Washington, Sept. 10: When it came time to commemorate the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks last year, President Bush raced to all three sites of horror: the Pentagon, ground zero and the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the jetliner that did not hit Washington left a fearsome scar. The television cameras rarely let him step out of the centre of the picture.
The contrast could not be greater with the second anniversary, tomorrow, when the president will not leave Washington in a day of low-key remembrances, starting at the small church across from the White House and ending at a nearby military hospital where, out of sight, he will visit soldiers wounded in Iraq.
And inside the White House and the Bush campaign, discussion has begun on how to handle next year, when the Republican convention is deliberately scheduled for New York a week before the third anniversary.
In the heady days of April, when the air was thick with the sounds of military victory in Iraq, convention planners were talking about rolling the political events seamlessly into the solemn remembrance. But the White House now has different ideas.
“I think next year will look a lot like this year,” a close Bush aide said today. While the last September 11 was a moment for the president to lead the nation in grief, “from here on out, the president believes this is not a day about him, but a day about those who lost their lives.”
In fact, as Bush prepares for the second anniversary, the tone of remembrances past, present and future underscore the continued sensitivity at the White House and within the Republican Party about how to mark not only the 9/11 attacks, but all that followed. It is a calculus that hinges not only on measures of taste, but measures of success — especially now that the glow that surrounded Bush in May as he landed in full flight suit on the aircraft carrier Lincoln, beneath the banner proclaiming: “Mission Accomplished,” has burned off, and the successful reconstruction of Iraq is an open question.
“Last year you had an open wound, physically and metaphorically,” one senior White House official said today, explaining why it was important that the President lead the nation in a series of memorial events.
“This year it is about healing — you don’t ever want to forget, and the war goes on, but the spiritual need is different.”
Since 9/11, the Bush White House has usually been quite skilled in striking the right tone — and Bush’s wife, Laura, has periodically stepped in to remind the president when she thought that macho pronouncements overwhelmed good taste and good sense.
But there was considerable backlash to his flight-suited landing on the Lincoln.
Then came what Bush aides now concede was clumsy handling of the inquiries into whether the White House and 10 Downing Street exaggerated the threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons, starting a battle between the White House and the CIA over who was to blame for presidential mis-statements.
That eroded Bush’s credibility on post-war issues, some White House aides concede under cover of anonymity, and made him more vulnerable to charges like the one that Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, made today, that the White House “did a miserable job of planning for a post-Saddam Iraq.”
So this week, more than at any time in the last two years, Bush and his aides have come face-to-face with the reality that their political stock depends not only on the state of the economy, but on whether Iraq looks more like post-war Germany during the Marshall Plan or Yugoslavia after the cold war.
The plan for Thursday is to keep the focus on small memorials — moments of silence, ringing church bells — and not on Afghanistan, Iraq or the events that have followed.
In his appearances in recent days, Mr. Bush has not dwelled on 9/11, other than to repeat a key theme of his address to the country on Sunday night: That Sept. 11, Afghanistan and Iraq were all battles in the same war. "The wise way to go right now," said Bill Dal Col, a Republican strategist who is not connected to the White House, "is to offer reminders of how vulnerable we are, but how strong we have become — and to say we are still in the middle of a fight."