Oh, how I wish this column were capable of special effects. If it were, the newspaper or computer screen you're reading it on would suddenly morph into a Howler, one of those bright red envelopes in the Harry Potter books that, when opened, begin to shout at the recipient in the sender's voice. In this case, my Greek-accented cry would fill the air:
WAKE UP! WAKE UP!! WAKE UP!!!
The reason for my distress is simple: I've just seen another round of polls showing that, by a hefty 23-point spread, voters think George W. Bush will make the country safer and more secure than John Kerry. Karl Rove's VBD (Vote for Bush or Die) strategy is clearly working.
And I'm left Howlering:
SAFER AND MORE SECURE? IN WHAT UNIVERSE???
For the public to be so dead wrong on this central issue of the campaign, two things had to happen: The GOP had to relentlessly hammer home their lies, and the other side had to let them get away with it.
Last month, John Kerry said: "More than 30 years ago, I learned an important lesson. When you're under attack, the best thing to do is turn your boat into the attack."
The good news is that once he turns his boat into this attack, he will absolutely never run out of ammunition. The facts that prove that George Bush's prosecution of the war on terror has been an unmitigated disaster are profuse and irrefutable.
But this Howler has to come in John Kerry's voice -- and the message has to be delivered not just now and then but pounded home, Rove-style, day after day, week after week, until it sinks in.
Kerry simply cannot, as some are advising, look at the poll numbers, cede national security to the other side, and hope to win by going after Bush on healthcare and jobs.
He needs to hit the president -- again and again and again -- right smack in the middle of his supposed strength: Bush's "strong," "steadfast," "unwavering," "decisive" leadership in the war on terror. This frontal assault on Bush's terror strategy centers on all the ways this president has failed us. So, let me review them:
For starters, there is his disastrous decision, for all intents and purposes a unilateral one, to invade Iraq -- an operation Bush termed a "catastrophic success." More like a catastrophic diversion -- of troops and money and focus that would have been better spent, oh, I don't know, going after the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11.
Right after those attacks, Bush said that capturing Osama bin Laden was "our No. 1 priority." But three years later, bin Laden is still on the loose and plotting to attack us again, a fact that Bush and Cheney keep trying to make us forget -- first by turning him into He Who Must Not Be Named, and second by continuing to trot out the lies connecting Saddam Hussein to 9/11. Lies so thoroughly discredited that even loyal soldier Colin Powell felt compelled last Sunday to shoot them down.
Yet, hard though it is to believe, a Newsweek poll last week found that 42 percent of Americans still think Saddam was "directly involved in planning, financing or carrying out the terrorist attacks."
I feel another Hogwarts Howler coming on: REPEAT AFTER ME: THERE WAS NO CONNECTION BETWEEN SADDAM AND 9/11. NONE! ZERO! ZIP! AAAAAH!
Bush's lust for Iraq kept us from securing Afghanistan, most of which is now under the rule of barbaric warlords, with the Taliban and the country's drug trade -- a major source of funding for terrorist efforts worldwide -- making a comeback.
What's more, Bush's Baghdad folly has allowed the terrorists to regroup. At his convention, the president had the gall to claim that "more than three-quarters of al-Qaida's key members and associates have been detained or killed," which makes it sound like the war on terror is all but won: "75 percent down, just a measly 25 percent to go!"
In truth, according to a study by the respected International Institute for Strategic Studies: "Al-Qaida has fully reconstituted and set its sights firmly on the USA." The report also found that the war on Iraq had "helped al-Qaida recruit more members."
Still feeling safer? Then let's take a trip down nerve-racking memory lane, back to October 2001, when President Bush held a photo op at FBI headquarters and announced a list of America's 22 most wanted terrorists -- a terrifying lineup he called "the first 22" in a long-term struggle, "leaders and key supporters ... planners and strategists." Three years later, just three of these most wanted have been captured or killed. The other 19 are still on the loose.
So is it really any surprise that the number of people killed and wounded in worldwide terrorist attacks is on the rise?
Bush has also failed to stem the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials. Take North Korea and Iran. The president's all-consuming focus on Iraq has allowed the other two spokes on the Axis of Evil to push forward with their nuclear programs. While we were spending billions looking for Saddam's nonexistent WMD, Kim Jong Il was building more nukes and the mullahs in Tehran were racing to do the same.
As if that weren't bad enough, Bush has dragged his feet on efforts to keep loose nukes in the former Soviet Union from falling into the wrong hands.
Still thinking Bush is the man to keep us safe and secure? Then consider just a few of the ways he has robbed our Homeland Security Peter to pay his foreign occupation Paul:
Our ports are still woefully unprotected and underfunded. Since 9/11, Bush has allocated just $441 million of the $7.5 billion the Coast Guard says it will cost to protect our ports from terrorist attack. And, obviously not having learned the lessons of Madrid, Spain, he's earmarked just $100 million for rail security -- about what we spend on eight typical hours in Iraq. The president has likewise shortchanged airport security: Only eight of America's 440 airports have state-of-the-art baggage screening machines.
And how's this for a kick in the teeth? The president's cutbacks have actually left fewer police and first responders on the streets today than were there on 9/11. That's right: Bush has responded to the worst attack on American soil by making us less prepared to deal with another one.
So let's recap: Under George Bush, the guy who is going to keep us safer, Osama has gone free; al-Qaida has reloaded; terrorist attacks continue unabated; nukes keep on spreading; the Muslim world is ferociously united against us (and the rest of the world isn't too crazy about us either); our ports, railways, roads and borders remain unsecured; our police, firefighters and first responders remain underequipped; and our armed forces have been stretched perilously thin.
I'm all for having the election be a referendum on which candidate will make the country safe and secure -- but only after Kerry's inner Howler has had his say.
Said Howler is on cinematic display in a powerful new documentary coming to a theater near you the day after the first -- and only? -- presidential debate. For me, the highlight of George Butler's "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry" is the story of Kerry's courageous and inspiring efforts as a leader of the Vietnam veterans' antiwar movement.
If Kerry can make the case against Bush's tragic failures in Iraq and the war on terror with half as much urgency and moral clarity as he did against Nixon's failures in Vietnam, the American people will be able to enter the voting booth on Election Day with their eyes wide open.