Joan Vennochi

Amid ugly mosque debate, follow first ladies’ lead

By Joan Vennochi
August 26, 2010

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SEND IN the wives.

In what looks like a subtle gesture of support from one administration to another, former First Lady Laura Bush is joining First Lady Michelle Obama at a ceremony in Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11 to commemorate the victims of the terrorist hijacking of United Flight 93 nine years ago.

That’s nice. But imagine if their husbands stood together at the site of the World Trade Center, and spoke to the need for the country to stop the ugly argument over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.’’ That would send an important message to a nation that badly needs to remember the value of unity in the face of crisis.

For sure, there are different rules of engagement for first ladies, past and present, than for presidents and ex-presidents. But the reason Laura Bush and Michelle Obama are getting together is simple. Politically, it’s win-win for both and also manages to give their husbands a little cover.

Mrs. Bush is viewed as an asset, even by Democrats. Standing next to the popular former first lady in a patriotic setting will be a plus for Mrs. Obama, especially after the harsh criticism she received for vacationing overseas as the US economy sputters.

Laura Bush also benefits. The joint appearance emphasizes the graciousness that is associated with her tenure as first lady, and highlights the most positive aspects of her husband’s presidency — his ability to rally the country immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and his belief that the war against terror should not turn into a war against Islam.

Because of his famous “bullhorn’’ moment, George W. Bush is the best person to come to President Obama’s defense on what is appropriate near Ground Zero. The former president has yet to do that personally. Former top aides, such as speechwriter Michael Gerson and strategist Mark McKinnon, have put out word defending Obama’s first instinct — to support the mosque. Now, Laura Bush is scheduled to stand by Michelle Obama at the 9/11 commemoration.

But it’s hard for Obama and Bush to act like statesmen instead of politicians.

To do that, each would have to defy the conventional wisdom that rules their parties and drives cable TV and radio talk shows. Republicans and Democrats have decided that war against each other is more important than working together to create jobs and wage war against terrorists.

Many in President Obama’s party want him to step up the blame game on Bush, whom they still see as a liability for Republicans. Recently, Democratic Representative Barney Frank told a crowd of supporters that the president wasn’t “partisan enough’’ in his attacks on the prior administration. According to Frank, Democrats are now vulnerable because Obama was too nice to Republicans when he took office. Maybe Democrats are vulnerable because voters understand they, too, played a role in decisions that led to the economic meltdown.

Republicans, meanwhile, have done their best to turn hope and change into curse words. If Obama wants it, they’re against it. They blame him for the consequences of policies put in place when Republicans ruled the White House. When John Boehner, the House minority leader, gives a speech on the economy, he calls for the mass firing of Obama’s economic team.

Obama is routinely attacked as a socialist. His citizenship and religious beliefs are challenged, all as a way to undermine his legitimacy as president. It’s a version of what happened to Bush. Due to the circumstances of Al Gore’s loss in the 2000 election, Democrats worked hard to undermine the legitimacy of the Bush presidency.

Indeed, as targets of relentless partisan attacks, Bush and Obama now have something in common.

They both came into office as candidates who pledged to unify the country. Bush couldn’t, and Obama may be just as unsuccessful.

But they could put at least one divisive conflict to rest by standing together now against the demagoguery over plans for a mosque to be built in Lower Manhattan.

To do that, they would have to set aside politics and pride. But in the real world of politics, it’s much easier to leave that to their wives.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

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