The White House said that the president's prime-time 9/11 anniversary speech wouldn't be a "political" one, and, by the standards of this administration, it wasn't. The president avoided calling his political opponents "appeasers," an argument Dick Cheney reprised in his own anniversary remarks earlier in the day, and he didn't argue, as Cheney did over the weekend, that terrorists are "encouraged" when Americans debate the future of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
As Tony Snow promised the other day, the president made "no attempts" -- well, at least no explicit attempts -- "to segregate Democrats from Republicans." That said, haven't we reached a sorry moment in our nation's history when the White House press secretary feels the need to assure Americans that our president won't use the anniversary of our darkest day as an opportunity for "segregating" us by political party?
As a candidate, George W. Bush called himself a "uniter, not a divider," someone who would "refuse to play the politics of putting people into groups and pitting one group against another." As president, Bush declared that you're either "with us" or "with the terrorists," and his administration has made it clear over the past five years that while foreign governments only sometimes have to make that either/or choice, the American people always do.
Two weeks after 9/11, the president's then press secretary told Americans that they "need to watch what they say, watch what they do." Five years later, his secretary of defense equates critics of the war in Iraq with Nazi appeasers, his secretary of state compares them with Civil War-era slavery supporters, and his vice president -- never a man of metaphor -- says that the basic democratic act of voting for a candidate who wants to see the troops redeployed comes perilously close to treason.
The White House knows that something more subtle is required of the president himself, particularly on the anniversary of an attack that claimed nearly 3,000 American lives and amid an unpopular war that has claimed nearly 3,000 more. So Bush didn't call out anyone by name Monday night; he didn't say that Republicans are here or that Democrats are there. But it wouldn't be fair to call the president's 9/11 commemorations apolitical.
Bush laid wreaths at ground zero Sunday, and the Washington Post said Monday morning that the event "left aside the partisan rancor that long ago supplanted the sense of unity and shared purpose" that prevailed in the days immediately after 9/11. Perhaps what the paper meant was that Bush left aside some of the partisans. New York's Republican governor and New York City's Republican mayor and former mayor were invited to join the president at the wreath-laying event; as the American Prospect reports, the state's two Democratic senators were apparently not.
Monday night's speech wasn't exactly a "We Are All Americans" moment, either. The president spoke eloquently and appropriately of the need for a "unified country" in a time of war. But when he said that "we must put aside our differences and work together to meet the test that history has given us," he acknowledged neither the extraordinary efforts his administration has taken to exploit the differences among Americans nor the fact that the test we face most immediately -- the war in Iraq -- is one that he, not history, has put on the table before us.
Cheney said Sunday that if he had it to do all over again, he'd do "exactly the same thing" in ridding the world of Saddam Hussein. Bush seemed to acknowledge some unidentified errors Monday night, but he steered clear of any acceptance of responsibility that could have made reconciliation easier. "Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq," Bush said, "the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone." In a single sentence, the president minimized his administration's colossal miscalculations and set up yet another straw-man argument about his opponents' views. Yes, it would be a mistake to think that withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq would cause the terrorists to leave us alone. But we don't know of any war critics who think such a thing; indeed, most critics -- and most Americans -- think the war in Iraq doesn't have much to do with the war on terrorism one way or another. Invading Iraq hasn't made us safe from terrorists; leaving it won't, either.
It wasn't the only straw man the president set up and knocked down Monday night, nor was it the only time he glossed over the legitimate questions many of us have about his policies. He boasted of creating the Department of Homeland Security whose very creation he once opposed, then he ticked off his other "successes" in rapid-fire succession: tearing down "the wall" between law enforcement and intelligence; tightening security at "airports and seaports and borders"; creating "new programs to monitor enemy bank records and phone calls."
Bush could have said that he understands why some Americans have concerns about these programs. He could have offered to work with Democrats or even with critics in his own party to address them. He didn't. What the president did was simply demand what he once had: a country that was "unified" behind him, a country that was ready to make the sacrifices that he never asked of it. Is it too late for Bush to get all of that back? Probably, but he isn't really making much of an effort. When the president said Monday night that Americans must "put aside our differences and work together," he gave no sign that this politics-free coming together would be anything other than a one-way deal. You put aside your differences, you work together with me, and I'll be the president who wages war, expands the power of the executive branch and presides over two more of these unhappy anniversaries.