How Low Will They Go

The Globe and Mail: “George W. Bush tripped over the wreckage of the World Trade Center and stumbled into controversy yesterday as he tried to take the high road with an expensive advertising campaign for re-election but was immediately attacked for playing politics with tragedy.
Relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks lashed out at the President’s first major TV ad campaign, saying it was both insensitive and inaccurate. Relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks lashed out at the President’s first major TV ad campaign, saying it was both insensitive and inaccurate.

Four ads, with the slogan “Safer. Stronger” were designed to lift Mr. Bush’s image above the partisan anger that defines the early days of the election campaign. They began running yesterday, with a $10-million (U.S.) budget, in 16 key states.

One commercial begins with Mr. Bush strolling toward the camera. A moment later, the wreckage of the World Trade Center appears on the TV screen, followed by firefighters and grieving victims.

Then come some U.S. flags, and the motto: “Safer. Stronger. President Bush: Steady Leadership in Times of Change.”

The juxtaposition drew angry responses from several groups connected to relatives of victims of the attacks.

“I find it offensive that he has used 9/11 as a pretext for the election,” said Colleen Kelly, whose brother, Bill Kelly Jr., died in the World Trade Center and who has become a leader of the victims’ movement. For her, “9/11 was a failure of this President to act.”

Ron Willett of Walnut Shade, Mo., was quoted by Reuters as saying he was disgusted when he saw the ads. Mr. Willett, whose 29-year-old son John Charles was killed, said he is now so upset, “I would vote for Saddam Hussein before I would vote for Bush.”

The pro-Democrat International Association of Fire Fighters condemned the ads as “hypocrisy at its worst.” The union had already endorsed Democratic Senator John Kerry in his bid for the presidency.

The quick and furious reaction put Mr. Bush’s staff on the defensive for much of the day and led some of his most prominent allies to step forward with support.

Karen Hughes, the President’s long-time communications adviser who left the White House in 2002, appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America to defend the commercials as “tastefully done.”

“Sept. 11 is not some distant event in the past,” she said. “It’s also important to recognize the impact it had on our national public policy.”

Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has been touted as a possible running mate for Mr. Bush should Vice-President Dick Cheney step down, issued a statement through the Bush-Cheney campaign defending the commercials.

“His leadership on that day is central to his record and his continued leadership is critical to our ultimate success against world terrorism,” Mr. Giuliani, who was mayor at the time of the attacks, said in the statement.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan defended the use of Sept. 11 as a campaign device, saying it “changed the equation in our public policy. It forever changed the world. The President’s steady leadership is vital to how we wage war on terrorism.”

The Republican Party will hold its election-year convention in New York in late August, and there has been talk of Mr. Bush returning to the World Trade Center site as part of his appearance.

However, the first wave of campaign ads was an inauspicious start to the eight-month campaign that will see an evenly divided U.S. public vote for a President on Nov. 2. Although Mr. Bush has raised an unprecedented $150-million in campaign funds, his public-approval rating has slipped below 50 per cent for the first time this year.

An Associated Press poll yesterday showed Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry evenly matched with 46 and 45 per cent of voter support, respectively, and independent Ralph Nader receiving 6 per cent.

With the race so tight, both parties are aggressively trying to portray their candidate as something other than what most voters think them to be.

Both men are well-bred sons of wealthy and powerful East Coast families; both were educated at Yale and were admitted to its most exclusive secret society; both spent their childhood rubbing shoulders with the leading figures in business and politics.

But Mr. Bush has the advantage of speaking with an accent, picked up during his youth in Texas, that doesn’t sound terribly East Coast. This, and his informal style of oratory, have helped him to be seen as a down-home boy. Republican officials now worry, however, that he is being seen as a bumbling cowboy and are using the expensive ads to give him a more “presidential” countenance.

Mr. Kerry has made considerable efforts to appear as less of an upper-crust elite. Although educated at private schools in Switzerland and top U.S. prep schools (facts that the Republicans have begun repeating), he has recently made a point of appearing in public in denim shirts, referring to his military service in the 1960s rather than his Yale experience, and donning skates and playing hockey.

“For all our egalitarianism, Americans like the narrative of the dauphin turned man of the people,” said David Greenberg, a Yale historian who specializes in the presidency.

“We like our leaders’ elite pedigrees, as long as they are worn lightly.”


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