Presidency: What Would Be Shocking is If President Bush Did Not Exploit 9-11

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Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

If historians ran America's newsrooms, would they have put the contretemps about the Bush 9-11 photo on page one? Probably not is my guess. It's news that a president has decided to exploit a foreign policy crisis for his own political benefit, but it's not shocking news to a historian. We've seen it happen too many times to be shocked. And Page One is for the shocking stuff. Like a priest being shot by a young man the priest allegedly molested.

The Bush"Photo Op-Portunism," as the headline on Maureen Dowd's Wednesday morning NYT column put it, is no doubt despicable. But so was President Polk's plan to put only Democrats in charge of the army in the war with Mexico to avoid the possibility that a Whig might become a war hero and take the presidency in the next election. Poor Polk! General Zachary Taylor, the hero of Buena Vista, turned out to be a Whig. And just as Polk had predicted, Taylor, having become a war hero, was soon swept into office as Polk's successor.

And it's not just presidents like the obscure Polk who have let politics drive their decisions about war. Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War wanted to put General Grant in charge of the army after his great victory over the Confederates defending Vicksburg. But first Lincoln wanted to find out if Grant had caught Potomac fever. Only after a presidential emissary reported back that Grant had no ambition to become president did Lincoln make the appointment. Lincoln knew better than to give a capable fellow like Grant the opportunity to become an American folk hero on the eve of the election of 1864 when Lincoln himself would be up for re-election.

If you are a historian reading this your reaction is likely a giant yawn. Yes, yes, Polk and Lincoln exploited war for political purposes. So what else is new? So did 20th century presidents. Woodrow Wilson? In 1916 he was sold as the president Who Kept Us Out of War, though he knew that any German submarine captain could plunge us into combat by firing a torpedo in the direction of any one of the hundreds of American ships crossing the Atlantic. John Kennedy? In 1960, to inoculate himself against a possible red-baiting attack by opponent Richard Nixon, Kennedy charged that the Republicans had let a missile gap develop between the United States and the Soviet Union, putting Nixon on the defensive. Of course, it wasn't true, as Kennedy himself reluctantly acknowledged after the election to his cabinet when defense secretary Robert McNamara reported that the United States in fact was ahead in the arms race.

Even presidents who prided themselves on their apolitical behavior like Jimmy Carter stooped occasionally when they felt under intense political pressure. In 1980 Carter, fearful of Ted Kennedy's candidacy, infamously announced in an early-morning news conference on the day of the all-important Wisconsin primary that great progress was being made to release the American hostages held by Iran. No progress had actually been made. But the announcement helped Carter beat back the Kennedy challenge.

Probably even the students who flunked the national history test suspect that politics doesn't actually stop at the water's edge. They live after all in a cynical age. But on a multiple-choice test would they likely pick the answer that puts past presidents in a cynical light? Probably not. Even the cynical hesitate to think the worst of statesmen who are dead. It is always the living who are held most in contempt.

Given the track record of presidents, what really would be shocking would be to find a president who never let partisan politics occasionally shape American foreign policy. That would be front-page news. But that's one headline you won't ever see.

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