Bush Speechwriters Back Obama on Mosque
Addressing Congress on September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush reminded the American people that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, "We're in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them," adding, "No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith." So, it is only fitting that Michael Gerson and David Frum - the men who wrote those and other words for Bush - would back President Obama's strong stand in support of religious freedom in lower Manhattan.
Writing in the Daily Beast on Monday, former Bush strategist Mark McKinnon declared simply "Obama was right on the mosque." But in his appearance today on MSNBC's Morning Joe, McKinnon made a much more forceful case:
"Usually Republicans are forthright in defending the Constitution. And here we are, reinforcing al Qaeda's message that we're at war with Muslims...
Tolerance means tolerating things you don't like, especially when you don't like them. ... I respect the President for making this move."
McKinnon was quick to joke that, "We may get our membership [by the GOP] revoked." Of course, for declaring in 2008 that "I just don't want to work against an Obama candidacy," Mark McKinnon had already been excommunicated by many of the conservative faithful.
But David Frum is another matter. While some on the right have criticized Frum for his lack of ferocity in attacking Barack Obama, he is after all the man who coined the term "Axis of Evil." And while the Canadian export has his questions about the Ground Zero mosque project, he has no doubts about the very American values at stake there:
"So there is reason not to relish the new project. But the rights guaranteed by the Constitution do not belong only to nice people. And whatever we may wonder about the mosque promoters, we should also remember the mosque's users: the thousands of Muslims who work in lower Manhattan, every single one of whom is as entitled to pray as any member of Marble Presbyterian or Temple Emanu-el."
Of all the last president's wordsmiths, Michael Gerson was the most eloquent in defense of the Cordoba mosque project. Writing in the Washington Post today, the man who comically claimed in April 2009 that Barack Obama is "declaring war on Catholics" praised his defense of Muslims:
But the view from the Oval Office differs from the view from a keyboard. A president does not merely have opinions; he has duties to the Constitution and to the citizens he serves -- including millions of Muslim citizens. His primary concern is not the sifting of sensitivities but the protection of the American people and the vindication of their rights.
By this standard, Obama had no choice but the general path he took. No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens. It would be an unprecedented act of sectarianism, alienating an entire faith tradition from the American experiment. If a church or synagogue can be built on a commercial street in Lower Manhattan, declaring a mosque off-limits would officially equate Islam with violence and terrorism. No president would consider making such a statement. And those commentators who urge the president to do so fundamentally misunderstand the presidency itself.
Echoing McKinnon, Gerson insisted that it's not just the U.S. Constitution and the best traditions American religious pluralism which demand the rejection of right-wing fear-mongering at Ground Zero. With U.S. forces fighting side by side with Muslim troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, American foreign policy requires it:
A president not only serves Muslim citizens, not only commands Muslims in the American military, but also leads a coalition that includes Iraqi and Afghan Muslims who risk death each day fighting Islamic radicalism at our side. How could he possibly tell them that their place of worship inherently symbolizes the triumph of terror?
There are many reasons to criticize Obama's late, vacillating response to the Manhattan mosque, and perhaps even to criticize this particular mosque. But those who want a president to assert that any mosque would defile the neighborhood near Ground Zero are asking him to undermine the war on terrorism. A war on Islam would make a war on terrorism impossible.
To be sure, Michael Gerson and David Frum have a lot to answer for in their propagandizing on behalf of George W. Bush. After all, the same men who after 9/11 had President Bush speak directly to Muslims throughout the world ("We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.") also put "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" in his mouth. But this time, at least, they got it right.