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Three War Stars Are Born

January 06, 2002|WILLIAM SCHNEIDER

WASHINGTON — "Star Wars" is fiction. But war stars is a fact. Wars create popular heroes. And political stars. It goes all the way back to the beginning of the republic--George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Colin L. Powell.

And now, who? Well, to start with, Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Rarely has a politician seen his image transformed so quickly and so dramatically. Remember last summer when the New York tabloids were filled with stories about Mayor Giuliani's scandalous personal life? After Sept. 11, Giuliani appeared with his girlfriend all over New York--and overseas--and nobody seemed to notice. Or care. Giuliani's pitch-perfect response to the terrorist attacks made him a hero and an inspiration. The percentage of Americans who say Giuliani has done a "very good'' job of responding to the terrorist attacks: 61 (in a Time magazine mid-December poll). Percentage of Americans who say President Bush has done a "very good'' job of responding to the terrorist attacks: 53 in late October.

The old Giuliani was petty and vindictive. The new Giuliani is ... well, petty and vindictive. At a farewell meeting in Brooklyn last month, the mother of a policeman rose to ask the mayor why the city had not given police officers a long overdue pay raise. "What you just did isn't right,'' the mayor said sharply. "I can't negotiate a contract with you now. You shouldn't have done this.'' And that is one reason why, despite his Churchillian stature, Giuliani's political future is cloudy. He has an outsized personality and a difficult temperament. He does not, as they used to say in school, work and play well with others.

Sen. Giuliani? It's hard to see him going along or getting along with 99 colleagues. Vice President Giuliani? A vice president's job is to be loyal and self-abasing. That's not him. Gov. Giuliani? That's the role most people see him in. But he'll have to wait five years, since New York's Republican Gov. George Pataki is running for a third term this year. President Giuliani? He'd be a formidable contender. He's already impressed the country with his presidential qualities. But he has to find a party that will nominate him. Conservatives distrust him. He's pro-choice, pro-gay rights and pro-gun control. And, anyway, the GOP nomination won't be open for another seven years, during which time Giuliani has to figure out a way to stay in the spotlight.

A presidential appointment, maybe. Some kind of reconstruction czar. If anyone was ever born to be a czar, it's Giuliani. But Bush needs to keep Giuliani at arm's length. He's already overshadowed the president once.

Another unlikely war star has emerged out of the ranks of the GOP-- Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Before Sept. 11, Rumsfeld was a retread. He first served as defense secretary in the Gerald R. Ford administration--more than 26 years ago.

Now he's a TV star. Rumsfeld's daily press briefings are cool, crisp and authoritative. He speaks to the American people like he's speaking to grown-ups. In polished sentences and paragraphs. Without spin. When a reporter asked him what's being done with prisoners of war being held by the Pakistanis, Rumsfeld replied, "I'm not as knowledgeable as I might be in 24 hours.'' Rumsfeld's briefings are a metaphor. The U.S. is in control of the military situation, just as Rumsfeld is in control of the press. "[Osama bin Laden] is important. We're after him. We intend to find him. I believe we will,'' Rumsfeld said on Dec. 19. "And if he turns up somewhere thumbing his nose at you?'' a reporter asked. Rumsfeld replied, "We will go see about that thumb.'' In other words: trust us. We know what we're doing.

In effect, Rumsfeld is doing what Vice President Dick Cheney was supposed to do. He's a reassuring presence in an administration headed by a president with little national or international experience. Meanwhile, Cheney is in an "undisclosed, secure location." Where he may remain in 2004. If the international situation is still tense, Rumsfeld would be a good choice for the No.2 spot on the GOP ticket.

The Democrats have their own war star--Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Daschle was propelled into prominence by two unlikely events last year. The first was in June, when Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords startled the political world by leaving the Republican Party to become an independent. That made Daschle the new Senate majority leader--and the highest-ranking Democrat in Washington.

Then, in October, Daschle was the target of an anthrax attack. The attack was so virulent it forced senators to vacate their offices for months. And magnified Daschle's image of importance. Once an obscure senator from an obscure state (South Dakota), Daschle has become an assured figure who rallies Democrats and infuriates Republicans. Why? Because the majority leader came up with a devious plan: He said Democrats should stand squarely with the president on the war while opposing Bush's domestic agenda.

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