White House Boosts National Security Rhetoric
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
From New York's Ground Zero to the Pentagon to a field in Pennsylvania, people around the country are remembering the terrorist attacks against the United States. President Bush is marking the fifth anniversary of 9/11 at the sites where terrorists struck, starting today in Manhattan. He will also attend remembrances at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the last of four jetliners crashed on a bright September day.
Joining us now is NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.
Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: This anniversary finds the country still shaken by the events of five years ago and also questioning the effectiveness of the war against terrorism.
ROBERTS: That's right. In an ABC poll out yesterday, Renee, a huge number - 70 percent - say they still think about the attacks a great deal, and almost 80 percent said that it's changed their personal outlook, mainly to make them more security conscious. So it is clearly still an event that has marked this country.
But only about half think the war on terrorism is effective. And of course what that's mostly about is the war in Iraq and how people are disillusioned with it. And that is a challenge for President Bush. He needs to convince the country that he's doing the right thing on his signature issue, which is security. Yesterday, the vice president in a rare television appearance went on NBC. The secretary of state went out to defend the administration's actions.
And the president says tonight's speech is not political, but it will certainly be a reminder of what the voters have seen as his strength when he addresses the nation tonight, and that is his reaction in the days after the September 11th attacks.
MONTAGNE: And of course the president and the Republican Party won the last two elections on the issue of national security. They're trying to do it again in this midterm election. How will today's anniversary play into that?
ROBERTS: Well, it can't hurt. And though the numbers have dropped, still a majority - 55 percent in this poll - say the country is safer than it was before September 11th. And the thing about the security issue, Renee, is that it's paramount. If you're not safe, then it doesn't matter whether you have good healthcare, good education, all the other things that people are concerned about. So you wouldn't be here to enjoy healthcare if you're not safe.
So the Democrats understand that. They're trying to keep the Republicans from once again painting them as weak on security. But the president continues to find ways to make it tough. And the vice president yesterday said that terrorists are encouraged by critics of the war, that calls for troop withdrawal from Iraq validates the strategy of the terrorists. The president's announcements last week about military detainees and his plans for Guantanamo is just the latest example of how it becomes tough for Democrats to be seen as tough on security.
MONTAGNE: Some of members of the president's own party, though, are opposing his proposals for dealing with detainees. How that issue be framed as a strictly partisan one?
ROBERTS: Well, you're talking about a congressional election where you go after individual members of Congress. And they have learned the hard way that when they're being painted as soft on terrorism, it doesn't help much to say, well, Senator so-and-so agrees with me. The president, in this move last week about military detainees, managed to get Europeans off his back by closing the CIA prisons. And he moved then the scariest accused terrorists to Guantanamo, and basically is now saying to his opponents, do you really want to give these guys more rights? It becomes a very hard vote?
MONTAGNE: Is there any danger at this stage of the game of the president overdoing it, that is being perceived as using September 11th and this anniversary for political ends?
ROBERTS: Sure there is. And that's why he's being careful. All of today's events are very solemn and certainly not partisan. But, Renee, this has been true from the beginning of our history. The first of these sort of nation-binding, everyone knowing where they were at the same time events was when George Washington died, and the nation went on for months of mourning. And years later, John Adams, who had hoped to benefit from those ceremonies politically, wrote to Thomas Jefferson, it was over the top. It wasn't about Washington. It was all about the Federalist Party. So this is part of the American tradition.
MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. NPR's Cokie Roberts.