The bodies politic

Posted: Mar 09, 2004 12:00 AM

"Our message to all politicians is, 'Keep your hands off Ground Zero,'" David Potorti told reporters last week at a New York press conference where "Sept. 11 family members" criticized Bush campaign ads that depicted the charred World Trade Center and flag-draped remains.

"The families of those who died that day say the Bush campaign ads are offensive," MSNBC duly reported. But that and other reports left out the name of the sponsoring group, September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and the political group that called the press conference. Deep in a Saturday New York Times story, the organizer was named as the Democratic-friendly political group If the victims' families really had a problem with using Sept. 11 events for political purposes, they shouldn't have handed the press conference over to a group that plans to air millions of dollars' worth of ads against President Bush.

Colleen Kelly of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows told me that her group had been preparing to respond to Bush campaign ads for several months. "We really were taken off guard; we didn't know it would happen this soon," Kelly said. When called and offered to help the small grass-roots group, it allowed the larger, well-funded (if partisan) group to put together a quick press conference. The two groups had "partnered" on events before.

Despite news stories that presented the families as apolitical people hurt by political rough-and-tumble, Peaceful Tomorrows isn't so much a group representing the families of the 3,000 Sept. 11 victims as one representing the some 100 anti-war activists among the victims' families.

Kelly, it should be noted, was quick to say, "No one ever said we represent all Sept. 11 families, because that's preposterous." But that's how they bill themselves, as "September 11th Families."

Peaceful Tomorrows member Rita Lasar told The New York Times that the Bush TV spots "really surprised me -- the flag, the body, the whole collage." But how could she be surprised? Her organization had been talking for months about how it would combat the expected ad blitz with references to Sept. 11.

Lasar and other members of the group, of course, have a right to their opinions, a right to protest and a right to make disingenuous statements to the press. The media, however, have a duty to accurately represent who is criticizing the ads and why. If there are anti-war activists among Peaceful Tomorrows' family members, news stories should not represent them as non-political victims who just want to take the politics out of Sept. 11 remembrances.

The fact is, Peaceful Tomorrows is as political as Bush is. Its members bash Bush for using force to fight al Qaeda. They hit him for sending troops to topple Saddam Hussein. Now, in protesting the ads, they even criticize him for using history to make his political point.

Why not? It works. The Bushies don't dare protest. And after the activists have drawn blood, Sen. John Kerry can woefully intone that the Bush ads were "inappropriate." (Like there are appropriate campaign ads.)

What about the ads in which the Kerry camp boasted that the senator "sounded the alarm on terrorism before Sept. 11"? Those ads are different because Kerry didn't show (Kerry aides repeat the word frequently used by Peaceful Tomorrows members) "images." There's always some niggling distinction that makes the Democrats righteous and the Republicans craven. This time, it's "images."

The Peaceful Tomorrows families are claiming the "images" as their own. By holding the first press conference -- thanks to the partisan -- they seek to relegate the large number of voters and victims' families who support Bush in his war on terrorism as afterthoughts.

But as another victim's family member, Debra Burlingame, wrote in The Wall Street Journal Monday, the press conference was "an attempt to stifle debate over the future direction of our country by declaring that the images of Sept. 11 should be off-limits in the presidential race, and do so under the rubric of 'The families of Sept. 11.'" The rubric is false, Burlingame has pointed out, as many of the Peaceful Tomorrows families have no problem with or even support the Bush/Cheney spots.

Sept. 11 belongs neither to one political group nor to Bush, but to America. It was a nation-shaping moment and thus belongs to even American politics, all of American politics.