Who Cares About the Bush 9/11 Photo?

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A photo of Bush from Sept. 11 has sparked criticism of GOP fundraising tactics

The Republican National Committee is selling three photographs of President Bush, including one taken hours after the September 11 terror attacks, to donors for $150. Top Democrats are outraged — outraged, I tell you! — at the audacity of the RNC move. The White House, meanwhile, defends the use of the photos. Why anyone should care is a mystery.

The chattering class is abuzz over Photogate. Whether excoriating the White House for "using that dark and sacred day to divide and conquer" (Maureen Dowd) or cheerfully reporting fund-raising success with studied disregard for any negative implications (the Washington Times headline was "Bush Helps Raise $30 Million for RNC"), members of the media are having an awfully good time thumbing noses either at the White House or at each other. And the other 99.99 percent of Americans? How do they feel about this political fracas?

If the rest of America is anything like me, they're reading the newspapers and wondering what they missed. I spent much of the morning trying to extract some seed of outrage from the myriad breathless news reports detailing the fundraising potential of these photographs. After an hour or so, I gave up.

This is not news, folks. This is pure, frothy, self-righteous politics — and we really should do a better job of separating the two. The RNC decided to present three photographs of "defining moments" in the Bush presidency. Obviously, as it defined so many things for most of us, the events of September 11th serve as a natural backdrop for one of those images. As much as the Democrats may want to forget, President Bush was the guy in charge of the country that day, and while his reaction to the attacks is no more or less real or valuable than that of any other American, he faced far more — pressure, threats to his personal safety — than most of us faced that day.

The most iconic presidential photographs are both profoundly personal and indelibly historic. They belong, all at once, to the subject, the photographer and the public. Think of JFK stooped, exhausted over his desk in the Oval Office during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or of a disgraced Richard Nixon waving, both hands raised, boarding the plane that final day. Did Democrats capitalize on images of Nixon's impeachment? Of course. Did Republicans publicly question Kennedy's maturity and ability to handle the Soviet threat? Absolutely.

As much as the Dems are loath to admit it, political photographs are fair game for anyone who wants to use them, and this time around, the Republicans happen to have dibs on the hot seller.