The Politics of the 'Not-Political' Speech

President Bush's speech Monday night from the Oval Office commemorating the five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks was not political.

Or was it?

"Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone," Bush said last night.

"They will not leave us alone. They will follow us. The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad."

That was just one of several lines about the conflict in Iraq that were arguably "political," a word that is even more difficult to define than, say, "is."

Before the president's remarks, White House spokesman Tony Snow said that Bush's address would not be political.

This struck some in Washington as questionable, because any president, particularly one this close to a national election, cannot so much as tie his shoes without it being seen as political.

Bush said as much himself last week in an interview.

Still, the networks that agreed to carry the speech live in prime time with no rebuttal from the Democrats, and many others believed that Bush would confine his remarks to honoring those who had died, and other topics that unify the country rather than divide it.

The Case for Iraq: Always Political?

While there are certainly ways to discuss the war on terrorism and even the American military efforts in Iraq in ways that are not divisive, Bush used the occasion to make a vigorous case for his Iraq policy -- a topic as political as anything else in national life today.

The Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, has already joined other Democrats in expressing surprise and outrage at the president's use of the occasion to argue his brief on Iraq.

"The American people deserved better last night," Reid said. "They deserved a chance to reclaim that sense of unity, purpose and patriotism that swept through our country five years ago."

While this might be a case in which political combatants inside the Washington Beltway care more about the definition of "political" and the nature of the speech than "real" people out in the country, this debate is likely to occupy much of the capital today.

Snow's fine-tuning today -- telling reporters that the speech was "not partisan" instead of "not political" -- is unlikely to end the debate.

White House officials say that it is Democrats who have made the occasion political by issuing news releases right after the speech that assailed the president.

House Majority Leader John Boehner took that argument one step further, telling reporters that he wondered if Democrats weren't more interested in protecting the terrorists than in protecting the American people.

Was the majority leader calling Democrats traitors, a reporter asked? No, said Boehner, but "they certainly don't want to take the terrorists on and defeat them."

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