Killing Bin Laden, and Smearing Mitt Romney

Killing Bin Laden, and Smearing Mitt Romney

By Carl M. Cannon - May 3, 2012

Whether one finds it unseemly for President Obama to travel halfway around the world to commemorate the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's killing is primarily a matter of taste. But it can be said that the first president of the United States wouldn't have done it that way.

Like Barack Obama, George Washington’s first elected office was in a state legislature. After leading troops in the French and Indian War, Washington was selected to represent Frederick County, Va., in the House of Burgesses. Already a war hero at 27, Washington was seated in the Williamsburg chamber on Feb. 26, 1759, as several colleagues gave testimonials of praise.

When it was his turn, Washington arose as if to speak. But, apparently fearful of sounding immodest, he simply stood there wordlessly. Patrick Henry biographer William Wirt noted that Speaker John Robinson gently rescued the young man, saying, “Sit down, Mr. Washington. Your modesty is equal to your valor, and that surpasses the power of any language that I possess.”

Notwithstanding Obama’s claim to NBC’s Brian Williams that he resisted giving anyone “a high five” when he saw pictures of bin Laden in death, George Washington’s approach is a stark contrast to Obama’s, or that of any of our last three presidents. It’s also doubtful that Ronald Reagan -- or Walter Mondale, for that matter -- would have done the Kabul Kabuki this week. But times, and sensibilities, change. “The Greatest Generation” gave way to the “I am the greatest” generation.

Yet, even before the 1980 Republican primary season ended with Reagan victorious, also-ran Howard Baker of Tennessee explained what he had learned about campaigning for president by employing an old adage: “He that doesn’t tooteth his own trumpet, doesn’t get his trumpet tooteth.”

In a debate in South Carolina that year, Sen. Baker lamented the truth of his own observation. “I don’t know about the rest of you people,” he said, “but one of the requirements of running for president apparently is that you incinerate any remnant of modesty that’s left in your body.”

This truism presents a paradox. On the one hand, most Americans want to like their presidents. It’s one of the criteria voters use when deciding how to cast their ballots. If we actually had any real-life friends who bragged and preened and postured as much as these candidates do, however, we’d shun them -- and perhaps refer them to a psychologist.

Barack Obama did not create this milieu, and shouldn’t be unduly blamed for it. But there’s another aspect to trumpeting the I-killed-Osama story line this week that even some liberals find harder to excuse. That’s the part in which the president’s re-election team cuts a negative campaign ad not only bragging about Obama’s decision to give the order to kill the terrorist leader, but also strongly implying that Mitt Romney wouldn’t have done the same thing.

To make this case, a couple of five-year-old Romney quotes are dredged up, taken out of context, and slapped on the screen -- and packaged with a testimonial from former President Bill Clinton, who really should know better: After 9/11, it was commonplace for political people in Washington, not all of them Republicans, to reassure each other that the right man was in the White House, with the right policy team. Some of this talk, which was highly dismissive of Al Gore, made its way from cocktail party chatter into the news coverage. But this was never remotely fair to Gore.

Al Gore wanted desperately to be president, campaigned hard for it, and had it taken away from him by the quirk of the Electoral College and a controversial Supreme Court decision. To turn around, after disaster struck this country, and proclaim that he wouldn’t have been up to the job was not only unjust, it was also absurd -- because it’s so obviously unknowable. If history has taught Americans anything, it’s that we don’t know how presidential candidates will perform in office.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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