What does 9/11 tell us about Bush? Nothing.

Politics and policy.
Aug. 31 2004 2:19 PM

Being There

What does 9/11 tell us about Bush? Nothing.

It's not what you do, it's how you look
It's not what you do, it's how you look 

For the past month, a group of veterans funded by a Bush campaign contributor and advised by a Bush campaign lawyer has attacked the story of John Kerry's heroism in Vietnam. They have argued, contrary to all known contemporaneous records, that Kerry was too brutal in a counterattack that earned him the Silver Star, and that he survived only mines, not bullets, when he rescued a fellow serviceman from a river. President Bush, who joined the National Guard as a young man to avoid Vietnam, has been challenged to denounce the group's charges. He has refused.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Now the Republican National Convention is showcasing Bush's own heroic moment. As John McCain put it last night: "I knew my confidence was well placed when I watched him stand on the rubble of the World Trade Center with his arm around a hero of September 11 and, in our moment of mourning and anger, strengthen our unity and our resolve by promising to right this terrible wrong and to stand up and fight for the values we hold dear."

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Pardon me for asking, but where exactly is the heroism in this story? Where, indeed, is the heroism in anything Bush has done before 9/11 or since?

Two days ago at an Ellis Island rally, Dick Cheney described Bush's 9/11 leadership this way: "In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on America, people in every part of the country, regardless of party, took great comfort and pride in the conduct and the character of our president. They saw a man calm in a crisis, comfortable with responsibility, and determined to do everything necessary to protect our people."

Calm and comfortable. I appreciate that. This was a major selling point of Bush's 2000 campaign: He would allow us to "look at the White House with pride." But isn't a president supposed to, um, do things? Isn't it a bit strange to praise a man's leadership not for doing something, but for maintaining a certain appearance?

Bush partisans point out that he did do things in the 9/11 aftermath. In his convention address last night, former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik recalled Bush's famous visit to New York, "inspiring a nation as he stood on hallowed ground, supporting the first responders."

OK, so Bush stood there. He "supported," in a Clintonesque sense, the people who were doing something. He touched the mayor. As Rudy Giuliani told the New York Times over the weekend, "When he got off the helicopter, he put his arm around the back of my neck and said, 'What can I do for you?' It was a personal thing: 'I know what you've been through, and what I can do to support you?' "

Amid all this touching, did Bush put himself in any peril? He certainly did. As Giuliani explained to the convention audience:

When President Bush came here on September 14, 2001, the Secret Service was not really happy about his remaining in the area so long. With buildings still unstable, with fires raging below ground of 2,000 degrees or more, there was good reason for their concern. Well, the president remained there. And talked to everyone. ... [A construction worker] grabbed the president of the United States in this massive bear hug, and he started squeezing him. And the Secret Service agent standing next to me, who wasn't happy about any of this, instead of running over and getting the president out of this grip, puts his finger in my face and he says to me, "If this guy hurts the president, Giuliani, you're finished."

This is Bush's heroism? Showing up three days later, "remaining in the area," and enduring a hug?

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