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The War on Terrorism from Inside the Bush White House
Life during wartime
By Steven Martinovich
The stories of political leaders during wartime give a writer a chance to neatly encapsulate the mood of an entire nation. They have turned Winston Churchill into the roar of a defiant English lion during the Second World War and portrayed Abraham Lincoln as the righteous voice of unity and humanity. Unfortunately the temptation also exists to turn a politician, no matter how great and noble they may already be, into a near religious figure of veneration capable of doing little wrong. Bill Sammon's Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism from Inside the Bush White House makes that unfortunate mistake.
Sammon, the White House correspondent for the Washington Times and author of At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election, was in the right place if he wanted to learn what U.S. President George W. Bush did in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Sammon was covering Bush's speech on education at a Florida elementary school when Osama bin Laden's foot soldiers committed mass murder that bright Tuesday morning and shook the world from its post-Cold War slumber. In the hours after the attacks, Sammon details the combination of uncertainty and growing resolve of a president many felt didn't have the moral authority to lead their nation in peacetime, much less war.
Not content, however, with telling that story, Sammon turns a president preoccupied by domestic issues into a near messianic figure beset by plagues of partisan critics and a carping media. Although there were many stirring moments involving Bush, including his powerful speech on top of a shattered FDNY truck to rescue workers just days after the attacks, Sammon can't resist the urge to spin each speech and decision as the actions of a president born to lead. Outside of some occasional criticism, including Bush's decision to label Saudi Arabia as an ally in America's war against terrorism, Sammon generally takes the path of least resistance and asks no substantive, not to mention legitimate, questions about the administration's actions and words in the days after the attacks.
Where Fighting Back does work is Sammon's critique of the media during America's attack on the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Mere weeks into a campaign that Bush stated could take years, the media and its pundits began questioning whether the war was winnable and if the United States was trapping itself into a Vietnam-style quagmire. Even as victory after victory was orchestrated by the U.S. and its proxy Northern Alliance army, leading to an utter collapse of the enemy, the media contented itself with bogus stories of massive civilian casualties and the occasional setback, preferring those to the reality of a crushing U.S. victory. Sammon also doesn't spare unkind words for politicians who chose to use September 11 and the war in Afghanistan as the basis for partisan attacks either, including Sen. Hillary Clinton's embarrassing episode of asking on the floor of the Senate when Bush knew of the likelihood of terrorist attacks only to have the media admit days later that it couldn't find any evidence of prior knowledge.
Fighting Back will doubtless appeal to the legion of Bush fans who stand unquestioningly behind their president as America continues its war against fanatic cold-blooded killers. It is not, however, an evenhanded look at a president who was enjoying a quiet popularity one day and leading his nation into war the next. Doubtless there is a stirring story about those hours and days after September 11 involving Bush, perhaps one that Bob Woodward's Bush at War will tell when it is released later this year, one that is a more balanced effort. Sammon's account is unfortunately hobbled by a hagiographic tone that will cause many to question the motives of a skilled journalist who blasts the media for bias only to engage in some of it himself.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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