Before attending a rally to hear Vice President Dick Cheney, citizens in New Mexico were required to sign a political loyalty oath approved by the Republican National Committee. "I, (full name) ... do herby (sic) endorse George W. Bush for reelection of the United States." The form noted: "In signing the above endorsement you are consenting to use and release of your name by Bush-Cheney as an endorser of President Bush."
Around the country, Bush is campaigning at events billed as "Ask President Bush." Only supporters are allowed entrance. Talking points are distributed to questioners. In Traverse City, Mich., a 55-year-old social studies teacher who wore a small Kerry sticker on her blouse had her ticket torn up at the door. "How can anyone in the United States deny someone entry?" she asked. "Isn't this a democracy?"
At every "Ask President Bush" rally, Bush repeats the same speech, touting a "vibrant economy" and his leadership in a war where "you cannot show weakness." He introduces local entrepreneurs who praise his tax cuts. (More than 1 million jobs have been lost in his term, the worst record since Herbert Hoover.) Then Bush calls on questioners. More than one-fifth of them profess their evangelical faith or denounce gay marriage. In Niceville, Fla., one said: "This is the very first time that I have felt that God was in the White House." "Thank you," replied Bush. Another: "Mr. President, as a child how can I help you get votes?" In Albuquerque, he received this question: "It's an honor every day when I get to pray for you as president." And this one: "Thank God we finally have a commander in chief." Others repeat attack lines on John Kerry's military record to which Bush responds with an oblique but encouraging "thanks."
Bush's overriding strategy is to bolster his credential as a decisive military figure and to impugn his opponent's manhood. In his latest TV commercial, he says, "We cannot hesitate, we cannot yield, we must do everything in our power to bring an enemy to justice before they hurt us again." But, according to the Washington Post, for the last two years he has uttered the elusive Osama bin Laden's name only 10 times, and "on six of those occasions it was because he was asked a direct question ... Not once during that period has he talked about bin Laden at any length, or said anything substantive." At "Ask President Bush" events, he mentions Sept. 11 only to raise the threat of Saddam Hussein.
Vice President Dick Cheney (who had five draft deferments during Vietnam, saying he had "other priorities") sneered at John Kerry for even using the word "sensitive" with respect to counterterrorism. Not one war was "won by being sensitive," mocked Cheney. Kerry, in fact, had called for fighting "a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side and lives up to American values in history." Cheney's distortion is calculated to attempt to portray Kerry as somehow effeminate.
At the same time, a Republican front group of Vietnam veterans financed by a major Bush contributor is running an ad campaign claiming Kerry's account of his military record is false. But not one of these veterans served with him on his boat. They remain enraged that he had the temerity to return home decorated with combat medals to become a leader against the war.
During the Vietnam War, of course, Bush famously used his father's connections to get a posting as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard, known as the "Champagne Unit" because it was filled with the sons of privilege. After refusing to submit to a routine drug test, he was suspended and never flew again. He got himself transferred to the Alabama National Guard, but apparently never turned up for his tour of duty. Not one person has stepped forward to claim he served with Bush there. Since then, he has withheld his full military records. Now he encourages smears that claim a genuine war hero, wounded three times, has lied about his service and is a coward. But this is more than a classic case of projection. The more profound issue is not who served in Vietnam and who dodged. It is whether the president is a sovereign.
Since the birth of the American party system, presidential candidates have always gone directly to the sovereign people, who are the only source of legitimacy and power, to make their case. After the Democratic Convention, Kerry traveled from New England to the Pacific Northwest doing just that. Not one of the hundreds of thousands who attended his open-air rallies had to pledge allegiance to him, and he encountered organized Bush hecklers as part of the price. At Bush's rallies he is the packaged president as pseudo-populist. But these controlled environments reflect his deeper view of the presidency as sovereign, preempting democracy.
Floundering in the polls, without a strategy for Iraq, unwilling to say the name of bin Laden, he is always secure in the knowledge that the cheering multitudes before him have been carefully selected. Strutting and swaggering on the stage as though he has conquered the crowd, he plays to true believers. But a 55-year-old social studies teacher from small-town Michigan who would not bend her knee had her ticket to see her president ripped up. "Ask President Bush" has crystallized the essential underlying question, framed succinctly by the greatest American poet of democracy, Walt Whitman, who wrote, "The President is there in the White House for you, it is not you who are here for him."