The Magazine

Speak of the Dead

From the August 29, 2005 issue: The Cindy Sheehan story is only the latest instance of the left's grief-based politics.

Aug 29, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 46 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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IN THE FOUR YEARS OR so since September 11, liberals have found a new weapon of preference, and that weapon is martyrdom. They have discovered grief as a tactical weapon. They tend to like grief they can use. They use it to arouse guilt and sympathy to cover a highly partisan message, in the hope that while the message may be controversial, the messenger will be sacrosanct and above reproach. Since 9/11, they have embraced this tactic repeatedly, and each time with a common objective: to cripple the war, to denounce the country, to swing an election, but mainly to embarrass and undermine the president.

The first time was in May 2002, when Democrats accused Republicans of insulting the dead of September 11 by selling a photo of George W. Bush on Air Force One on that day. The second was in October 2002, when Democrats tried to capitalize politically on the shock and sorrow from the deaths of Paul Wellstone, his wife, and his daughter. The third go was with the "Jersey Girls," four young widows whose husbands died in the Towers, whom Gail Sheehy formed into a Bush-bashing regiment, and who ended up campaigning for John Kerry and cutting commercials for him. And the fourth, of course, is poor Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved mother of Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, who was killed in action in Baghdad in April 2004. Sheehan is now surrounded by the usual clique of far-out cause-mongers, who orchestrate her every move for maximum drama. All of these episodes involve attempts to attack without fear of reprisal, by exploiting the sympathy people feel for those who have suffered as well as the natural reluctance to hurt those in pain.

Let us meander down memory lane, way back to May 2002, when the Republican National Committee offered for sale to some of its donors a set of three pictures from the first year of the Bush presidency, including one from September 11 that showed him talking on the phone from Air Force One as he looked out the plane's window. Immediately, a cry went up from prominent Democrats that he had insulted the dead. "Disgraceful," said Al Gore. "Incredibly disrespectful to the families of the thousands of Americans who lost their lives just hours before this photo was taken," said Terry McAuliffe, then chairman of the Democratic National Committee, without telling us why.

This was the start of an ongoing campaign on the part of the Democrats to rule the attacks and Bush's response to them out of bounds, down to attacking as crude and exploitative his decision to hold his 2004 convention in New York. This was a predictable partisan ploy, but by March 2004, the party had found some new allies. When the Bush campaign unveiled its campaign ads, including some shots of the smoldering wreck at Ground Zero, with rescue workers bearing a flag-covered stretcher, the attack was already prepared. The newspaper headlines said everything: "Sept. 11 Victims' Kin Urge Bush to Pull Ads," read one Boston Globe story. "Bush Ads Using 9/11 Images Stir Anger," ran one in the Washington Post. "It upsets me tremendously that . . . my son could be used as a political pawn," said one victim's father. "To say that we're outraged is the truth, but it's more than outrage," said a woman whose brother had died in the North Tower. "It's a deep hurt and sorrow that any politician . . . would seek to gain advantage by using that site." "Our message to all politicians is, 'Keep your hands off Ground Zero,'" the brother of another victim said.

Into the breach charged a vast herd of Democrats, all lashing Bush for his lack of fine feelings: "Speaking to a crowd of 2,000 at a campaign rally in New Orleans," the Boston Globe reported, "Senator John F. Kerry whipped the audience into a frenzy of booing as the presumptive Democratic nominee denounced Bush for using images of the September 11 attacks." It was not until weeks later that it was fully revealed that all of those quoted were not a cross-section of victims' relatives repelled by the president's crassness, but members of a minuscule subset who belonged to a pacifist group called September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, whose press conference was orchestrated by MoveOn.org. In the end, it turned out that they not only did not represent all or most of the families, they didn't even represent their own families, as some of their parents and siblings were opposed to their acts. Indeed, their impact was neutralized, as they succeeded in rousing a counterreaction among survivors who were hoping to stay out of politics, but were galvanized by them to stand up for the president. By enlisting the dead, they gave Bush's campaign a very rough send-off, which of course had always been the idea.