hope that even the most cynical partisan operative would have cowered at the notion of exploiting the Sept. 11 tragedy in this way.”
A Republican spokesman quickly defended hawking the Sept. 11 picture, which is part of a “limited edition series” that includes a pair of photos from Bush’s inaugural and his speech to the joint session of Congress soon after 9-11. “These pictures are of historic moments from the president’s first year and are living testimony of his courage under fire, and leadership,” said Carl Forti. “It is frankly offensive that anyone would suggest otherwise.”
With both parties properly offended, a genuine media flap ensued. The displays of tender sensibilities could hardly have been more contrived, but the sniping was significant as an opening skirmish in a protracted media battle ahead — to define the boundaries of political uses for 9-11 imagery in upcoming congressional races and the struggle for the White House in 2004.
Democrats yearn to set tight limits on the inevitable attempts to cloak GOP candidates with hallowed Sept. 11 symbols. But Republicans are determined to retain the valuable political finery.
Genuine shock on Sept. 11 did nothing to displace the ongoing processes of political calculation. That day’s tragic events made it possible to drastically reduce the number of Americans who were apt to see George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as no more statesmanlike or compassionate than Howdy Doody and Phineas T. Bluster. For a president who’d finished second in popular votes, any hard-nosed calculus could grasp that the Sept. 11 tragedy, while horrific, was a political godsend.
Predictably, month after month, the loyal opposition in Washington largely confined itself to loyalty. Democratic Party tacticians abetted Bush’s key post-9-11 policies. Keep hundreds of people behind bars while tossing the precious right of habeas corpus on the junk heap? No big deal. Kill a few thousand Afghan civilians with Pentagon firepower in the name of “the war on terrorism”? Not a problem. Support the Israeli government as it mimics the apartheid-era South African regime with new heights of deadly repression? Sure. Launch the biggest long-term upsurge of U.S. military spending in decades? God bless America.
But as the November elections draw near, top Democrats cannot stand idly by and let the Bush administration play its political hand with Sept. 11 imagery. “While most pictures are worth a thousand words,” said Al Gore, “a photo that seeks to capitalize on one of the most tragic moments in our nation’s history is worth only one — disgraceful.”
Akin to condemning Al Capone for jaywalking, the controversy over Bush’s 9-11 photograph reflects the alignment of both major parties within the wingspan of the establishment media. And vice versa.
With few exceptions, political journalists don’t perceive an issue as worth covering unless there’s a split within or between the two parties. When such a split exists, then reporters devote appreciable coverage to the matter, and pundits are pleased to choose up sides.
Unhappy that the Republicans are marketing the set of 9-11 photos for a minimal $150 contribution, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd complained bitterly: “With all the class of a 1:30 a.m. infomercial for an electronic ab stimulator, the GOP pitched donors, for a bargain price, a pictorial triptych of W.’s ‘defining moments.’”
But much of the media backlash seems due to sentiment that exploitation of Sept. 11 should be less tacky and more subtle. The photo fund-raising gambit lacks the sort of propagandistic refinement that graces numerous Bush speeches, which continue to gain Democratic nods and media plaudits while invoking 9-11 to back up visions of an ever-mightier Pentagon as a pivotal solution to the world’s problems.
A new stage is underway in a bait-and-switch process that began more than eight months ago, with fervent praise from news media. First came a glut of patriotic imagery and simplistic presidential oratory, all touted as wondrous expressions of sorrow, caring and human solidarity. The star-spangled visual images and carefully crafted Bush applause lines were soon affixed to missiles that shattered Afghan lives as innocent and numerous as those lost at the World Trade Center.
Now, the bait-and-switch is turning into an election-year sales pitch. To the extent that partisan strategists see any advantage, 9-11 imagery will be plastered onto campaign machinery. You may not like it, but you’ll probably get used to it.