As White House officials sought approval from television executives for a coveted prime-time broadcast of President Bush’s Oval Office address commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they said publicly that the speech would steer clear of politics.
As late as Sunday, as Bush prepared for a raft of Sept. 11 ceremonies, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters that the address was “not going to be a political speech -- there are no calls to action, there are no attempts to segregate Democrats from Republicans.”
But Bush’s inclusion in his remarks Monday night of a stout defense of his policies in Iraq -- as well as his suggestion that a united front was needed on the subject -- sent Democrats scrambling to issue late-night responses and prompted at least one network to adjust its programming to make time for political analysis. And the controversy continued Tuesday, as debate flared over whether Bush inappropriately politicized a day set aside for memorials and solemn reflection.
The dispute comes eight weeks before voters are to decide which party will control Congress for Bush’s final two years in office, and underscores how each side is vying to make the issue of national security work to its advantage.
Bush, in a series of recent appearances, and other administration officials have stressed their view that the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq was part of the broader fight against terrorism and that critics were playing into the hands of terrorists.
Democrats have argued that the war has weakened the United States’ standing in the world and that Bush’s “stay the course” policy only increases the terrorism threat.
The rhetoric escalated after Bush’s speech Monday night.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) accused Republicans of employing “cynical tactics” to scare voters, while House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) wondered aloud whether Democrats were “more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people.”
Democrats pressed their case that the White House had misrepresented the tenor of Bush’s speech, causing the broadcast networks to give him a prime-time slot without setting time aside for an opposition response or interviews with Democrats.
“The American people, us included, took [White House officials] at their word when they said it would not be a political speech,” said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sent letters to network news executives Tuesday asking for more coverage of Democrats’ views as part of reporting on Bush’s war-related speeches.
Bush mused Tuesday about the dispute over his speech, telling a group of conservative columnists during an Oval Office interview that he would have been attacked either way.
“Imagine what they would have said if I hadn’t talked about Iraq -- ‘Failed policy, won’t talk about it,’ ” he said, according to an account posted on the National Review Online.
The first indication that Monday night’s address might go beyond a Sept. 11 commemoration came about three hours before Bush delivered it, when the White House press office distributed advance excerpts. It included one line declaring that winning the war on terrorism “will require the determined efforts of a unified country,” and that Americans “must put aside our differences, and work together to meet the test that history has given us.”
Still, the excerpts contained no mentions of Iraq -- and the headline on the news release alerted reporters only that Bush’s speech would “remember those who lost their lives five years ago today and pay tribute to the heroes whose acts of courage that day saved so many lives,” and reflect on “what Sept. 11 has meant to America and how we can move forward together to win the war on terror.”
On NBC, which like the other two major networks interrupted regular programming to televise Bush’s remarks, Washington bureau chief Tim Russert told viewers before the speech that the president would be assuming the role of “commander in chief, healer in chief, comforter in chief; all alone in the Oval Office with one big megaphone for the country and the world to hear.”
But Bush wasted little time in his 17-minute address before reverting to the oft-repeated lines of his election-year speeches defending the invasion of Iraq.
“I’m often asked why we’re in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks,” he said. “The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat.... The world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power.”
Bush went on to quote Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden predicting that defeat in Iraq would mean America’s “defeat and disgrace forever,” a line the president has often used to criticize Democrats who have endorsed a timetable for withdrawing troops.
“The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad,” Bush said.
With those and other passages, a speech that had been advertised as nonpolitical was sounding like the president’s campaign speech.
Once the themes of Bush’s remarks were clear, NBC changed plans and allowed time after the speech for additional analysis. During that segment, Russert predicted that Democrats would no doubt accuse Bush of playing “politician in chief.”
A network news executive, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of relations with the White House, said Tuesday that the speech would prompt greater scrutiny of future White House requests for air time.
“On a scale of zero to 100, with 100 being a speech of national significance and zero being purely partisan, this clearly was not a 100 on that scale,” the executive said. “And I guess over time if that pattern kept occurring, then ... you’d start to look long and hard at those formal requests.”
Reid took to the Senate floor to criticize Bush for, in his view, injecting politics into the Sept. 11 commemoration.
Reid recalled that the attacks had “brought America together like never before.” He said that when Bush, a few days after the attack, “stood upon that mound of rubble at ground zero with bullhorn in hand, he spoke for all of us” in pledging retribution against the plotters.
But Reid said that on Monday night, “the president spoke for his administration, not for the nation. No bullhorn, only the bully pulpit of his office, which he used to defend an unpopular war in Iraq and to launch clumsily disguised barbs at those who disagree with his policies there.”
Snow on Tuesday stood by his earlier characterization of the speech as nonpolitical -- in the sense that Bush did not specifically argue that Democrats opposing his Iraqi policies were jeopardizing America’s security, as he has done on the campaign trail.
“What I told you was there would be no drawing of partisan distinctions, and there wasn’t,” Snow said.
“The point is that the use of the term ‘partisan,’ I think, is being now tossed around as a way to fend off the debate [on Iraq] or say, ‘How dare the president talk about it,’ ” Snow said.