Sen. John Kerry, right, speaks to reporters outside the White House alongside Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Dec. 1, 2005.
Outside the main door to the West Wing is an odd, twisted collection of microphones that looks like a freakish sculpture. It's in a driveway area that reporters and photographers call "the stakeout," the place where they wait to ambush someone who's been inside meeting with the president.
Of course, anyone who's not in the mood to be interviewed can escape the grounds by another route. So it's really not much of an ambush, and stakeout is a misnomer. Perhaps stage is a more apt description — because the only people who come out this way are politicians and others who really want to go before the cameras.
The White House staff is often eager for people to go to this stage. It will announce over an intercom that "Republican senators are going to the stake-out" or "Hispanic leaders are going to the stakeout." Still, it was odd this week when an aide announced recently that John Kerry was heading for the stakeout.
Kerry had been at a ceremony inside the White House where President Bush signed a bill approving a statue of civil rights figure Rosa Parks inside the U.S. Capitol, a bill Kerry had co-sponsored.
Perhaps the White House thought Kerry would limit his comments to Rosa Parks. Perhaps the White House wanted to show it doesn't discriminate when it comes to announcing newsmakers at the stake-out: even one who ran against the president in 2004 and continues to be an outspoken critic.
Not surprisingly, when Kerry came to the microphones he was asked questions about the war in Iraq, and he was more than happy to rip Mr. Bush's policies — right at the president's front door.
But then came a telling moment. A reporter asked Kerry if he ever asks himself how he lost to "this guy" — meaning President Bush. Kerry said he did not wonder — that he knew how it happened — but he wouldn't elaborate.
As Kerry walked away, the reporter, Ken Herman, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist from Cox Newspapers, pressed his case: "A year later, do you any different assessment?"
Kerry responded in a whisper: "9-11." Then he quickly added, "No assessments. Not the time or place for it." And he would say no more on the subject.
Yet the fact that 9-11 rolled off Kerry's tongue is no accident. Pointing to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as the explanation for his loss to Mr. Bush is one way of saying he was beaten before he started.
It's a plausible case. The attacks gave the president thick political armor for a long time, and the confidence Americans had in him when it came to national security was still strong heading into the elections.
But 9-11 is also a more attractive explanation from Kerry's perspective than some others. Take for example his exposure to the unpopularity of same-sex marriage, which was given salience in 2004 by a court case legalizing such marriages in Kerry's home state of Massachusetts. And many would also say Kerry had come off as wishy-washy on the war and too stilted for many voters' tastes.
Kerry's 9-11 utterance also underscores what other Democrats hope voters will think: That the tragedy united the nation behind its commander-in-chief and gave him a unique, insurmountable political strength. The corollary is that the voters were not rejecting the Democratic Party or its 2004 candidate as weak.
Kerry is not the only politician with 9-11 on the tip of his tongue. President Bush spoke about Iraq this week at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Here's how long it took for him to invoke that day: "Thank you. Thanks, please be seated. Please be seated. Thanks for the warm welcome. It's good to be back at the Naval Academy. I'm pleased to provide a convenient excuse for you to miss class. This is the first year that every class of midshipmen at this Academy arrived after the attacks of September the 11th, 2001. Each of you has volunteered to wear our nation's uniform in a time of war."
Mr. Bush's early mention of his touchstone underscores what Republicans hope voters will think: That the attacks made it essential for the president to rewrite U.S. foreign policy. It's not that he made a discretionary decision to go to war in Iraq based on weapons of mass destruction (never found), it's that he had no choice but to neutralize Saddam Hussein given the way the world was after 9-11.
It is notable that the nation's last two presidential candidates are both so ready to bring up the 9-11 attacks, one to explain his loss and the other to bolster support for his policies and presidency. So it's worth asking — have Americans moved past the 9-11 attacks faster than politicians have?
There is no doubt the images of the falling towers in New York are seared on the minds of every American, and all of us will process those images in our own minds at our own pace. But politicians who think the issue can help them win political points should consider a recent poll conducted by CBS News.
Americans were asked, "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" Twenty-one percent said "the war in Iraq," 17 percent mentioned the economy and jobs, and five percent said "terrorism."
Maybe Sept. 11, 2001, is no longer dominating American minds as much as some in Washington think.