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 response to the warnings of terrorist threats before 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 Democratic Congressional leaders blew their role as a loyal opposition then.
Now the question is whether the Democrats will blow that role again.
They will do just that 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 simply 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.
The action on these issues will be in the Senate, where Democrats are in charge, not in the Republican-controlled House -- where Florida Rep. Porter Goss, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee is already grumbling that, "It is not news that the president of the United States is briefed about Osama bin Laden and hijackings. That?s just not news."
However, Democrats in the Senate will make little progress if they handle this issue as they have most others since taking charge of the Senate a year ago.
The smart strategy is to focus on supporting a serious Senate inquiry, probably led by Shelby -- who has shown a measure of independence from the administration -- and Florida Democrat Bob Graham, the chair of the Intelligence Committee. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, who is great at drawing Republican fire but not very good at actually challenging the administration, would be wise to step back.
Daschle should allow members of his caucus who have expertise in intelligence matters and in the investigation of presidential misdeeds take the lead. It is notable that, since September, some of the most thoughtful and pointed criticism of the Bush administration?s approach to the war on terrorism and related issues has come from senior members of the Senate such as West Virginia?s Robert Byrd and South Carolina?s Ernest Hollings. With more experience and less to lose, they have been far tougher on the Bush camp than their poll-obsessed younger colleagues. This fact ought not be lost of Democrats: As with past investigations of White House wrongdoing have taught, the wisest approach to let the point people be senators who are not entertaining notions of making their own presidential runs.
Instead of going straight for the jugular this time, it is better for Democrats to go for the truth. A full frontal assault for purely partisan purposes will be turned back. On the other hand, if the Bush administration did conspire to withhold essential information from the American people before and after Sept. 11, and if Senate Democrats mount a well-focused effort to get the whole story, it is indeed possible that the current president will suffer the fate of past Oval-Office occupants who failed the "what did they know and when did they know it" test.