Anniversary waltz

Prayer service? Political commercial? Moving display of mourning? President Bush's 9/11 events seemed designed to marshal support for toppling Saddam Hussein without ever saying his name.

By Anthony York

Published September 12, 2002 4:55PM (EDT)

With the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop, President Bush capped the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks with a short speech from Ellis Island that was more prayerful than political, peppered with platitudes about the greatness of America, and several mentions of God. With staging fit for a political commercial, the speech capped a day in which the president tacked back and forth between mourning and defiance, offering hints of the next battle in the war against terrorism, but few details.

His Ellis Island speech was a departure from Bush's bellicose remarks earlier in the day at the Pentagon, and is likely to be radically different from the speech he will make before the General Assembly of the United Nations Thursday. Bush chose a reflective tone for his talk Wednesday night, calling the last 12 months "a year of adjustment, of coming to terms with the difficult knowledge that our nation has determined enemies, and that we are not invulnerable to their attacks."

It also seemed an effort to recast the struggle against terrorism as he did in those first days following the attacks last year - as a black and white struggle between good and evil. Bush spoke of "a line in our time" between "the defenders of human liberty, and those who seek to master the minds and souls of others."

But Bush delivered the speech in the eye of a political hurricane. In Washington, Congressional Democrats are beginning to voice their discomfort with the president's head-long movement toward war with Iraq. And in New York tomorrow, Bush will address a hostile crowd at the United Nations General Assembly to plead his case for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, presumably one of "`history's gang of fanatics" referenced by Bush in his speech Wednesday night. The only thing that suggested Hussein in his speech Wednesday was Bush's vow to "not allow any terrorist or tyrant to threaten civilization with weapons of mass murder." (And while the president seemed to refer to Saddam more directly at other points during the day, he got through the anniversary events without ever mentioning him by name.)

The day had enormous political significance for Bush. He called on his former senior advisor, Karen Hughes, to help him mold the primetime Ellis Island speech. And Hughes' fingerprints would seem to be all over Bush's speech to the U.N. Thursday as well. The White House released a background memo on the speech entitled, "A Decade of Deception and Defiance" --vintage Hughes alliteration, from the woman who helped coin "compassionate conservative" and "reformer with results" during Bush's presidential campaign. In Thursday's speech, Bush will focus on Saddam's violation of the cease-fire terms of the Gulf War, and challenge the U.N. to respect its own treaty, which may seem a touch ironic coming from the president who backed away from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Kyoto Protocol.

But all that, Bush seemed to suggest by his tone Wednesday night, could be addressed on Thursday. As Bush said, "Tomorrow is September the 12th. A milestone is passed, and a mission goes on."

The most newsworthy event of the day may well have been "60 Minutes II's" Sept. 11 special, for which CBS received unparalleled access to Bush, Vice President Cheney, Laura Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and a handful of other cabinet members and presidential advisors.

Among the revelations: that President Bush keeps a "terrorist scorecard" in his desk at the Oval Office, and places a check by the names of the ones who have been killed or captured. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the program he gave the famously emotional Bush pointers about how not to break down at the Sept. 14 memorial service at Washington's National Cathedral.

There were also well-choreographed glimpses of Bush the cowboy in the interview. During one phone call to the vice president from Air Force One last Sept. 11, Bush reportedly told Cheney, "We're at war, Dick. We're going to find out who did this and kick their ass. We're not going to have any slap-on-the-wrist crap this time."

It was the emotional Bush who was seen shaking hands and giving hugs in Washington, Pennsylvania and New York Wednesday. But the day was not devoid of politics. Democratic National Committee spokesman Bill Buck criticized the administration for trying to capitalize on Sept. 11 to build support for a military campaign in Iraq. He pointed to the timing of Bush's address to the U.N. and called it "an incredibly cynical attempt to link the emotions and the anger people are feeling today to their war plans for Iraq." Buck said: "It's just part of the Karl Rove political talking points for Republican candidates -- to talk about the war instead of the economy."

Critics on the right were quick to slap back. Amy Ridenour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, says Bush's decision to use Sept. 11 as a date to begin making the case for military force in Iraq is anything but cynical. "I think it's the perfect time because the reason for going into Iraq is to prevent future Sept. 11's," she said. "So while people are thinking about the terrible cost of terrorism is the perfect time for the president to talk about it."

The DNC also attacked a decision by Vice President Dick Cheney to give conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh an interview Wednesday afternoon. DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe said, "Vice President Cheney cheapens the day when he appears with an irresponsible and divisive figure like Rush Limbaugh." Cheney later canceled the interview, but his staff said it was not related to the DNC statement.

"Tuesday morning we postponed the interview until Friday, given the vice president's Monday night unscheduled movement to an undisclosed, secure location," said Cheney spokeswoman Mary Matalin.

Bush made his first speech of the day at the Pentagon, offering an early clue as to how he would mark the anniversary, and to what extent he would encourage Americans to not only remember last year's attacks, but to look forward to the president's planned next step in the war on terrorism: Saddam Hussein.

Bush's anniversary tour consisted of a series of public appearances at each of the three crash sites of last Sept. 11, culminating in the address to the nation from Ellis Island. But he deliberately singled out the Pentagon, the headquarters for the American military, as the only one of the three crash sites to make any public remarks. And they were also, fittingly, his most bellicose.

In an Op-Ed in Wednesday's New York Times, the president used the anniversary of the attacks to make the case for greater American involvement throughout the world. "We will use our position of unparalleled strength and influence to build an atmosphere of international order and openness in which progress and liberty can flourish in many nations," he wrote. But the balance between paying homage to the victims of last Sept. 11, and using the day to gin up support for the Iraq war is a delicate one.

Thursday, Bush delivers his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, where one senior administration official said Bush will discuss Saddam Hussein's "decade of defiance" of U.N. resolutions that marked the end of the Gulf War, and will make his case for "taking action" against Iraq's defiance of U.N. resolutions. But, the official said, the speech will stop short of calling for immediate military intervention in Iraq.

So Wednesday was all about careful positioning. The president began his morning in church, then made a brief appearance at the White House where Bush, flanked by his wife, Laura, and Rice, led a national moment of silence on the White House's South Lawn at 8:46 a.m., the moment the first plane struck the World Trade Center's north tower.

From there, Bush went to the Pentagon, joined by congressional, Cabinet and military leaders and a crowd of more than 13,000. Gen. Tommy Franks addressed the crowd, as did Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who both told the crowd that the struggle that began last Sept. 11 would continue.

"A battle was joined on that day, a battle still unfolding," Rumsfeld said.

In the face of criticism over U.S. willingness to forge ahead unilaterally in Iraq, Rumsfeld praised Bush for the international partnership he forged before striking Afghanistan. "The coalition you have assembled is truly remarkable -- 90 nations, nearly half the world, have taken part," said Rumsfeld, calling it "the greatest military coalition ever assembled in human history." But, Rumsfeld warned, "the terrorists aspire to even greater destruction."

Bush said Wednesday was a day to "renew our commitment to win the war that began here." But, he said, "There's a great deal left to do. The greatest tasks and the greatest dangers will fall to the armed forces of the United States."

Bush did seem to go out of his way to allude to Saddam in his Pentagon speech: "As long as terrorists and dictators plot against our lives, and against our liberty, they will be opposed by the United States."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Dick Cheney Donald Rumsfeld Rush Limbaugh