This is about the atmosphere at Bush-Cheney rallies and how, increasingly, rallies are defining the 2004 presidential election. My report this week features 55-year-old Sue Niederer, who went to a rally in New Jersey at which Laura Bush was the speaker. I was not at this particular meeting, but my eye was caught by a brief news item on page 22 of the New York Times the following day. It said that Niederer's son Seth, 24, was a US army lieutenant who was killed in Iraq last February - and that at the rally she had worn a T-shirt bearing a photo of her son, with the words "President Bush, you killed my son".
Laura Bush mentioned the war in Iraq, and the bereaved mother yelled out: "When are your children going to serve?" The 222-word
NYT report goes on: "Mr Bush's supporters quickly surrounded Mrs Niederer . . . As Bush supporters shouted 'Four more years!' and Mrs Bush resumed her speech, security guards led Mrs Niederer from the auditorium." The report ends by saying that Niederer "refused a request to leave the premises and was arrested on charges of trespassing". I gather that she was led away in handcuffs.
This is the compassionate conservatism so frequently touted by Messrs Bush and Cheney. Triumphalist aggression is such that young men at Bush rallies hoot out their loud, rhythmic, primal chant over and over again: "Yoo! Yoo! Yoo! Ess. Ay!" Senator Ted Kennedy says that the atmosphere engendered by Bush and Cheney at such rallies is positively McCarthyite, and I agree - though I would go further and say that it actually has overtones of fascism.
I travelled extensively with the current president's father during the 1992 election campaign, and the most vicious line came when Bush Sr described Bill Clinton and Al Gore as "those bozos". The days of what now seems such innocence have gone, and Bush campaign events these days have all the supplied flags and spontaneity of a Nuremberg rally.
The meetings feature ugly rhetoric to match the fervour, too. We soon gather, for example, that John Kerry is an un-American traitor who would encourage al-Qaeda to attack the US again. Dennis Hastert, the Republican speaker of the house, says outright that al-Qaeda would do better under Kerry. Senator Orrin Hatch, the unctuous chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, tells meetings that terrorists are going to do everything between now and voting day "to try and elect Kerry".
George W Bush's own rhetoric is only slightly more measured. He speaks in terse, declarative phrases, with the Thatcheresque assumption that if such short, simple sentences are repeated often enough, they will come to be true. Statements by John Kerry, he said on 23 September, can "embolden an enemy". It is clear that Kerry, he adds, "prefers the stability of a dictatorship to the hope and security of democracy".
The insinuation is thus almost complete. "Do I trust Saddam Hussein?" Bush asks at every rally. "Do I forget the lessons of 11 September or take action to defend this country? Given that choice, I will defend America every time." This line inevitably draws huge cheers; it may seem anodyne, but it very effectively perpetuates three notions.
First, it easily slides into an assumption that the 11 September atrocities and Saddam Hussein are connected. Second, Bush's words project the feeling that the 11 September atrocities are the legitimate political property of Bush - a notion that, judging by the opinion polls, American voters seem to have swallowed.
Finally, those three simple sentences give full vent to the notion that Kerry - who, we must remember, was awarded three Purple Hearts and Bronze and Silver Stars for service in Vietnam - is not an American patriot and thus, as president, would not be interested in defending his country.
The contrast at Kerry's rallies, meanwhile, is painful. He will never use five words if 55 will do instead. It is as though he is resisting the temptation to use the short, pithy sentences that would make a pleasing soundbite for television news.
In my own opinion poll, Bush maintains his three-point lead over Kerry. But I am writing this before Thursday's televised debate, and do not know whether Kerry will have been able to pull himself out of the holes he has dug for himself over and over again. In all three debates, Bush can be relied upon to repeat the mantras that he uses at his rallies, to employ the same diversions, and to make the same insinuations against Kerry. If Kerry does not punch back with equally pithy and declamatory assertions, he will be sunk.
And the latest on Sue Niederer? She said on a website that she would like "to rip the president's head off". It is a federal offence to threaten the life of the president and there cannot be exceptions, even if they come from a mother mourning the loss of her son in Iraq. The FBI is investigating, and charges may follow soon.