By Mike McNamee
How much September 11 is enough -- or too much? On the first night of their national convention in New York's Madison Square Garden, Republicans tested the line between fitting tribute and political exploitation of that seminal and wrenching event. Spotlighting the evening's theme of "Courage in America," the GOP showcased police officers, the families of victims, and the emblematic political leader of 9/11 -- then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Their mission: Make the case that only George W. Bush can finish the war on terror that began here, with al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon almost three years ago.
It was a risky gambit. New Yorkers, who lost 2,605 family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers when the Twin Towers collapsed, regard September 11 as a near-holy day -- and their day, not Bush's. The goodwill that the President earned in the period immediately after the attack has long since disappeared in this heavily Democratic city, dissipated in bitter debate over the war in Iraq.
And the Bush campaign has already been harshly criticized for using images of smoking World Trade Center wreckage in campaign ads, which some families who lost loved ones saw as violating the President' pledge not to use that day for political purposes.
So the GOP made a skillful move by slating its paean to courage for the opening night of the convention, when the message would be heard mainly by the party faithful in the Garden. With none of the broadcast networks carrying the proceedings, the national and New York audiences were secondary. And the carefully scripted presentation put some of the strongest images -- of trapped workers leaping from the burning North Tower, of devastated firefighters searching for lost colleagues -- in words that came from Giuliani, whose right to evoke those events is beyond challenge.
Nor did the GOP abandon its central convention mission of presenting moderate faces and centrist themes (see BW Online, 8/31/04, "Gingrich Pitches a Bigger Tent"). The bellicosity was carefully balanced with messages of tolerance and openness, as a conservative Islamic imam opened the session with quotes from the Prophet Mohammed.
But the overall message inside the Garden was clear: "The fight against terrorism...takes courage and inspirational leadership in the White House," declared former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik. "There are two candidates in this race -- but only one fills those needs."
Of course, September 11 is an inescapable theme in the 2004 campaign. "Having a Presidential discussion in 2004 without mentioning [the impact of September 11] would be like having a Presidential election in 1864 without taking into account the impact of the Civil War," says Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie.
Democrats meeting in Boston a month ago frequently invoked the challenges of that day and the national unity that it summoned. And Bush never doubted the power of that event: Within months of the attacks, he picked New York City to host its first-ever GOP convention. Then, the President figured he had arrived on a wave of victories over terror at its Mideastern roots. Instead, he has landed in the swirling eye of domestic discord over the Iraq War.
"A MUCH BIGGER THING."
The GOP message: The tragedy of Ground Zero justifies all of that. "The awful events of September 11, 2001, declared a war we were vaguely aware of," intoned Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bush's 2000 opponent and now the President's most potent ally. "It's a big thing, this war.... It's a fight between right and wrong, good and evil."
And lest anyone think that war shouldn't have reached all the way to Baghdad, McCain added: "Should our enemies acquire for their arsenal the chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons they seek, this war will become a much bigger thing."
McCain was careful not to use the war -- either the battle in Iraq or the broader fight against terror -- to attack Democratic nominee John Kerry. The Arizonan is walking a careful line between the President with whom he's often at odds and his fellow senator and Vietnam Navy veteran. Indeed, McCain reserved his sharpest attack -- and got the biggest applause of the night -- for describing documentarian Michael Moore as "a disingenuous filmmaker who would have us believe that Saddam's Iraq was an oasis of peace."
HOPING FOR V-T DAY.
But Giuliani didn't hesitate. "President Bush sees world terrorism for the evil that it is. John Kerry has no such clear, precise, and consistent vision," the former Mayor declared. "John Kerry's record of inconsistent positions on combating terrorism gives us no confidence he'll pursue a determined course."
Giuliani quickly brought his speech back to the high ground, however, ending the GOP conventioneers' evening with a vision of the final victory over terrorism. "And then, God willing, we'll all be able on a future anniversary of September 11 to return to Ground Zero," Giuliani said, "and say to our fallen brothers and sisters...we have done all we could with our lives that were spared to make your sacrifices build a world of real peace and true freedom."
By bridging from September 11 to that vision of V-T -- Victory over Terror -- Day, the GOP message-meisters hope to marry the zenith of George Bush's first term with a bright hope for his second. If voters take that from Monday's proceedings, the party's calculated risk of tapping September 11 memories could pay off.
McNamee is deputy chief of BusinessWeek's Washington bureau