Jewish World Review April 9, 2004/ 19 Nissan, 5764

Wesley Pruden

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A dishy schoolmarm gets the good lines | The interlocutors of the 9/11 Chowder Society and Uptown Minstrel Show got their turn on national television yesterday and were unexpectedly disappointed. Condoleezza Rice got all the good lines.

The Democrats who only last week complained that they couldn't get answers from the White House were reduced yesterday to kvetching that Miss Rice should keep her answers short to give them more time on camera.

Richard Ben-Veniste, one of the Democratic lawyers on the panel, interrupted Miss Rice several times, anxious to get his bloviating in if only edgewise. Once, when he interrupted her not for the last time, she told him tartly: "I would like to finish my point." (She thought getting answers to questions was what the exercise was about.)

"I didn't know there was a point," Mr. Ben-Veniste shot back. Anyone watching on television expected to see the telephone number of his law office flash across the bottom of the screen with the message: "If you have been involved in an automobile accident, or have suffered side effects from a drug prescription, call this number. ..."

The Democrats have embarked on a foolishly ambitious strategy, to paint George W. Bush, who has liberated two countries in the thrall of terrorist goons bent on putting the world in beards and burkas, as weak on terrorism and too timid to confront goons. Miss Rice (spectators in another, more robust era would have thought her to be a particularly dishy schoolmarm) patiently explained to the panel how President Bush came to office determined to develop a "more robust" strategy to destroy al Qaeda.

"He made clear to me that he did not want to respond to al Qaeda one attack at a time. He told me he was 'tired of swatting flies.' "

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The president's metaphor was clear enough to be appreciated almost anywhere else, but Bob Kerrey, who surrendered a seat in the United States Senate for the more sheltered life of university administrator, was so puzzled by the president's earthy figure of speech that he forgot what time it was. He observed that the Bush administration did not respond to the attack on the USS Cole in the port of Yemen in the year 2000, oblivious to the inconvenient fact this was a year before there was a Bush administration.

"Dr. Rice," he said, "we only swatted a fly once. ... How the hell could [President Bush] be tired?"

This was apparently a reference to the missile strike on several terrorist training camps ordered by President Clinton, not President Bush, in 1998. Such is what happens when a senator retreats to the rigor mortis of the faculty lounge and a professor's gig of pontificating to teenagers, and then returns to the demanding world of grown-ups. (He even referred to Miss Rice once as "Dr. Clarke.")

Miss Rice was determined to be patient. "I think it's only a figure of speech," she replied. The president was frustrated that the CIA, whose agents were the fly-swatters, was "only going after individual terrorists." The president wanted to get rid of the garbage — the worldwide Islamist network — feeding the flies.

A further "tit for tat," the president thought, would only embolden terrorists, and American interests demanded a bolder response. "The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them. For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America's response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient."

An election in the midst of war will always tempt lesser mortals to put partisan interests above all. Democratic frustration is not difficult to fathom. The party embraced John Kerry because he was deemed "electable," and now doubts are surfacing, like a bride's suspicions on the eve of her wedding day that the man she chose for lucre instead of love might be a penniless imposter. A month ago the party could reasonably hope that the economic recovery would remain "the jobless recovery," but now the evidence undermines even that hope. But if the news from Iraq continues to be grim, maybe George W. can be believably portrayed as the villain of the piece.

Once upon a time, there was another war with the nation's very security in the balance. Pearl Harbor was followed by other disappointments, but there was no attempt to drive a president from office to punish him for the calamity at Kasserine Pass, for the long bloody slog across Guadalcanal, for the price paid at Messina and Tarawa. But ours, alas, is not our grandfathers' America. "Tragically," Condi Rice told the 9/11 panel yesterday, "for all the language of war spoken before September 11, this country simply was not on a war footing." The greater tragedy is that it still is not.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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