In July, when I listened to the speeches at the Democratic convention, I was waiting to hear something substantial–some new ideas, something, anything different. I wanted to hear specifics about what a Kerry administration would do differently from what was already being done. After all, the challenger has the responsibility to make the case for change. But I heard nothing new or innovative. Most statements were vague. The platform planks were echoes of the 9/11 Commission Report. Anything of substance was material that had its critical relevance ten years ago, the best of “post-Cold War” thinking, all of which became obsolete on September 11.
I can’t help but think of how many times the president’s critics said that it would be wrong to bring 9/11 into the election, that the symbols and events of that day are above politics. But at the Democratic convention, both of the Clintons used 9/11 to criticize the president’s conduct of the war. I hope commentators remember that when they begin the next round of crying foul.
I never quite understood those critics’ complaint. September 11 is an inescapable fact of political life. It took place on Bush’s watch–just his good luck, a Democrat might say (Bill Clinton said as much)–as though anyone who was in office would have done the things he did, would have handled it the same way, would have achieved this level of success. So by placing 9/11 off limits they seek to deny the president the opportunity to run on his record. For three years the Democrats have been unable to cope with the effects of that great national tragedy, the epochal event that redefined foreign and defense policy for years to come. And just as the Democratic convention demonstrated that party’s inability to comprehend the nature of the threats our country faces, the Republican convention makes evident the centrality of 9/11 and the events that followed it to the worldview of the party today.
This is the first Republican convention to be held in New York, the city where the new world emerged. Yes, we were also struck in Arlington, Va., and in the sky over Shanksville, Penn., but the attacks in New York were the emotional and emblematic core of the event. This was captured by actor Ron Silver’s moving and emotional address. A fourth-generation New Yorker, he painted the attacks in stark and uncompromising terms. The attacks on the World Trade Towers are the ultimate answer to the relativistic point of view that dominates liberal thought. The towers had existed, then they did not. Three thousand people had lived, then they lived not. And was there any question by the end of the day that evil existed in the world? Not just alternative points of view, or conflicting policy frameworks, or “the violent expression of legitimate grievances,” but actual, old-fashioned evil? Silver evoked the proper moral response: “We will never forgive. Never forget. Never excuse!” There is not a lot of nuance in the word “never.”
More to the point, he isolated the central contradiction in post-McGovern foreign-policy liberalism–it refuses to link action to its ideals. There was a time when liberals could stand for something and fight for it. Witness Truman in Korea, Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam–sure, they had some questionable social policies, but they faced off with Communism in a forceful manner that cannot translate into the 21st-century Democratic party. “Even though I am a well-recognized liberal on many issues confronting our society today,” Silver said, “I find it ironic that many human-rights advocates and outspoken members of my own entertainment community are often on the front lines to protest repression, for which I applaud them, but they are usually the first ones to oppose any use of force to take care of these horrors that they catalogue repeatedly.” Worse still, they engage in acts of denial–for example, lauding Michael Moore, undoubtedly the intellectual leader of the Left, for portraying Saddam’s Iraq as a wonderland where children danced in the streets. This gets back to my first point–they fail to comprehend the world in which we live. They cannot bring themselves to make the kind of judgments that are necessary for wartime leadership. Just once I would like to hear an establishment liberal say something like “Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator who ruled a ruthless terror state” without the next word being “but.”
John McCain started his speech by reinforcing this critical recognition: that the war is a fight between right and wrong, between good and evil. “We must fight, we must,” he implored. He appealed for unity, for the kind we experienced in the wake of the attacks, the national will that allowed us to take the fight to the enemy–a fight he said we are winning. Yes, winning, though it is unfashionable to say it; we are prevailing, and doing so well. Our homeland has not been seriously attacked since 9/11, the enemy no longer enjoys its safe havens, and for the first time an Arab state has a realistic chance of building a peaceful democracy. When will we have achieved final victory? We’ll know it, McCain said. We will feel it. That is as good a definition of success as I have heard lately. After all, we win when nothing happens–a difficult thing to measure.
The tone of the testimony of the loved ones of the victims of 9/11 also stressed positive themes. Deena Burnett, Debra Burlingame, and Tara Stackpole were a refreshing contrast to the family members with whom the Democrats have associated themselves. The latter have become instant experts, apparently by virtue of their victimhood, on everything from counter-terrorism to intelligence reform. (Hillary Clinton singled them out for praise at the Democratic convention.) But the three women who spoke last night focused on the constructive, giving useful perspective to the last moments of their loved ones. The events that befell them did not make them heroes; rather it was their pre-existing virtues that gave them the courage to act heroically when they were called upon to do so. They were not victims; they were men who refused to be victimized. And the family members were not there to sit in judgment and assess blame but were rather celebrating the positive lessons and examples of human courage that emerged from this great national and personal tragedy.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani followed, the embodiment of resolve on that day, his love of the city in evidence as always, his humor sometimes biting, sometimes sentimental. He compellingly recounted some of the events of 9/11, but his tone was positive, respectful, even energetic. His lengthy and wide-ranging speech kept returning to the central theme of leadership–its value when wielded by a man of principle, its feebleness when attempted by a man of diffidence–and the dangers posed by appeasement and compromise in the face of violence and those who practice it. He reached back to the tragedy of the Munich Olympics, to the Achille Lauro hijacking, and other distant events for which payback was either long in coming or utterly lacking. The more acts of terror the bad guys were able to get away with, the more their deadly craft flourished. After 9/11 it is hard to comprehend the world that gave Yassir Arafat a peace prize, but easy to understand why such actions might serve to embolden others.
Mayor Giuliani’s most important point was that true leadership involves doing the right thing even when it is unpopular and brings criticism–doing right because it is right. It is easy to chart a course by following the polls and to avoid hard choices to escape criticism. We had eight years of that brand of management and the results were less than agreeable. But September 11 forced the issue. It was an objective event. It required a response from someone who could comprehend the world in concrete terms, someone who did not believe there was anything wrong with thinking in hard categories of good and evil. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” Giuliani paraphrased. It is a point on which the president has not compromised. Some see this as a character flaw; yet one can find few in the world today who will stand openly with the terrorists. Call it an example of cause and effect.