9/11 Still Affects Our Political Life

In 2004, memories of September 11, 2001, were still raw and vivid when the Republicans held their national convention in New York City. Democrats complained that the GOP was exploiting 9/11 for political purposes -- a pretty safe bet considering that one of the major advantages in the race for either side was in the public's positive perception of how George W. Bush handled himself during that awful time. Bush's response to 9/11, including sending troops into harm's way in Afghanistan and Iraq, framed the entire campaign and its theme of strong leadership.

The Republicans were playing a very dangerous game back then. They walked a fine line between exploitation and political gamesmanship. Using images of 9/11 was considered out of bounds. But using victims of the tragedy was fair game and both sides ended up with their own cadre of 9/11 widows who fanned out across the country advocating for either George Bush or John Kerry.

It was impossible to escape 9/11 in 2004. Both sides sought to draw the appropriate "lessons" from the tragedy. The differences on how to interpret the challenges posed by the attacks defined the national security policy of both candidates. Both sides criticized each other for myopia: Bush accusing Kerry of living in the past, while Kerry charged Bush with overreacting.

In the end, the voters chose four more years of George Bush and his perceived leadership in the fight against terrorists. It was his response to 9/11 that defined his presidency and the people, at that time, approved of the way he was conducting the war.

What role is 9/11 playing in the campaign of 2008?

Four years is an eternity in politics -- and in the life of a nation. As the searing memories of 9/11 fade into the background of our everyday lives and are pasted into the national scrapbook -- taken out and dusted off every once in a while to remind us of what we were like back then -- the power of that terrible event to intrude upon our politics has lessened considerably.