Dogging the goat

Diana West

8/30/2004 12:00:00 AM - Diana West

No wonder my mother was a little breathless on the telephone. "Listen to this," she said, preparing me for a snippet from a tome by the popular, late and liberal historian William Manchester. It describes Franklin D. Roosevelt's initial reaction to news of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, that devastated the American fleet, killing 2,403 soldiers, sailors and civilians.

After calling the secretary of state, Manchester writes, "the President of the United States did nothing for 18 minutes."

Eighteen minutes. Why, that's 11, maybe 12 minutes more than George W. Bush paused during a visit to a Florida elementary school before taking action on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Truth be told, I've withheld this historical mini-scoop for a while, thinking "Agitprop 9/11," or whatever, which first ginned up the notion that President Bush fiddled around while the Twin Towers burned, wasn't worth spilling ink over. But now that the Kerry presidential campaign is Michael-Moore-ishly aping the outrage over the Lost Minutes, the fact of FDR's post-Pearl Harbor lull gains currency.

"John Kerry is not the type who will sit and read 'My Pet Goat' to a group of second-graders while America is under attack," Kerry campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter declared last week, by all accounts with a straight face. Ms. Cutter, Ted Kennedy's former press secretary, was referring to the kiddie book Mr. Bush continued reading with schoolchildren for several minutes after learning that the second tower of the World Trade Center had been attacked.

Them may be fightin' words in a "more sensitive" war on terror, but I'm guessing that Thomas E. Dewey, FDR's fourth and final presidential opponent, never even thought to hit Roosevelt for 18 minutes of inaction at the onset of World War II. Let's just say that John Kerry is no Tom Dewey. "Had I been reading to children and had my top aide whisper in my ear that America is under attack," Mr. Kerry intoned this month, "I would have told those kids very nicely and politely that the president of the United States has something that he needed to attend to. And I would have attended to it."

Really? As an article in The Washington Times points out, Mr. Kerry's reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11 wasn't exactly the stuff of the Minutemen. Mr. Kerry told "Larry King Live" that on the morning of Sept. 11 nearly three years ago, he "sat stunned and unable to think for more than 30 minutes in the Capitol until he and other senators were whisked out of the building to safety," the Times reports. "By that time, Mr. Bush already had addressed the nation, vowed to capture those responsible and begun discussions with Vice President Dick Cheney and other top aides about whether to shoot down any civilian aircraft violating the administration's order that all planes be grounded." And finished reading "My Pet Goat."

This, of course, is getting ridiculous -- and I don't just mean the non-issue over the first minutes after the World Trade Center attack. The real question is, why does Mr. Kerry keep erecting so many wobbly pedestals for himself? Whether it's a silly vow of insta-action belied by his behavior; a Christmas in Cambodia that wasn't really Christmas and likely wasn't Cambodia; widely, seriously contested military claims of both heroics and atrocities; or talk of a "secret" plan to save Iraq; the man increasingly sounds like he is all bluster.

Mr. Kerry's Brahmin braggadocio on the "Goat" minutes may seem to be a small thing, hardly a matter on which presidential elections turn. But in a campaign based solely on the candidate's "biography," it is one more telling detail in an evolving character study that the Kerry campaign, given the probing charges raised by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the pressing, new journalism of the blogosphere, is no longer sole author of.

As even Democrats admits, there is little in the Kerry resume to boost a wartime presidency: two dovish Senate decades; a stint as a leading antiwar protester instrumental in creating the iconic image of Vietnam vet-as-baby-killer; an abbreviated tour in Vietnam that netted a considerable and, lately, controversial, collection of medals; and a presidential campaign. This, of course, explains why Mr. Kerry has strategically reconfigured his biography so that those four months in Vietnam 35 years ago appear, climactically, to precede his White House run today. Such a life, though, leaves rather a longer lull than either FDR or George W. Bush has ever had to explain.