It was billed as a non-partisan reflection on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. But scarcely was the president’s speech over on Monday before the media lit up with arguments over its political content. As for us, we were hardly surprised to hear a politician talking politics – especially in the midst of an election season. But did the reflexive quality of the ensuing debate obscure a level of vitriol that was newsworthy in itself?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. It was the fifth anniversary of 9/11, and to commemorate the infamy the President addressed the nation. For 17 minutes he spoke of tragedy, grief, solidarity and vigilance. Oh, and Iraq; he also brought up Iraq.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out the terrorists would leave us alone. They will not leave us alone. They will follow us. The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.
BOB GARFIELD: It was a brief but remarkable tangent rich with contradictions. For one thing, only minutes earlier the President had claimed that, quote, "the world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power." And terrorists at our heels is a counter-intuitive image of safety.
Secondly, passive voice or no, the words "mistakes have been made" constituted a rare moment of self-criticism from the Bush Administration about the war. One day before, after all, Vice President Cheney had declared:
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY It was the right thing to do, and if we had it to do over again we'd do exactly the same thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For many though, the most discordant note was the juxtaposition of the content with the occasion, a day of national mourning and reflection "injected," to use the Dallas Morning News' term, "with a sales pitch for staying the course in Iraq."
The White House had framed the speech as non-partisan but congressional Democrats, after hearing the echoes of Republican talking points hammered relentlessly for the past two weeks, said, no chance. Expropriating the sacred day to justify the country's most contentious policy issue, they said, was shamelessly political. Tuesday, in the White House briefing room, presidential press secretary Tony Snow was under siege by reporters, among them CBS' Jim Axelrod.
JIM AXELROD: --the President's speech last night political?
TONY SNOW: No.
JIM AXELROD: How can you say that?
TONY SNOW: Because on--
PRESS SECTRETARY TONY SNOW: Tony, you were here Friday--
PRESS SECTRETARY TONY SNOW: What was the political statement? Will you tell me what the political sentence was? Give me the, the sentence. [OVERTALK]
JIM AXELROD: I'll tell you exactly where it was. It was a, it was a crystallized greatest hits of the eight-day period in which he made four speeches where he laid out his philosophical underpinnings about the war on terror, heading into the election. And it was in direct contrast to what you came in here and told us Friday!
PRESS SECTRETARY TONY SNOW: No, that's not in direct contrast.
JIM AXELROD: Yes, it was! You said Friday that there would be no drawing of lines, distinctions between Democrats and Republicans.
TONY SNOW: And there wasn't.
JIM AXELROD: It would focus on unity.
TONY SNOW: There wasn't.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, of course, there was, implicitly because the "stay the course" issue breaks down unmistakably along party lines. Maybe, as Snow insisted, President Bush would have been accused of sanitizing history had he glossed over Iraq. But let's just say injecting more policy into remembrance was just plain vulgar.
The question is what is the press' role when a politician is caught red-handed being political.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, it would be nice if every primetime presidential speech were the Gettysburg Address and every solemn moment according the comity it is due. But exploiting the public's emotions, prejudices, confusion and fear is not only not unprecedented, it's more or less standard procedure. And it's scarcely a Republican monopoly.
Though the Democrats squeal that a moment of national unity had been sullied, the next day The New York Times was not wrong to notice that the Democratic leadership had their fingers poised on the Send button when the political opportunity knocked, which is what provoked the affair's true outrage, courtesy of Republican Congressman John Boehner.
CONGRESSMAN JOHN BOEHNER: Sometimes, based on the votes that get cast, you wonder whether they're more interested in the rights of the terrorists than in protecting the American people.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah, from the House Majority Leader, an accusation of treason, a partisan obscenity which once upon a time might have stopped the presses. On this day though the calumny seemed merely to stop the momentum of the story, transforming an issue of presidential propriety into just another congressional catfight.
The next day the major papers gave the story short shrift, consigning the coverage inside. And one network news broadcast, the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, gave it no shrift at all.
So what happened between the White House briefing room and the final editorial decisions? Maybe only that an era of savage right-wing rhetoric and a day of trigger-finger Democratic protest had defined obscenity down. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]