George Will notes that, in the current political climate, the administration must take special care not to appear to be politically motivated:
In formulating and publicizing its policies regarding homeland security, the Bush administration must take seriously a fact it deplores: Regarding the war on terror, a minority, but a sizable minority, believes that the government’s words and deeds merit deep skepticism. The hard core of this minority is the Michael Moore-Howard Dean cohort of fanatics, but the minority is much larger than that and it will become even larger unless the administration worries about its sensibilities. For example, if a terrorism alert is based on intelligence some of which is years old, the government should say so immediately.
Writing in The New Republic, three nonfanatics Ã¢€” John Judis, Spencer Ackerman and Massoud Ansari Ã¢€” note that last month the magazine reported that the Bush administration was pressuring Pakistan to deliver a “high-value target” (HVT) in time for the November election. A Pakistani intelligence official says a colleague was told during a spring visit to the White House that “it would be best if the arrest or killing of (any) HVT were announced on 26, 27 or 28 July” Ã¢€” during the Democratic convention. A spokesman for the National Security Council says The New Republic’s story is not confirmed by Pakistan’s announcement on the 29th, the day of John Kerry’s acceptance speech, of the arrest, four days earlier, of a senior al-Qaida figure. The announcement was made at midnight in Pakistan. That was afternoon in Boston, where convening Democrats were suspicious.
Such suspicions are hardly self-validating. However, the government should take care not to inadvertently foment them. So, for example, it would be well if Tom Ridge henceforth would make those grim homeland security announcements without including testimonials to the president’s leadership. Just the news, please.
While I agree with the specific example Will cites, his larger point presumes a civility that simply does not exist. My guess is that the purpose of Ridge’s praise of President Bush’s handling of the war on terror was not a campaign plug–why would an endorsement from a cabinet member carry any weight?–but rather to counterbalance the fear engendered by the announcement itself with a reassurance that the government was doing everything possible to protect its citizens. Will is right, though, that there was no way to do it that didn’t smack of electioneering.
The larger problem, though, is beyond the capacity of any political leader to control. Simply put, no matter what Bush and company do, they’ll be accused of playing politics. Any dramatic announcement will be touted by the other side as political. Failure to make dramatical announcements will be proclaimed a cover-up. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. This situation is bipartisan: President Clinton was in a similar position during much of his second term, especially post-Monica.
While it has become a maxim of our age that the mere appearance of impropriety is itself an impropriety, the fact of the fact of the matter is that virtually any action or inaction will be spun by the other side as sinister. There’s not much that can be done about that. The best thing for leaders to do is act honorably, doing the right things for the right reasons, and then letting the chips fall where they may.