On Rudolph Guiliani, Terrorism, History, and Narrative

Rewind two weeks.

Mary Matalin, Republican strategist, said President George Bush “inherited the most tragic attack on our own soil in our nation’s history.”

Rewind almost a year, back to March.

Bush’s former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, chastises Chris Matthews with a “How dare you” when Matthews presses Fleischer on whether or not 9-11 happened on Bush’s watch.

Rewind to yesterday.

Former New York City Major Rudolph Guiliani, in an interview on Good Morning America, says “One of the right things [Bush] did was treat this as a war on terror. We had no domestic attacks under Bush. We’ve had one under Obama.”

Three Republicans, all stating that 9-11 didn’t happen when George Bush was President or on Bush’s watch.

Jon Stewart would have a field day with this. He’d say, “If not Bush, then who?” He’d probably even trot out a little goat, and ask, “Was it Skippy? Did it happen when Skippy was President?” And he’d probably feed Skippy the pet goat an aluminum can.

That’s also missing the point.

The point for Republicans isn’t who was or wasn’t in the White House on September 11, 2001. The point for Republicans is whose fault the events of September 11, 2001 were — whose intelligence failures, whose policy failures all contributed to the environment that allowed something like the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center to happen.

And for Republicans, that can’t be a Republican.

From the Republican perspective, Bush inherited an intelligence apparatus that was completely incapable of doing anything about terrorism.

What people like Guiliani and Matalin are saying, and the way they’re saying it, actually makes sense. From their perspective, Clinton did nothing to prevent terrorism from happening and killing Americans. The bombing of the embassies in Africa, the attack on the USS Cole, these all happened on Clinton’s watch. Clinton, in their view, was completely flummoxed by terrorism.

Never mind that Clinton had several retaliatory attacks launched against al-Qaeda during his term, including one we’ve just learned about, due to an assassination attempt on Clinton in ’96. Never mind that Clinton’s counter-terrorism team handed the incoming Bush administration a plan to retaliate for the Cole bombing that Clinton didn’t want to implement because he didn’t want to saddle the incoming administration with a military operation as he had been saddled with Somalia eight years earlier, a plan that Bush’s National Security team shelved because it wasn’t sexy, err, missile defense. Never mind that Bush blew off the Presidential Daily Briefing of August 6, 2001 by telling his CIA briefer “You’ve covered your ass now.”

Bush was focused on restarting the Cold War and building missile defense. We forget this now, but Condi Rice’s big event for 9/11/2001 was to be a speech on building a ballistic missile shield.

In the Republican mind, Bush is not to blame in any way, shape, or form for 9-11. Yes, he was President, but it wasn’t his fault. Despite the scads of evidence that something was going to happen, despite opportunities to break open the cells, to Republicans what happened on 9-11 was Clinton’s fault. He left the country open to attack, and it just so happened that Bush was in office when the attack happened. In their view, Bush is as blameless as a saint, and the blood of 9-11 is on Clinton’s hands.

It’s not revisionism. Guiliani and Matalin aren’t trying to honestly say that Bush wasn’t president on September eleventh, unless they’re making a Freudian slip about who really held the reins of power in the Bush years, but I don’t think Guiliani is that subtle or Matalin that clever. It had nothing to do with who was President that day, and everything to do with which President (and which political party) should take the blame. They’re trying to say that Bush inherited an environment that was ill-prepared to combat terrorism, only they’re doing so in a kind of linguistic shorthand that comes across sounding historically stupid.

And they’re also doing it in a way that’s a dog-whistle to voters. They’re trying to say that Republicans keep people safe, Democrats get people killed. It pains me to say this, but I expect that will be the political narrative we’ll see develop over the next eight to ten months — Clinton and the Democrats created the environment to allow something like 9-11 to happen, and now Obama and the Democrats will do the same. Republicans think that national security in their strength, but a good argument, well made on that point, can bring them down.

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