I have studied the Bushes, father and son, for two decades and I can
tell you certain things with absolute certainty.
They are devoted to sports, to family and to country, with a sentimentalism about America that sometimes moves them to tears.
I accept and admire their patriotism. And I'd like to believe that they accept and admire mine.
My father was an immigrant who went to war for America and, as a police detective here, risked his life protecting presidents and members of Congress for 25 years. In our family, policemen, firemen, the military, the flag and the Statue of Liberty were icons long before Sept. 11.
So I don't need instructions from Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, on the conduct of a good American. Patriotism, it seems, is the last refuge of spinners.
Even as the White House preaches tolerance toward Muslims and Sikhs, it is practicing intolerance, signaling that anyone who challenges the leaders of an embattled America is cynical, political and — isn't this the subtext? — unpatriotic.
"The reminder is to all Americans, that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and that this is not a time for remarks like that," Mr. Fleischer said haughtily in dressing down Bill Maher, the host of "Politically Incorrect," for saying something politically incorrect.
Then, perhaps showing a belated appreciation for freedom of expression, the White House dropped the Big Brother words "watch what they say" from its official transcript.
Mr. Fleischer acts offended — and vindictive — when someone has the nerve to challenge the White House while our country is a target. But especially when we are a target, we should not suppress the very thing that makes our foul enemies crazed with twisted envy — our heady and headache-inducing clash of ideas. We should dread a climate where the jobs of columnists and comedians are endangered by dissent.
Is stopping-while-you're-ahead a lost art? (Yes, Mayor-for-Life Rudy, that means you, too.)
President Bush is basking in nearly unanimous public support. Garry Trudeau has pulled his featherweight- Bush cartoons. Barbra Streisand has taken anti-Bush diatribes off her Web site. David Letterman has been as diplomatic as Colin Powell. "Saturday Night Live" will tone down its scorching Bush satires.
And yet top Bush advisers have become image profiteers, spinning tall tales in a greedy quest to transform the president they had fretted was coming across as too small before the crisis into a larger-than-life figure now.
"They're trying so hard to make him look Churchillian and it's entirely unnecessary," says one Republican who advises the administration. "They're overselling a product that's selling itself."
The hyperventilated spin began the morning after the attacks. To deflect criticism that the administration had been without any commanding and reassuring Giuliani-like voice for 10 hours, as the president and other high- level officials scrambled around, Karl Rove and Mr. Fleischer pushed the spurious and elaborately embroidered stories that the White House and Air Force One were also intended targets.
Such big, lame inventions undermine our trust, just as the Bush team starts to do a lot fast and in secret.
The chief of staff, Andy Card, has instructed the whole White House to stop speaking to reporters, so that the chosen few can spoon-feed the press the image of an In-Charge, Focused, Resolute President.
Proving that "a 90 percent approval rating is a dangerous tonic," as one Democrat says, Mr. Rove gets upset when any attention is deflected from Mr. Bush. The White House was irked at Bill Clinton's high profile. And Mr. Rove was furious when Dick Cheney told of dispatching the president off to a Midwest bunker while he stoically stayed in the White House basement.
The White House is wrapping the flag around a little too snugly, as the senior Bush did in the 1988 campaign when he appeared at a flag factory and talked about being "on the American side."
At a time when Americans are willing to vest extraordinary power in
the president, to trust him with life-and- death decisions, to give him
him considerable leeway in curbing civil liberties and spending billions,
this is a time when questions and debate are what patriotism demands. Even
the most high-minded government is not infallible.