Since Sept. 11, George W. Bush's political team and their Republican allies have used every trick to exploit the tragedy for political advantage. Just this week, they were trying to raise campaign money by hawking photos of Bush taking instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney on that fateful day.
The crass politicization of a national tragedy may have offended Bush's critics. But the image of Bush as the serious-minded battler against threats to homeland security was too good a political tool to surrender. And they planned to keep hammering the Democrats with it through November.
Then the hammerhead flew off.
Two days of revelations about how the president was told a month before Sept. 11 that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network might hijack American airplanes provided a reminder that exploiting tragedy is a dangerous political game.
It can fairly be said that May 16 was the first day since Sept. 11 that the terrorist threat was not being played for advantage by the Bush camp. In fact, the Bush team was on defense - trying, not very successfully, to explain why neither the president, nor his national security advisers, nor his hand-picked intelligence aides were able to put together pieces of information that, in hindsight, seem to fit together so obviously.
They were not being helped by Republican allies in Congress, who after years of attacking Bill Clinton's administration for failing to fight terrorism effectively suddenly found themselves trying to explain away their own team's inability to "connect the dots."
"There was a lot of information," said Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "I believe, and others believe, if it had been acted on properly, we may have had a different situation on Sept. 11."
Ouch! Coming from a senior Republican senator, that hurts.
Make no mistake, Bush has been hurt by revelations regarding his handling of the warnings that led up to Sept. 11. It is not just that the revelations play on a weakness of the president - the sense that he is not exactly the real-life equivalent of "West Wing's" all-knowing President Bartlett. As troubling is the evidence that the administration obviously worked to keep details of what the president knew before Sept. 11 secret.
Ever since Richard Nixon's presidency, the most devastating question that can be asked of a chief executive is: "What did he know and when did he know it?" Nixon was done in by that question. Bill Clinton was almost finished by it.
Now House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., is asking "what the president and what the White House knew about the events leading up to 9-11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time."
Those questions should have been asked last September. But Democrats blew their role as a loyal opposition then.
Now the question is whether the Democrats will blow their role again.
They will do so if they mirror the crass partisanship of the Bush camp. If Democrats in Congress attempt to use revelations about the run-up to Sept. 11 to score political points, they will ultimately be foiled.
Partisan wrangling favors the Bush team. They want Americans to think criticism of the president is nothing more than politics.
Now is the time to support a serious Senate inquiry, led by Shelby and Florida Democrat Bob Graham, the senior members of the Intelligence Committee.
Instead of going for the jugular, it is better to go for the truth. And if the Bush administration continues to try to obscure that truth, it will suffer the fate of past administrations that failed the "what did they know and when did they know it" test.
Copyright 2002 The Capital Times