August 18, 2004

And you thought Charley was a big windbag

The Wall St. Journal's Brendan Miniter thinks John Kerry made a political mistake by not rushing to Florida after Hurricane Charley hit. I suppose that's a reasonable opinion -- though you can just imagine Miniter and his ilk crying exploitation if he had -- but Brendan can't leave it at that. In his effort to show that Kerry and the Democrats are always wrong and Bush and the Republicans always right, he twists himself into a knot so full of nuancey flip-flopping that it just begs for a good fisking.

Maybe national emergencies shouldn't be political events, but they are. So after Hurricane Charley ripped through Florida this past weekend, President Bush understood the political imperative: Get down there.

Republicans consider themselves the party of ideas, remember. But Miniter makes it clear off the bat that what's important in this case is not doing what should or shouldn't be, but doing what it takes to win.

For those questioning his political motives in responding so quickly, Mr. Bush said simply: "If I didn't come, they would've said we should have been here more rapidly." If 90% of success in life is just showing up, in politics often it's the whole ball of wax.

But Bush's point -- and he was correct -- is that he would have been criticized either way. Kerry would have too, but he'd have been criticized far more for showing up. As the head of the federal government, Bush has a plausible non-political reason for visiting the disaster site, which is why, in fact, there was very little condemnation. Kerry's only possible reason would be to play for the cameras. He would have been slaughtered for it, as Miniter knows.

This is a lesson that John Kerry could stand to learn. It isn't enough to be "right"; you must also be right there.

Again, when a guy puts scare-quotes around the word "right," you know where he's coming from.

Mastering and internalizing this lesson would go a lot further in showing that Mr. Kerry can lead in a crisis than boasting about his four months in Vietnam ever could. It would also reveal his more human, compassionate side. This is something Bill Clinton practiced shamelessly and Al Gore never learned. Mr. Kerry should have gone to Punta Gorda and felt their pain.

Noted: when Clinton does anything -- even something the writer is advocating -- it's shameless.

Instead, perhaps fearful of being tagged as a political opportunist, he merely issued a statement of support from his Idaho vacation home.

Is that an unreasonable fear? Why, other than political opportunity, should Kerry have brought his entourage to Florida at a time when the state needs to focus its attentions and resources on the relief effort?

And it wasn't the first such missed opportunity. Coming out of the Democratic Convention in Boston, news broke of possible al Qaeda plans to destroy financial buildings in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J. It turns out that al Qaeda has the floor plans, pedestrian traffic flows and other intricate details necessary to plan and carry out an effective attack. For anyone who works in those buildings--and I write from the World Financial Center, catercorner from Ground Zero -- the terror warnings were a disconcerting reminder of why we need a strong president.

There was a very simple way for Mr. Kerry to demonstrate he could be that kind of leader: break off from his bus tour and greet workers in the lobby of Newark's Prudential building. No matter what he said to them, his presence would have told the world that he is as solid as a rock on terrorism.

So why isn't Miniter leveling the same criticism at Bush, who didn't hop on a plane to project strength either? Oh, Bush did send his wife and daughters into harm's way, which is a kind of strength, I guess. Unless he knew that there was in fact no attack imminent, perhaps because the information was three years old, in which case there wasn't all that much need for John Kerry or anyone else to rush to the scene.

Mr. Kerry and his campaign staff might want to consider watching one of the 24-hour cable news channels--it's OK if it's CNN--to see what is getting the masses riled up. If the lead story is something other than Scott Peterson, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jackson, it wouldn't be a bad idea to think about how it could bolster Mr. Kerry's case. A relevant candidate has to be relevant to what's affecting people's lives.

Mr. Bush might want to read a newspaper -- it's OK if it's the New York Times -- to see how his terror alert totally fucked with the livelihoods of people in the Citigroup building, grateful though they surely were for a glimpse of Mrs. Bush and the twins two weeks ago.

That's something Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the two most recent challengers who managed to unseat a sitting president, understood. In 1980 Reagan played the hostage crisis perfectly. Iran had taken dozens of Americans captive, and President Carter seemed feckless in his attempts to get them out. When he finally did get tough and ordered a secret mission to rescue them, the result was further embarrassment; the mission was aborted after a helicopter crash killed eight Marines. Reagan didn't join the critics in saying the mission never should have been attempted. Instead, he called for national unity and later said he'd have ordered the mission sooner.

Well, three cheers for Ronald Reagan, but rather than raise familiar questions about how Reagan played the hostage crisis, I'd simply ask, what exactly does this have to do with visiting a disaster site?

After Mr. Carter objected to labeling the flagging economy a "depression," Mr. Reagan showed up in a section of New Jersey particularly hard hit. With the Statue of Liberty and New York City skyline as a backdrop, Reagan told a crowd of supporters, "A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. A recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."

More apples and oranges. Reagan wasn't visiting the hard hit area to "stand with" the people there. He was doing it to emphasize what he saw as the economic failure of his rival, and said it very plainly. Is Miniter saying John Kerry should have gone to Florida and blamed Bush for the hurricane? Or that he should visit impoverished areas today and criticize George W. Bush? Because, that's exactly what he's been doing.

Bill Clinton already had a reputation as a rogue in 1992...

Which has less than nothing to do with what follows.

...but he always found a way to empathize with the people. Before Rudy Giuliani proved that law and order could prevail in New York City, Mr. Clinton understood the nation's impatience with crime rates. As a Democrat, he knew he risked being seen as soft on crime, so he made a public display of taking time off from the campaign trail to head back to Arkansas and sign the death warrant of a brain-damaged murderer--something that rankles liberals to this day.

Again, other than the fact that both involve getting on airplanes, what does this have to do with showing up for a photo-op in a disaster area? Clinton had a point to make: I'm tough on crime. What would Kerry's point be: I'm tough on storms, at least after they're over?

When Hurricane Andrew destroyed a large swath of Florida, the first President Bush was seen unresponsive (even though he visited the state immediately after the storm).

Wait, I thought "just showing up" is "the whole ball of wax," and now Miniter is saying George HW Bush showed up and was still criticized? What he skirts is the reason for the criticism: that Bush did not quickly come through with federal aid -- something Kerry can't do at all. If there's a lesson from Bush's handling of Andrew maybe it's that visiting the site and "standing with the people" isn't necessarily what's important. (Which is why George W. Bush didn't just tour the site, he came with promises of rapid federal assistance).

By contrast with Mr. Kerry as well as the elder Mr. Bush, Gov. Clinton was made [sic] a show of concern for those affected when he toured the destruction.

When he toured the destruction a full eight days later that is. Admittedly our news cycle is faster these days, but given Miniter's point about how well Clinton handled Andrew, perhaps he should mention that at this amount of time after Andrew hit, Clinton had done no more than Kerry had. In fact, his first reaction two days after the storm hit was to call for an inquiry into the government's poor handling of the disaster -- for which the Bush campaign accused him of "trying to exploit what is a terrible situation for political gain."

Of course it's unlikely Miniter knows this because the ABC News article that is clearly his source erroneously says Clinton, "carefully avoided jabbing at his opponent over the halting response." Print the legend, as the saying goes.

Mr. Clinton didn't carry Florida, but he won the election.

Translation: the net effect of visiting or not visiting a disaster site is probably completely uknowable. Sorry to have kept you reading this long before I mentioned it.

"Certainly Bill Clinton set the pattern," Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution told a reporter recently. "You want to be there. You want to be involved. You want to be helpful. You want to feel their pain."

Think-tank people always sound so confident in their analysis don't they. A certain Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution sure did back in 1992 when he said pretty much the opposite to a New York Times reporter for a story headlined "Returning to Devastated Area, Bush Uses Powers of Office to Help Others, and Himself" -- about how smartly George HW Bush was using the disaster: "When President Bush is suddenly on the front page -- when he's the lead story, on the evening news, and all eyes turn to whatever he's doing -- it stops Bill Clinton in his tracks.... Anybody who's been in a disaster knows the state and Federal governments can't come fast enough, so of course they're mad. But the rest of us, not in that disaster, are seeing the President take action, seeing him flying to Florida, calling out the troops from Fort Bragg and so on."

(Curiously, President Clinton didn't seem to feel New Yorkers' pain after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He never visited the scene.)

Curiously, Miniter can't resist a jab at Clinton -- even when it completely contradicts his main thesis. If Clinton so badly bungled by not visiting the WTC, shouldn't there have been some political ramification? Or is it only an election year that you "must be right there"? In which case, how was not visiting the site a mistake given Miniter's purely pragmatic criteria?

Kissing babies, hugging men in hard hats and rooting for the local team--in every town--may be a little embarrassing, but it's what American voters expect. In 2000 George W. Bush went so far as to plant his lips firmly on Oprah Winfrey's cheek. To win in November, Mr. Kerry needs to do one better and find a way to prove he stands shoulder to shoulder with Americans in times of crisis.

Hi, apples, you remember oranges, don't you? How does literally sucking up to the richest woman in the country have anything to do with standing shoulder to shoulder with Americans in times of crisis? What is Miniter even trying to say here? I guess his point is that ordinary campaigning isn't enough, though it's hard to believe he's advocating reducing the viewing of death and destruction to the level of hugging men in hard hats. Especially since, as his own examples have clearly shown, there's no reason to think he's right about what candidates should or should not do.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


As someone that will vote for Bush this year, I think Kerry did the right thing by not going to Florida. Insinuation that he used people's tragedy for political gain could have cost him Florida. He talked to reporters, supported federal aid and the President, that's good enough. Anyone saying otherwise is just a nearvous Nellie over Florida right now!

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