Frank Rich on the National Circus: A Noun, a Verb, and Osama bin Laden

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Photo: Win McNamee/2012 Getty Images

Hours before President Obama popped up unexpectedly in Afghanistan, Romney and Giuliani popped up at a fire station near Ground Zero to complain that he was politicizing the killing of bin Laden. What was wrong with this picture?
Everything. No one in America politicized bin Laden more than Giuliani, whose entire 2008 presidential campaign amounted to “a noun, a verb, and 9/11” in Joe Biden’s famous wisecrack. When Romney made this charge with Rudy at a site haunted by the deaths of eleven 9/11 responders — instead of speaking without a chaperone in a neutral setting — he was exploiting and politicizing bin Laden’s slaughter too. Albeit to no avail. The spectacle of Obama addressing the troops at Bagram wiped him right out of the news cycle.

But even Arianna Huffington has joined Republicans in attacking Obama’s bin Laden ad (starring Bill Clinton). She called it “despicable.”
Let’s get some perspective and talk about what is truly despicable here. The same day that Romney and Rudy turned up at that fire station was the ninth anniversary of “Mission Accomplished.” That was when George W. Bush donned a military flight suit, “flew” a military jet onto an aircraft carrier, and all but did a victory jig for the television cameras to exploit his supposed victory over those who attacked us on 9/11. But the mission he claimed (erroneously) to have “accomplished” on that day was a trumped-up war in Iraq, a country that did not attack us on 9/11. Worse, by that day in 2003, Bush's list of major 9/11-related botches also included his failure to respond to intelligence warning of bin Laden's attack during the summer of 2001; his disastrously premature semi-retreat from the war in Afghanistan, which, unlike Iraq, actually did house the Taliban; and his failure to get bin Laden dead or alive when the military had him on the run in Tora Bora in December 2001. And yet “Mission Accomplished” would prove to be only the first installment in an 18-month Bush-Cheney campaign blitz politicizing 9/11 for the 2004 election, complete with a television ad showing remains being carried out of Ground Zero and a Republican National Convention address by the  now-jailed Bernie Kerik, who used a room overlooking the smoldering Ground Zero ruins as a hideaway for illicit sex. Obama could say “a noun, a verb, and bin Laden” every day until November 6 and not match the GOP’s despicable record of politicizing 9/11 for divisive purposes.

Will this week’s mash-up of 21st century American foreign-policy icons — Ground Zero, Rudy, Firemen, Osama, Afghanistan — even matter by Election Day?
Not likely unless all hell breaks loose. Here’s what Americans think about our longest war: They want out, period. Obama claims to be getting us out on a timetable. The Republican alternative as elucidated by Romney, McCain, and the usual gang of neocons, seems to be to stay in Afghanistan longer and start a new war with Iran. They turn this into an election-year issue at their own political peril, as well as the country’s.

Was Obama’s handover speech to Karzai anything other than two parties who have zero trust in each other trying to put the best face on an ugly divorce?
It was a political speech, designed to assuage the fears of those listening both in Afghanistan and America. The actual fate of the Karzai government and America’s shotgun marriage to it is an unpredictable and possibly treacherous story yet to unfold.

The Obama campaign has been cycling through slogans like "Winning the Future" and "A Fair Shot" for the last year. Now it looks like they've settled on "Forward." Good choice? The Washington Times was quick to point out that "Forward" had "long ties to Marxism." Should we be surprised by the knee-jerk invocation of Obama's "socialism"?
The bad thing about “Forward,” as many have pointed out, is that it seems to be an adaptation of MSNBC’s “Lean Forward.” The good thing is that it helps brand the opposition as “Backward.” As for the “socialism” charge, that’s pure Glenn Beck silliness. Next thing you know, “socialism” will morph into “national socialism” and “Forward” will be cited by some on the right as proof that Obama is a Nazi, albeit a Nazi unaccountably born in Kenya.

The campaign launched "Forward" with a seven-minute video chronicling Obama's accomplishments. Is that going to be seen as out-of-touch gloating by a country that still hasn't fully recovered? Or is it a helpful reminder that he's been up against a lot?
At seven minutes, it’s too long to be watched by anyone but the Obama faithful. In any event, he must avoid gloating when so many Americans are still waiting for the recovery to kick in. But it’s hard to know what Obama could do that would make him seem as out-of-touch as Romney is with regular Americans. On the question of which candidate relates better to voters’ concerns, Obama swamps him in every poll.

Obama's appearance slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon was loathed by some on the right and led to a Karl Rove ad (from his American Crossroads super-PAC) attacking the president for being a “celebrity.” Will that gain traction?
McCain tried that “celebrity” attack on Obama four years ago, dragging in Paris Hilton yet, and it fell flat. It seems incredible that the GOP would revive it again. The truth is that every president is a celebrity. And Americans love celebrities; it’s become (sadly) the main currency of our culture. What’s most interesting about the Rove ad, however, is that in 45 seconds it packs in not only Obama’s Fallon appearance, but his Al Green crooning and his dis of Kanye West as a “jackass.” Leslie Savan got it right at The Nation when she pointed out the ad’s subtext: that what really riles the GOP is that Obama is “a cool black man” (and the GOP doesn’t have one). Though perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the spot was its clip of Obama knocking back a beer, as if that were a crime rather than a virtue in American politics. You’d think Rove wouldn’t want to remind voters that his own candidate can’t match Obama, or for that matter Hillary, in the political beer-imbibing sweepstakes.

Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondents' dinner was well reviewed by most, even if loathed by some on the right. Does this prove that people actually like their "celebrity" president?
They do indeed. And Obama killed. I like Jimmy Kimmel, the evening’s official entertainer, and you had to feel for him having to follow the president’s act. When it came to the expected targets (the GSA and Secret Service scandals, Romney), Obama got there first and with better jokes (provided by Simpsons and Daily Show hands). Shoehorning NBC’s political analyst Chuck Todd and “the cast of Glee” into the same punch line was a particularly memorable comic feat. But no less impressive was Obama’s delivery — from his timing on “A pit bull is delicious” to his brief impersonation of Rick Santorum on “What a snob.” Why we don’t see this charming Obama more often is a mystery, and one his campaign should solve pronto. A light touch will serve him well in debates with his Audio-Animatronic opponent, who has not yet been programmed to either recognize humor or respond to it in kind.