The Ad That Beats Bush

How Kerry could craft a Bin Laden commercial that makes him president

The ad starts with Bush and his September 14, 2001, bullhorn. This time, though, it's a Kerry commercial that reminds swing-state Americans of Bush's blood vow—precisely three years ago—that "the people who knocked down these buildings" would "hear all of us soon." The cowboy soundbites that we would "smoke 'em out" track across the screen with any network's footage of the "wanted dead or alive" culprits: Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mullah Omar.

Then the camera moves on to anchors reporting that bin Laden was cornered at Tora Bora, picked up on cell-phone intercepts commanding the surrounded 2,000 Al Qaeda troops, but that U.S. commanders were allowing mercenary Pashtuns to lead the fighting and Pakistanis to seal the backside border. Next, news headlines blare that Special Forces and key CIA operatives were prematurely pulled out of Afghanistan to prepare for the war on Iraq. The last visual is of Bush momentarily forced at a March 2002 press conference to discuss bin Laden: "I just don't spend that much time on him, to be honest with ya."

The voice-over is Monica Gabrielle's, a 9-11 widow and leader. "My husband died in tower two and the people who killed him have not heard from us three years later. The president will not even talk about these murderers. Sometimes he claims his administration has captured two-thirds of Al Qaeda's lesser leaders; sometimes, three-quarters. The 9-11 Commission says one-quarter. Terrorists killed more people—625—in 2003 than in any year other than 2001. They wounded more than ever—3,646 people. Even the president concedes that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attack that changed my life forever. Why have we expended hundreds of times the resources and troops in Iraq than we have in pursuit of the mass murderers who vow to hit us again? Anybody could accept a good-faith effort that failed. But we cannot accept a so-called war on terror that has never aggressively targeted the number one terrorists."

Osama: If Kerry can pin bin Laden on Bush in his upcoming ads, he will finally connect with the fear that is driving this election.
Osama: If Kerry can pin bin Laden on Bush in his upcoming ads, he will finally connect with the fear that is driving this election.

With all its metered focus groups, the Kerry campaign remains blind to the core weakness of the Bush campaign. It is not Iraq, still a 50-50 proposition with American voters. The economy is backdrop when life-and-death fear grips us. It is the abject failure of the Bush team to make America safer—either by corralling the killers or raising the defenses. Three times as many Americans died in two hours on 9-11 than have died in 18 months in Iraq, and the country trembles with belief that many more could die tomorrow. No one better embodies the dismal three-year Bush record on terror than bin Laden and Zawahiri, who resurfaced in a new tape just last week looking healthy and threatening, an ace in a card deck the White House has yet to deal.

It makes all the sense in the world that the Bush convention—with a hundred references in major speeches to terror and 69 to Iraq or Hussein—mentioned Osama just once, and then only to blame him on Bill Clinton. What makes no sense is that bin Laden was never mentioned in Kerry's Boston show. With cable and the networks also blocking on Osama, he may take a back seat to Ho Chi Minh in the 2004 presidential election. What also makes no sense is that bin Laden's never been featured in a Kerry commercial and, if he is mentioned at all in Kerry speeches, he is an afterthought, with Iraq or the economy dominant. Does anyone doubt that if Al Gore was in the White House and had the same record on bin Laden, he would be the drumbeat of the perpetually riveted, on-message, Republican campaign?

Kerry has begun using Osama in the laundry list of his complaints about the Iraq war. He's got it backwards. Osama's escape cannot be reduced to just one more consequence of the Iraq miscalculation, a postscript to a war critique. Instead, one of the reasons the real terrorists still threaten us—the number one issue to Americans—is because Bush got diverted into Iraq. That's where the emphasis belongs. Tommy Franks's book—American Soldier—inadvertently makes the case: He's forced to trek to Crawford to deliver an Iraq war plan months before his troops have even fought their first major Afghan battle in the Shah-I-Kot Valley, where he still hoped to find bin Laden. Indeed, American troops were used then precisely because of the catastrophe at Tora Bora, which The Washington Post branded "the gravest error in the war against al Qaeda."

Listen to the families. Gabrielle, the wife of an AON executive who lives in Connecticut and refused to take the millions in federal settlement money, says the Bush administration has been "horrendous" in the pursuit of bin Laden. "They've lost the entire focus of their mission," she told the Voice. Mindy Kleinberg, co-chair of September 11th Advocates, says she "feels very strongly" that the U.S. left the Afghan war "too early," adding: "When we don't focus on Al Qaeda, we leave ourselves open to another attack. If you want to send a message to Al Qaeda, the best thing to do is go after their leader." Bill Doyle, the lead plaintiff in the family case against the Saudis, wonders: "Why not go get BL first? Why don't we get the people who commit all this hara-kiri throughout the world?"

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