Bush Team Pitch:
Vote For Us Or Die

Jay Bookman
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
If the Bush campaign has its way, the 2004 presidential election will be decided by fear.
Strategically speaking, the approach is brilliant. Fear blinds people. It can cause intelligent, thoughtful individuals to turn off their brains and revert to instinct, and that instinct tells them to seek a strong leader who can protect them. When no such leader exists, sufficiently frightened people will even invent one, projecting an imaginary strength onto figures who are in reality mediocre.
And unfortunately, this administration is all too adept at provoking fear. Two years ago, by warning that mushroom clouds might soon rise over American cities and that Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicles might spread smallpox over our neighborhoods, they frightened this nation into a misbegotten and mismanaged invasion of Iraq that has so far cost the lives of more than 1,000 of our finest men and women, and in the process has made us significantly less secure.
Now they're at it again. As Vice President Dick Cheney put it Tuesday, "it's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States."
Vote for us or die.
The claim is particularly charming given the testimony by ex-CIA Director George Tenet that in the late summer and early fall of 2001, "the system was blinking red" with intelligence signs warning of an impending terror attack by Osama bin Laden. Yet the administration that now sells itself as our only salvation against the bloodthirsty hordes did nothing. President Bush didn't even interrupt his vacation.
That doesn't mean that the attacks of Sept. 11 were the fault of the Bush administration. But it ought to be cause for a little humility.
Fear is useful for another reason: It makes people more docile and less tolerant of others who dare to question authority. If you're the one in authority, that makes fear a valuable commodity. In his keynote address to the Republican National Convention -- a speech in which the key note was fear -- Zell Miller played upon that human foible, bitterly charging that "the Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief" was weakening the nation. The Democrats' crime? In an election year, they actually criticize the president.
Maybe it has slipped the senator's mind, but this is still the United States of America. Even in the darkest moments of our republic, when it was rent by civil war and when it was fighting for survival against both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, we still held elections, and loyal Americans still debated and argued about who was best-suited to lead them.
Of course, Miller has never been much for tolerating the opinions of others. A few months ago, he got so angry at a column I had written that I got word back that he wanted to shoot me. At the time I took it as a playful joke, part of the behind-the-scenes banter that sometimes humanizes this business. But after watching an angry Miller all but challenge talk-show host Chris Matthews to a duel, telling Matthews that he yearned to "get a little closer up into your face," I realize he meant it more seriously..
(Despite the senator's professed affection for getting in people's faces, I should note that he did not deliver his angry message to me in person, or even by telephone or letter. He had his press secretary do it for him.)
The truth is, there's little reason to be terrified. The threat that faces us is certainly real, and it must be met with conviction, strength and wisdom. We need to hunt down terrorists and kill them as quickly as possible, while ensuring that we don't create even more terrorists in the process. But in the scale of threats this nation has faced in the past, this one is well within our capacity to handle.
It's the goal of terrorists to make us terrified; we don't need leaders eager to help that process along. If somebody has to frighten you out of your wits to get your vote, it ought to tell you something.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Thursdays and Mondays.



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