By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Soon after the Senate's vote last Friday on war in Iraq, President Bush took off for what amounts to a two-week, taxpayer-funded campaign blitz. He's not even trying to disguise the political nature of his jaunt.
"The president will be on the road every day until Election Day," said Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary. Bush will hit battleground states for his '04 re-election bid, and will put in appearances in Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri, and Pennsylvaniaall of which have key congressional races. And he'll visit with beleaguered brother Jeb, who's running for re-election as Florida governor.
With the world falling apart, the prez finds it easier every day to paint himself as an embattled leader fighting a two-front waragainst Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction on the one hand, and against the resurgent Al Qaeda on the other. Team Bush points to a string of frightening incidents: the explosions in Bali, the apparent bombing of a French oil tanker off Yemen, the firing on Americans soldiers in Kuwait, and ominous statements broadcast by Al Jazeera, purportedly from Osama himself and a top lieutenant, threatening strikes on U.S. economic interests. For Bush's handlers, the global chaos has been manna from heaven, giving them a chance to transform their man from handpicked to heaven-anointed, from perpetual fool to a budding Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
By the same token, GOP operatives haven't hesitated to brand Democrats as unpatriotic. Georgia senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam vet who lost two legs and an arm, voted against the president's homeland security agency 11 times. The campaign for his opponent, Representative Saxby Chambliss, put up an ad charging that Cleland doesn't have the "courage to lead" at a time when "America faces terrorists and extremist dictators." In South Dakota, Republican lawmaker John Thune mentioned Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in an ad attacking Senator Tim Johnson, because Johnson voted against plans to develop a missile defense system.
Most Dems folded, and among the fastest to turn tail were those with the biggest aspirations. Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader and a presidential hopeful, was the first big Dem to throw in with Bush. "I believe we have an obligation to protect the United States by preventing [Saddam] from getting these weapons," he told his colleagues on October 10, "and either using them himself or passing them or their components on to terrorists who share his destructive intent."
After Gephardt made his flop, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who also wants to be king, dropped his own cautious questioning and joined Bush, with this puzzling statement: "The threat posed by Saddam Hussein may not be imminent. But it is real. It is growing. And it cannot be ignored."
One of Bush's sharpest critics was the junior senator from Massachusetts, Vietnam vet and White House angler John Kerry. On October 7, Kerry still opposed Bush, and instead of a preemptive strike urged coalition-building through the UN. "You don't go to war as a matter of first resort; you go to war as a matter of last resort," The Boston Globe reported him as saying. "I'd be willing to be the first to put my uniform back on and go and defend this country when it's truly threatened, but I don't think that we should pretend that the integrity and security of our nation is defined by turning our back on a century of effort by patriots and presidents of both parties to build an international structure of law and to live by a higher standard."
Two days later, with potential opponents Daschle and Gephardt moving to support Bush, Kerry changed his mind. "I will vote yes," he told The New York Times, "because on the question of how best to hold Saddam Hussein accountable, the administration, including the president, recognizes that war must be our last option to address this threat, not the first, and that we should be acting in concert with allies around the globe to make the world's case against Saddam Hussein."
And in the middle of all this caving was Al Gore, the presidential hopeful with the least to lose and the most to gain by standing apart from Bush. He boldly took the tactic of following the 44 percent of all votersand the 56 percent of Demo-cratswho aren't quite ready to bomb Baghdad solely because Bush feels threatened. "If other nations assert that right, then the rule of law will quickly be replaced by the reign of fear," Gore told the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco last month. Perhaps Gore really has his principleshe has said he wouldn't have voted for using force in Iraqor perhaps he's the only horse in the race who can read an opinion poll.
In addition to rewriting the American rules of war, the White House has been rewriting history. Addressing the nation last week, President Bush recalled Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis as an example of the preemptive strike: "As President Kennedy said in October of 1962: 'Neither the United States of America nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small. We no longer live in a world,' he said, 'where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge.' "