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9/11 in campaign ad backfires on Bush

Washington, March 5: Democratic officials, a firefighters union and some relatives of September 11 victims assailed President Bush yesterday for using video images from the site of the collapsed World Trade Center towers in the first round of his re-election campaign’s television advertisements.

Three of the Bush ads show the charred ruins of one of the towers. Two of the ads, one in English and an identical version in Spanish, also show firefighters carrying the flag-draped remains of a victim from Ground Zero. Critics called these ads “unconscionable,” “inappropriate” and “in poor taste.”

Bush campaign officials strenuously defended the ads as a legitimate and sensitive depiction of the President’s leadership in crisis, his commitment to New Yorkers and his resolve to fight terrorism. They circulated a statement from former mayor Rudolph Giuliani to buttress their argument.

“September 11th is the defining event of our times,” Giuliani said. “This was a shared experience that the American people have all been through together.”

He added that Bush’s “leadership on that day is central to his record, and his continued leadership is critical to our ultimate success against world terrorism.”

In their defence, the campaign officials also noted that many of the ads’ critics have been opposed to Bush long before the spots went on the air.

But to some people whose lives were touched directly by the terrorist attacks, the ads went over the line. “It’s offensive that he would have the audacity to use 9/11 in a political campaign,” said Kristen Breitweiser, 33, of New Jersey, whose husband, Ronald, died at the World Trade Center. Breitweiser has been critical of Bush’s handling of an investigation into the terrorist attacks.

As a practical matter, analysts said, it would be all but impossible to expect the President to refrain from visual references to the September 11 attacks as he seeks re-election. But the initial furore sparked in some quarters by the ads made clear that Bush is treading on potentially treacherous political ground.

“I think one needs to be aware that firefighters and those whose families died on September 11 bring a very strong emotional reaction to any use of images from that time,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an authority on political advertisements.

Controversy over the President and September 11 imagery is not new. In May 2002, Bush allowed Republicans fundraisers to sell a photograph of him aboard Air Force One on the day terrorists hijacked four jets and claimed some 3,000 lives in New York, at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania. Democrats accused him of exploiting tragedy for political gain; the White House dismissed the criticism.

With this year’s Republican National Convention to be held in New York a few days before the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks, there is bound to be further debate over the intersection of politics and the terrorist attacks.

Some analysts noted that politicians frequently show footage of disasters, whether natural or man-made, to try to persuade voters of their leadership skills. “It’s part of the political playbook,” said Evan Tracey, whose firm, TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, monitors political advertising. “You want to show you can handle crisis.”

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