ATLANTA - By the time NBC's Tim Russert finished interviewing President Bush, viewers were either frightened or flabbergasted or both.
Frightened because Mr. Bush - announcing himself a "war president" - used variations of the words "war," "terror," "kill" and "danger" more than 70 times in an interview Feb. 8 that lasted less than an hour. It prompted memories of Cold War school drills and hiding beneath the desk.
Flabbergasted because you may have thought you had been mysteriously transported into an episode of The Outer Limits. Was it Dec. 8, 1941? Or April 18, 1961, the day after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion? Perhaps Sept. 12, 2001?
Actually, President Bush wants you emotionally stuck in the horrible aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The weeks following the atrocities saw the president transformed into a forceful commander-in-chief and brought him sky-high approval ratings. With his ratings now down to about 50 percent, he'd love to flytrap American voters in a 9/11 mind-set until November - which, he thinks, would ensure his re-election.
But the strategy won't work. The president's fearmongering merely created a strange discordance, since most Americans don't consider the war on terror the most important issue facing the country. A January poll by the Pew Center showed that only 37 percent view defense and security as the nation's most pressing concern. Thirty-five percent list the economy, while nearly 20 percent list other domestic issues as the most important. (The rest chose other issues or none.)
Barring another attack on U.S. soil, the presidential election won't be won or lost on the war on terror. Mr. Bush beats the war drum too late; for the past two years, he has spent precious little time enlisting the average American in the war effort.
Wars, after all, demand broad sacrifice; but the president has been reluctant to call upon an America coddled by affluenza to make any sacrifices. Indeed, a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the president suggested patriotic Americans return to their routines - starting with a trip to the nearest shopping mall.
Instead of raising taxes to pay for soldiers and materiel, Mr. Bush pushed through a set of tax cuts that heavily favored the wealthy, meanwhile producing a budget deficit that threatens to make America the next Argentina. Instead of insisting that Americans reduce their dependence on foreign oil, the Bush administration went along with granting a tax exemption to small-business owners who buy the biggest and costliest SUVs. Instead of emphasizing the hardships that would accompany an invasion of Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney, et. al., made absurd predictions about American soldiers being greeted as liberators and an oil-rich nation that would pay for its own reconstruction.
And didn't they tell us we were safer with the capture of Saddam Hussein?
The simple truth is that the United States should be engaged in a grueling, long-term campaign against Islamist fanatics. But that sort of war would likely have entailed an invasion of Pakistan instead of Iraq. Pakistan has done everything that Mr. Bush falsely claimed Iraq had done: It sheltered al-Qaida, and its scientists sold secrets and parts for making the mother of all WMD - a nuclear bomb - to North Korea, Libya and Iran. But a war against a nuclear power like Pakistan may have involved thousands of U.S. casualties. It would have been a real war.
Instead, Mr. Bush told us we'd stroll into Iraq, overthrow Mr. Hussein, implant democracy and watch it bloom throughout the region - ultimately bringing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, the president still says that. (Yet, he continues to fertilize the soil with American blood.)
If there's a war on, shopping malls and SUV dealerships seem unlikely battle fronts.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.