SYNOPSIS: A discussion of George W. Bush campaign to exploit the tragedy of September 11th, 2001 and the Iraq war for his own political gain
Gen. Georges Boulanger cut a fine figure; he looked splendid in uniform, and magnificent on horseback. So his handlers made sure that he appeared in uniform, astride a horse, as often as possible.
It worked: Boulanger became immensely popular. If he hadn't lost his nerve on the night of the attempted putsch, French democracy might have ended in 1889.
We do things differently here — or we used to. Has "man on horseback" politics come to America?
Some background: the Constitution declares the president commander in chief of the armed forces to make it clear that civilians, not the military, hold ultimate authority. That's why American presidents traditionally make a point of avoiding military affectations. Dwight Eisenhower was a victorious general and John Kennedy a genuine war hero, but while in office neither wore anything that resembled military garb.
Given that history, George Bush's "Top Gun" act aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln — c'mon, guys, it wasn't about honoring the troops, it was about showing the president in a flight suit — was as scary as it was funny.
Mind you, it was funny. At first the White House claimed that the dramatic tail-hook landing was necessary because the carrier was too far out at sea to use a helicopter. In fact the ship was so close to shore that, according to The Associated Press, administration officials "acknowledged positioning the ship to provide the best angle for Bush's speech, with the sea as his background instead of the San Diego coastline."
A U.S.-based British journalist told me that he and his colleagues had laughed through the whole scene. If Tony Blair had tried such a stunt, he said, the press would have demanded to know how many hospital beds could have been provided for the cost of the jet fuel.
But U.S. television coverage ranged from respectful to gushing. Nobody pointed out that Mr. Bush was breaking an important tradition. And nobody seemed bothered that Mr. Bush, who appears to have skipped more than a year of the National Guard service that kept him out of Vietnam, is now emphasizing his flying experience. (Spare me the hate mail. An exhaustive study by The Boston Globe found no evidence that Mr. Bush fulfilled any of his duties during that missing year. And since Mr. Bush has chosen to play up his National Guard career, this can't be shrugged off as old news.)
Anyway, it was quite a show. Luckily for Mr. Bush, the frustrating search for bin Laden somehow morphed into a good old-fashioned war, the kind where you seize the enemy's capital and get to declare victory after a cheering crowd pulls down the tyrant's statue. (It wasn't much of a crowd, and American soldiers actually brought down the statue, but it looked great on TV.)
Let me be frank. Why is the failure to find any evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear weapons program, or vast quantities of chemical and biological weapons (a few drums don't qualify — though we haven't found even that) a big deal? Mainly because it feeds suspicions that the war wasn't waged to eliminate real threats. This suspicion is further fed by the administration's lackadaisical attitude toward those supposed threats once Baghdad fell. For example, Iraq's main nuclear waste dump wasn't secured until a few days ago, by which time it had been thoroughly looted. So was it all about the photo ops?
Well, Mr. Bush got to pose in his flight suit. And given the absence of awkward questions, his handlers surely feel empowered to make even more brazen use of the national security issue in future.
Next year — in early September — the Republican Party will hold its nominating convention in New York. The party will exploit the time and location to the fullest. How many people will dare question the propriety of the proceedings?
And who will ask why, if the administration is so proud of its response to Sept. 11, it has gone to such lengths to prevent a thorough, independent inquiry into what actually happened? (An independent study commission wasn't created until after the 2002 election, and it has been given little time and a ludicrously tiny budget.)
There was a time when patriotic Americans from both parties would have denounced any president who tried to take political advantage of his role as commander in chief. But that, it seems, was another country.
Originally published in The New York Times, 5.6.03