As a self-described "war president," George W. Bush will, his backers hope, get a boost when he returns this summer for the Republican National Convention to the city where he gained his presidential footing and stature. But the atmospherics of New York, Bush is discovering, are not easily controlled, and the Republicans find themselves grappling with the thorny wilderness of ground zero, 9/11 and politics.
Blithe Republican speculation that ground zero might be used during the convention as a backdrop for Bush has provoked outrage, especially from some 9/11 victims' families already frustrated with the White House's lack of cooperation with the independent commission investigating the attacks. The commission itself looms large for Republican convention-goers anxious to see Bush bathe in a patriotic spotlight. The commission's voluminous final report will detail key national-security failures that led to the deaths of nearly 3,000 people on 9/11. And that potentially damaging report may well be released just as the GOP convenes.
Last week the Hill, the congressional weekly, quoted "one GOP insider" and "a veteran official of past GOP conventions" as saying there is "a real possibility we could see President Bush giving his acceptance speech at Ground Zero. It's clearly a venue they're considering." The article noted that with little inherent drama attached to the convention itself, Republican impresarios are searching for ways to inject more excitement into the event in order to attract TV viewers. What could be a more stirring tableau than Bush at ground zero?
"We read that and we were just sick to our stomachs," says David Pototari, co-director of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
"It's totally inappropriate," says Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ronald, was killed at the World Trade Center. "The president won't testify before the entire 9/11 commission, he won't testify under oath, and he fought the creation of the commission for one year. So for him to have the audacity to even think of going to ground zero is absolutely deplorable. That's sacred ground. That's solemn, holy ground where my husband and 3,000 others were murdered. It doesn't belong to politics."
But a spokesman for William Harris, the chief executive of the Republican National Convention, insists that the Hill's story is false. No, the party has no such plans, none at all, for Bush's acceptance speech or any other convention-related activities. "Bill has said repeatedly we don't have events planned for ground zero," says Leslie Beyer. "I don't know where somebody would get that idea. It's not even an option."
The impression that Republicans will exploit 9/11 for political gain during their convention has been simmering since New York was chosen as the convention site. The suspicion arose in part because New York City and New York state remain safely in Democratic hands for the upcoming elections, making NYC an unusual choice for a Republican rally. Also, the nominating convention will be held later than any other in modern history, from Aug. 30 to Sept.2, concluding just days before the annual 9/11 memorials. When the dates of the convention were first announced, Republican officials claimed they simply did not want to compete with the summer Olympics, which will be held in Athens, Greece from Aug. 11 to 29.
But conservative supporters of Bush are clear that the White House wants the president, who's running on a theme of "steady" leadership and national security, to return to the city of the 9/11 attacks, where his advisors believe Bush came into his own as president. As Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told Salon last year, hosting the convention in New York City "could send a message that Republicans are strong on national defense, which plays to their strength." But, he warned, "if it becomes too much of an issue -- is 9/11 being exploited? -- the president could end up on the wrong side of that and having to play defense."
Last year Republicans were forced to play defense when the New York Times reported that New York's Republican governor, George Pataki, was hoping to lay a cornerstone during the Republican convention for the proposed 1,776-foot spire at the focal point of the reconstruction, a public ceremony that would likely draw top Republican officials to the 9/11 site. The following day the Times ran a clarification from Pataki's spokeswoman, who said that state officials had decided against the cornerstone ceremony although they had considered it at one point. Yet criticism that Republicans were trying to score points off 9/11 has persisted.
Republicans repeatedly stress they have no plans to exploit 9/11 during the convention. But last summer former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani signaled that discussion of Bush's actions during 9/11 would not be off limits. "There is no escaping the fact that Sept. 11 is going to be analyzed from a political point of view," Giuliani said. "Opponents are going to find things to criticize, and those of us who support the president are going to rightfully use it as an example of his very strong leadership."
Some of the 9/11 families wonder why Bush would want to shine a spotlight on 9/11 at all, since they insist it highlights a massive breakdown of his government to prevent the attack. "It's a symbol of failure," Pototari says. "The president is charged with defending this country, and literally nothing was done during the two hours of attack to defend the county. I've never been able to understand how Republicans have turned this tragedy into a victory."
"Everything that could go wrong went wrong," says Lori Van Auken, who also lost her husband on 9/11. "Every defensive measure failed."
The recent speculation about the convention and the suspicion of Republican motives arise against the backdrop of bitter wrangling between the 9/11 commission and the Bush administration. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States was established by Congress to study the nation's preparedness before Sept. 11, 2001, and its response to the attacks and to make recommendations for the future. From the start, the White House opposed the creation of the commission and has battled over funding as well as access to key documents.
Last week, the White House announced that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice refused to testify before the commission in public. Two weeks ago, Bush publicly accepted the commission's invitation to sit for private questions. But the White House backtracked through clarification: Bush would meet only with the commission's chairman and vice chairman, not the full 10-member commission, and would do so for only one hour. By contrast, former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore have agreed to meet privately with all members of the commission for lengthy sessions.
"If you're proud of your actions, you explain what happened," says Van Auken. "If you're not proud, you do it behind closed doors with two commissioners for one hour."
Even more contentious has been the battle over the commission's deadline, which currently stands at May 27. In January, the commission's leaders asked Congress for an extension to finish its final report. The White House opposed giving it any more time. Bush soon reversed his position and claimed to be pressuring Republicans in Congress to grant the commission more time, but Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert refused to allow a vote in the House granting an extension. It is hard to imagine that the Speaker was acting as a rogue and not as an agent of the administration. By week's end, a Democratic member of the commission, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, threatened to resign in protest if the extension was not granted. Hastert finally backed down and signaled he would allow a vote on giving the commission more time.
If the extension is granted, Americans may get their first detailed account of the 9/11 failures just as Bush prepares for his high-profile return to New York, but not, apparently, to ground zero.