Jewish World Review Jan. 20, 2004 / 26 Teves, 5764

Jeff Jacoby

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Quizzing the candidates | With the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary coming up fast, the leisurely "retail" phase of the presidential campaign is ending. For months, the candidates have been willing to meet with just about anyone and answer just about anything. Now the campaigns are becoming more regimented, the candidates less accessible, and their public remarks more tightly scripted.

So this was a good time, I thought, to pose a few queries that don't often come up on the campaign trail or in the editorial-board meetings. I invited all the candidates to answer five questions that I hoped might elicit some insight into their political ideals. Only John Kerry and Dick Gephardt didn't respond. The other candidates' answers are the subject of this and my next column.

1. Please summarize the most important lesson(s) of Sept. 11, 2001.

Nothing will have a greater impact on the election in November than the progress of the war. Whether George W. Bush retains or loses his job will depend above all on how Americans judge his handling of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath.

For Bush, 9/11 was a brutal wake-up call. It taught him that the forces of Islamism -- the totalitarian ideology of militant Islam -- are America's foremost enemy, that terrorism is their weapon of choice, and that the dictatorships of the Middle East are the swamps in which they breed. However they judge Bush's conduct of the war, millions of Americans instinctively share his view of 9/11. Do any of the Democrats running for president? Question 1 was meant to find out.

Two of the candidates responded with mere truisms. For retired General Wesley Clark, the most important lesson of Sept. 11 "is that we cannot take our security at home for granted" and must protect it with "offensive and defensive strategies." Senator John Edwards learned that Americans were "not invincible" and needed to create an effective homeland security agency.

Other candidates emphasized multilateralism. Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, said 9/11 made it "crystal clear" that the United States must "work with our allies and the world community . . . to fight terrorism." The attacks also convinced him that America must attack "terrorism's root causes" by increasing foreign aid, and promoting democracy and women's rights. Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland wrote that of the many things he learned, "the most important lesson" was that "the world community of humankind everywhere will reach out to and embrace us when we're in pain . . . if we but let them."

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To Al Sharpton, a key lesson of that terrible day is that there were "critical intelligence failures within our national security network" and that "America had no contingency plan for a catastrophic attack on our own soil."

Only Senator Joseph Lieberman emphasized the fanatic nature of the enemy: "The most important lesson we learned from 9/11," he wrote, "is that we are now at war against a group of religious extremists who hate us more than they love life, and who as a result will go to any length to kill our people and destroy our way of life."

(Of necessity, these are excerpts from the candidates' answers. You can read their complete replies -- including those of former Senator Carol MoseleyBraun, who responded before ending her campaign last week -- at

2. Have federal courts gone too far in requiring the removal of religious symbols or language from schools and other public places?

Lawsuits are filed each December to block the placement of a creche or a menorah on public property. Children have been barred from reading the Bible in class -- even on their own time. A US Court of Appeals decided that teachers may not lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance, since it contains the phrase "under God." The state of Washington revoked a student's college grant when he decided to major in theology.

More than ever, it seems, the First Amendment's command forbidding "an establishment of religion" is being enforced as a ban on any religious expression in the public square. This is a crucial issue for of millions of voters. What do the Democratic candidates think about it?

Clark, Kucinich, and Sharpton all said that the courts have not gone too far in construing the Establishment Clause. Kucinich suggested bluntly "that they have not gone far enough," and that "by removing the trappings of religion" from all government facilities, "we actually increase the freedom of everyone to freely and openly practice the beliefs of their choice." Sharpton wrote: "Our public places should not be used to put forth any particular religious viewpoint or message." Clark described the separation of church and state as essential "both to protect religious faith and diversity of faith."

Edwards had no comment on whether the courts in general have been too hostile toward religion; he said only that "it is right not to have teachers leading prayers in public classrooms" and that he opposes the Pledge of Allegiance decision.

Again, Lieberman stood alone. "I don't believe that the First Amendment was ever intended to remove from the public square all displays and expressions of faith," he wrote.

Dean has called attention to his religious beliefs in recent weeks, but provided no answer for this question.

Two down, three to go. Stay tuned.

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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