Who owns Sept. 11? Last week it became clear that this question will play a crucial role in the 2004 presidential race. With the economy still dire, Bush is banking on national security to be the issue that keeps him in the White House. When the Bush campaign aired an ad featuring images of World Trade Center destruction and the flag-draped coffin of a firefighter, some victims' families cried foul--and Bush supporters retaliated.
September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group founded by Cary resident and occasional Independent Weekly writer David Potorti, called a press conference on March 5. The group represents about 120 families of Sept. 11 victims who support alternatives to war in response to the terrorist attacks. Potorti and other members called on Bush to pull the ads, and asked all political campaigns to abstain from using 9-11 images.
"I am afraid these ads, and others to follow, will be part of an ugly political jousting match between candidates," said Colleen Kelly, whose brother was killed at the World Trade Center, "where one side attacks the other as somehow indifferent to the horrors of the day. President Bush can responsibly promote his ideas for confronting our threat from terrorism without overwhelming people with the very sacred images of our loves ones' murders."
Bob McIlvaine, who lost his son, said: "Instead of playing on people's emotions with images of that day, the president would do right to cooperate more with the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks so we can learn the truth about what happened on that day and why."
That Moveon.org and Fenton Communications, a public relations firm that does work for liberal organizations, helped set up the press conference apparently incensed Bush's supporters, who have long expressed suspicion about Peaceful Tomorrows and its anti-war stance.
The attack began the next day, when WorldNetDaily, an online right-wing tabloid, reported that Potorti's group was funded by Teresa Heinz Kerry and was operating as a Democratic Party spin machine. "Kerry's wife funds critics of Bush ads: Non-profit group behind 9-11 families tied to Heinz charitable contributions," the headline read. The story hinged on the logical (and financial) fallacy that the Heinz endowments had given money to the Tides Foundation, which had given money to September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows; therefore Kerry's wife was backing the group. The story was immediately picked up in the conservative press--The New York Post, Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal editorial page all ran a version of it, which repeated the allegations without any reference to financial documentation.
"Has anyone else out there begun to wonder just who these 9-11 'families' are that have been interviewed without end the past week about their 'outrage' over President Bush's TV ads with a quick clip of September 11?," the Journal wrote in its lead editorial on Wednesday, March 10. "Are they all neutral innocents, as depicted, or are they part of an organized anti-Bush opposition?" The editorial page editors concluded that the latter was the case, and that "the group was immediately welcomed into the Democratic network of money and support" immediately upon its inception.
The editorial also went after Potorti personally: "Mr. Potorti used to write for a left-leaning weekly in North Carolina, railing against faith-based initiatives, companies without unions and the 'gaping inequities' in America." (That "left-leaning weekly" is The Independent. Potorti won several awards for his reporting. Some of the archives of his work are available at www.indyweek.com/durham/ authors/davidpotorti.html. The Independent has sponsored fund-raisers for Peaceful Tomorrows.)
Rush Limbaugh got in on the act, too, asserting that the Democratic Party must have coached those articulate victims' family members. "In the midst of all these accusations of how low Bush can go with an attack ad, to get these 9-11 family members and to coach them is unbelievable. Those people do not sound like victims. They sound like they've been faxed talking points."
None of it was true. "No money that she has given to Tides has been given to us," Potorti said, "but that's the connection they're trying to make. This is all coming about because we dared to criticize the use of images in the presidential campaign. The funny thing is, we said we didn't want any candidates to use those images. It was totally non-partisan in that regard."
The Tides Foundation gave Peaceful Tomorrows four grants in 2002 and 2003, for a combined total of $34,665. The Tides Center offers the group administrative and office support, as it does for its hundreds of other organizations. But none of that money came from the Heinz Foundation; it gave $230,000 to Tides between 1994 and 1998 to fund environmental projects in Western Pennsylvania. "In fact, by legally binding contract, every penny of our support to Tides has been explicitly directed to specific projects in our region," the Heinz Endowments president wrote in a letter to The New York Post. Both Tides and the Heinz Endowments are non-profit organizations that have tax-exempt 501(c)3 status, meaning their accounts are a matter of public record and are subject to audit each year.
The financial realities of Peaceful Tomorrows are far less impressive than the conspiracy theory, Potorti said. The group's six-figure budget is made up mostly of small-sum grants of about $2,000. There are two paid staff members, Potorti and New Yorker Colleen Kelly. "I lived on credit cards for the better part of the year spent organizing and launching our group," Potorti wrote in an immediate letter of response to The Wall Street Journal, a letter the paper had not run as of Tuesday. "I work in my garage. We currently don't have enough operating funds to continue our work through the summer. If we have been 'welcomed into the network of Democratic money and support,' it hasn't registered in our bank accounts."
In fact, the conservative media watchdog group Accuracy In Media concluded that the "sensational story" of Peaceful Tomorrows having direct financial support from Heinz Endowments was "not true." Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has been circulating the text of the WSJ editorial in e-mails to its subscribers.
The story of a left-wing conspiracy has struck a deep nerve with hawkish conservatives, who have been outraged that some Sept. 11 victims' families oppose war in Afghanistan and Iraq ever since the tragedy occurred. Recall that Bill O'Reilly berated, threatened and kicked off his show the grieving son of a Port Authority police officer during an interview. Anti-war views must be politically motivated, so the thinking goes. As Bush adviser Karen Hughes commented in defense of the ad, "I can understand why some Democrats might not want the American people to remember the great leadership and strength the president and First Lady Laura Bush brought to our country in the aftermath of that."
The International Association of Fire Fighters called on the president to pull the ad, too, saying the Bush administration was exploited the images of firefighters while making cuts in firefighting programs that have resulted in fire stations closing in communities across the country. But it was easy for Republicans to dismiss the IAFF--they endorsed Kerry.
So who is Bush trying to appeal to? Not New Yorkers. The ad isn't even running in the New York area, but it is running in 17 battleground states. That strategy could backfire, however. A National Annenberg Election Poll released showed that approximately 55 percent of voters think Bush's use of World Trade Center and firefighter imagery was inappropriate; undecided voters disapproved 2-1 with use of that footage by any political candidate.
With no domestic accomplishments to tout, the Bush administration is making national security the centerpiece of its campaign, and political ads are just the beginning. The GOP convention is schedule for New York City just a week before the anniversary of Sept. 11.
So Peaceful Tomorrows will continue to keep up the pressure on both parties. "If the Democrats want my vote," Potorti wrote in his response to the WSJ, "they'll need to end the occupation of Iraq, institute national health care, and return fiscal responsibility to the White House. If only I had the right connections..."