Democratic officials, a firefighters union and some relatives of Sept. 11 victims assailed President Bush on Thursday for using video images from the site of the collapsed World Trade Center towers in the first round of his reelection campaign’s television advertisements.
Three of the ads show the ruins of one of the towers. Two of the ads, one in English and an identical version in Spanish, also show firefighters carrying the flag-draped remains of a victim from ground zero. Critics called these ads “unconscionable,” “inappropriate” and “in poor taste.”
Bush campaign officials strenuously defended the ads as a legitimate and sensitive depiction of the president’s leadership in crisis, his commitment to New Yorkers and his resolve to fight terrorism. They circulated a statement from former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to buttress their argument.
“Sept. 11 is the defining event of our times,” Giuliani said. “This was a shared experience that the American people have all been through together.”
He added that Bush’s “leadership on that day is central to his record, and his continued leadership is critical to our ultimate success against world terrorism.”
The campaign officials also noted that many of the ads’ critics had been opposed to Bush long before the spots went on the air.
But to some people whose lives were touched directly by the terrorist attacks, the ads went over the line.
“It’s offensive that he would have the audacity to use 9/11 in a political campaign,” said Kristen Breitweiser, 33, of New Jersey, whose husband, Ronald, died at the World Trade Center. Breitweiser has been critical of Bush’s handling of an investigation into the attacks.
As a practical matter, analysts said, it would be all but impossible to expect the president to refrain from visual references to the Sept. 11 attacks as he seeks reelection. But the initial furor sparked in some quarters made it clear that Bush is treading on potentially treacherous political ground.
“I think one needs to be aware that firefighters and those whose families died on Sept. 11 bring a very strong emotional reaction to any use of images from that time,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an authority on political advertisements.
Controversy over the president and Sept. 11 imagery is not new. In May 2002, Bush allowed GOP fundraisers to sell a photograph of him aboard Air Force One on the day of the attacks. Democrats accused him of exploiting tragedy for political gain; the White House dismissed the criticism.
With this year’s Republican National Convention to be held in New York a few days before the third anniversary of the attacks, there is bound to be further debate over the intersection of politics and the attacks.
Some analysts noted that politicians frequently show footage of disasters, whether natural or man-made, to try to convince voters of their leadership skills.
“It’s part of the political playbook,” said Evan Tracey, whose Virginia-based firm, TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, monitors political advertising. “You want to show you can handle crisis.” Tracey said several candidates and groups have referred to Sept. 11 in their ads. He said the Sierra Club did so in an ad critical of Bush.
The Bush campaign is airing its ads in 17 states that he won or lost by only a few percentage points in 2000. They are also on several national cable outlets.
The ads provoked a backlash as soon as they aired. Relatives of Sept. 11 victims went on television to criticize them; the International Assn. of Fire Fighters approved a resolution asking the campaign to pull the ads.
Lorie Van Auken, 48, of New Jersey, whose husband died in the attacks, called the ads “inappropriate” and said they were the center of conversation among people who lost family members.
“Everybody’s outraged that I’ve spoken to, completely outraged,” she said.
The New York Daily News quoted another family member who felt otherwise.
“It speaks to the truth of the times,” Jennie Farrell, who lost a brother, told the newspaper. “Sept. 11 ... was something beyond the realm of imagination, and George Bush ... led us through one of the darkest moments in history.”
Firefighters are shown in several parts of the ads, which angered the head of the firefighters association. The union months ago endorsed Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who this week became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
“I am absolutely disgusted and I find it disgraceful that the president would use images of our firefighters and our members carrying one of their own out of that disaster,” said Harold A. Schaitberger, the union chief.
He joined several Democratic officials in calling on the Bush campaign to withdraw the ads.
“We respect the right of Kerry’s campaign and their supporters to disagree, but the events of 9/11 have forever shaped how this country moves forward on fundamental issues in this campaign,” said Terry Holt, the reelection campaign’s press secretary.
Privately, some Democratic strategists agreed that Bush should be able to invoke the disaster, as long as he doesn’t overplay the theme.
“A lot of public officials have done significant work in the wake of 9/11,” said one Democratic congressional aide. “It’s a big part of their record, and they should be allowed to talk about it.”
Said another: “If the shoe were on the other foot, there’d be 9/11 ads coming out of the Kerry White House.”