IN THEIR FORMAL STATEMENTS reacting to the new videotape from Osama bin Laden, both President Bush and John Kerry were statesmanlike. Each man called for Americans to unite against terror and vowed to defeat bin Laden and al Qaeda.
The Bush campaign wisely avoided going political. But the Kerry campaign--in comments from a top adviser and the candidate himself--did not.
Kerry gave what appear to be his first extemporaneous comments about the tape in a previously scheduled satellite interview with Kathy Mykleby, a veteran anchor with WISN TV in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
"I find myself in the unexpected position of giving you breaking news at this moment because I don't know if you're aware of the Al-Jazeera tape that has just aired with Osama bin Laden admitting to the 9-11 attacks for the first time. What is your reaction?" Mykleby asked.
"My reaction," said Kerry, "is that all of us in this country are completely united. Democrat, Republican--there's no such thing. There's just Americans, and we are united in hunting down and capturing or killing those who conducted behind that raid. We always knew it was Osama bin Laden."
Mykleby followed up: "What do you think impact of this videotape might have on our election?"
"I don't think any," Kerry answered. "I think Americans understand we are living in a dangerous age." So far, so good.
But Kerry finally couldn't resist politicizing the tape: "I am prepared to wage a more effective war on terror than George Bush," he added.
Kerry's comment was unfortunate, and mild compared to those made later in the day by his senior foreign policy adviser, Richard Holbrooke. In an appearance on CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, Holbrooke, who has rejected the notion that we are in a "war on terror," said this:
"The U.S. is determined to defeat al Qaeda and its allies and the war against their use of terrorist tactics."
Holbrooke then went on the attack. "The tape shows that he's still around. We should have captured him and we haven't. And the other thing it shows, illustrates a key point which is that Senator Kerry in his relentless pursuit of terrorism is going to be very aggressive. The tape doesn't show that but Senator Kerry's comments continually--his experience shows that Osama bin Laden will draw no comfort from a Kerry presidency."
When Blitzer pointed out that President Bush scores better in all of the recent polling questions on who would handle the war on terror, Holbrooke offered a brief word of praise, and then resumed his attack. "I think that to the extent that that polling data is correct, it stems from President Bush's very effective activities right after 9/11. But the point here about what we've just seen [the bin Laden tape] is that Senator Kerry has said repeatedly that we should've closed the door on bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains on the Afghan/Pakistan border in December '01 and January 2002. And had we done so--had we not subcontracted the war against al Qaeda to the warlords in the area, many of whom had been in cahoots with bin Laden until a few weeks earlier, we might have captured him. Now, he is able to send out this vicious threat through al Jazeera and everyone else in the world."
Blitzer: "Are you concerned though that when Americans see this videotape--it'll be all over the news media as you can imagine, not only today but in the days to come--they will be reminded of what happened on 9/11 and they'll say, 'You know what, I'd better vote for Bush because he's tougher in dealing with al Qaeda than Kerry.'"
Said Holbrooke: "I don't think so. I think it also raises a much deeper question: How can this grotesque mass murderer be out there on worldwide television more than three years after 9/11?"
Holbrooke punctuated the next sentence with exasperated pauses between his words. "Why--haven't--we--captured--him--if the Bush administration was going to be so effective in the war on terror? President Bush said in the debates that he's rolled up 75 percent of al Qaeda. Well, it sure doesn't sound like it now."
When Blitzer pointed out that Bush claimed to have captured or killed 75 percent of "al Qaeda leadership," Holbrooke scoffed. "He did not say 'leadership' at all. And how does he know? And as Secretary Rumsfeld himself said in that leaked memo, 'Aren't we creating more terrorists than we're killing?'"
Here, by way of contrast, was President Bush's reaction: "Let me make this very clear," Bush said in Toledo, Ohio. "Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country. I'm sure Senator Kerry agrees with this."
Is there any development in the war on terror, however grave, that the Kerry campaign won't try to exploit for partisan advantage?
William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard.