"Lucky me, I hit the trifecta," said George Bush in the immediate aftermath of September 11, according to his budget director. War, recession and national emergency liberated him to soar in the political stratosphere. But after several faltering starts this year, he felt compelled to relaunch his campaign with $4.5m (£2.5m) of television advertising in 16 key states. In 60-second commercials he would lock the sequence of recent history into the American mind, his narrative of his presidency as he wished it to be understood. Images of September 11 cascaded across the screen, firemen carrying a flag-draped coffin at Ground Zero juxtaposed against another firefighter raising the flag. Bush's slogan: "Steady leadership in times of change".
"Where the hell did they get those guys?" responded the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. It turned out that the firefighters in the ads were hired actors - "cheaper and quicker", as a Republican party spokesman explained. Enraged members of the 9/11 Widows and Victims' Families Association described them as "disgraceful" and "hypocritical". While he used the flag-draped 9/11 coffin, he refused to allow the press to photograph coffins of US soldiers returned from Iraq. What's more, he was "stonewalling" the official 9/11 commission, as Senator John Kerry put it, holding back documents, refusing to allow the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to testify in public, and limiting his own testimony to an hour.
A few weeks earlier, Bush had remarked: "I have no ambition whatsoever to use [the 9/11 attacks] as a political issue". Now an administration spokesman defended his ads as "tasteful". After Bush's ads ran, an Oklahoma Republican congressman, Tom Cole, stated the rank-and-file's political conventional wisdom: "I promise you this, if George Bush loses the election, Osama bin Laden wins the election. It's that simple."
But firefighters and victims' families are critics he cannot debate. And the judgment of public opinion has been a terrible, swift sword. Some 54% said his use of 9/11 imagery was inappropriate, and only 42% - his base - said it was appropriate, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll. Worse, Kerry has plunged ahead. Even worse, 57% want a "new direction".
The rejection of the central element of Bush's version of his story is an unexpected shock to him and the Republicans. "I am amazed they have been thrown on the defensive," James Pinkerton told me. Pinkerton was research director for George Bush senior's 1988 campaign and responsible for developing the attack lines against the Democratic opponent. "They weren't ready for any of it," he says of this Bush campaign. "They just assume it's all pro-them on 9/11. It didn't dawn on them it cuts different ways. If they aren't ready for this, what are they ready for?"
The trauma of September 11 has been squandered as a political factor. Just as Bush has misspent the goodwill of the world, he has wasted his opportunity to create any consensus at home. He had planned to run his campaign on the Bismarckian formula of the primacy of foreign policy and Kulturkampf. But his trifecta has been turned upside down: David Kay's confession that "we were all wrong" on WMD in Iraq; job stagnation; increased recriminations about 9/11 as the commission begins its work in earnest. Bush, moreover, is patently using 9/11 not for "changing times" but to advance his reactionary social agenda. Rather than appearing "steady", he is setting himself against change, including changing his own policies. What he has left is a negative campaign. If he cannot elevate himself on the presidential pedestal he must throw himself into the abattoir of the culture war.
For decades, the Republicans used Vietnam to cast the Democrats as soft on communism. But the war hero trumps the national guardsman who went absent without leave. Kerry's most fervent campaigner is former Senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam. Cleland was defeated in a race in 2002 when the Republicans ran a TV ad conflating his picture with Saddam Hussein's and Osama bin Laden's. Cleland is the personification of more than Kerry's war bona fides; he is the living witness to negative Republican tactics.
"They have been shown to trash anyone, anywhere, anytime," Cleland told me. "They seek to slander a noble veteran's record who was wounded and the only member of his division in the navy who won a silver star. Use 9/11? Have they no shame? Listen, John Kerry knows that the slime machine is targeting him and his family. We discussed this before the race. Somebody's got to fight. That's the way it's turning out, the band of brothers against the slime machine."
Sidney Blumenthal, author of The Clinton Wars, is Washington bureau chief of www.Salon.com.
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