As political slogans go, “General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead” is truly excellent. Within the space of a bumper sticker, it sears into voters’ minds two accomplishments that President Obama most wants them to remember while casting doubt on Mitt Romney’s charges that Obama has mismanaged the economy and projected weakness abroad.
The Obama campaign is seemingly unaware that its slogan echoes one that helped propel Theodore Roosevelt to victory in 1904. Then, the cry was “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”
Penned by Roosevelt’s secretary of state, John Hay, and read to the 1904 Republican convention in Chicago by House Speaker Joe Cannon, the words “electrified” the delegates, according to historian Barbara Tuchman.
A fictionalized version of the underlying story was presented in the 1975 movie “The Wind and the Lion,” starring Sean Connery and Candice Bergen. Ion Perdicaris was a wealthy businessman living in Tangier when he was kidnapped by the pirate Raisuli (who today would be called a terrorist). Roosevelt chose to escalate the incident into a crisis. Backing up his demand of “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead” with gunboats and a detachment of Marines, he ultimately won Perdicaris’s release.
Carried on a wave of patriotism inspired by the slogan, the Republican delegates in Chicago, who had previously been lukewarm toward Roosevelt, nominated him by acclamation. And after Perdicaris was freed, Roosevelt was reelected in a landslide.
We now know, however, that like a blinding light, Roosevelt’s slogan obscured at least as much as it illuminated. Decades later, after the relevant records were declassified, was it revealed that Perdicaris was not a U.S. citizen when he was kidnapped and therefore was not entitled to U.S. government protection. Not only that, but Roosevelt knew this when he escalated the crisis and decided to withhold the fact from the American people.
In addition, the threat implicit in the slogan was not directed at Raisuli the pirate but, rather, at the sultan of Morocco. Roosevelt’s real demand was that the sultan pay the ransom Raisuli was asking or face U.S. military action. The sultan was motivated to free Perdicaris by paying the ransom — not exactly what anyone today would regard as a courageous response to terrorism.
Given what was concealed by Roosevelt’s slogan, it seems wise to consider what might be obscured by Obama’s rallying cry.
"Certainly one thing obscured by 'GM is alive and bin Laden is dead' is that while Osama bin Laden may be dead, al Qaeda most emphatically is not." Certainly one thing obscured by “GM is alive and bin Laden is dead” is that while Osama bin Laden may be dead, al Qaeda most emphatically is not. Suspicions that the Obama administration wanted to perpetuate confusion on this point drive the ongoing controversy regarding the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Questions about what the White House knew and when are aimed at uncovering whether the administration tried to conceal al-Qaeda’s role in the attack.
This policy appears tough while avoiding messy questions about how to detain, interrogate and punish terrorist suspects. But these virtues come at the cost of lost intelligence that can be gained only through interrogation — the kind of intelligence collected during the George W. Bush administration that enabled the Obama administration to locate bin Laden. Only time will clarify the degree to which intelligence lost by Obama’s policy has made us more vulnerable to terrorist attack.
There is also the question of how sustainable this policy will be over the longer term. In addition to the public backlash in Pakistan, a movement has emerged to “ban the drones.” Inexplicably, its organizers have focused on the instrument of Obama’s policy — drones — rather than on those who direct it. But at some point critics will decide that the government conducting these attacks, starting with the president, is more responsible than the drones.
Finally, the Obama slogan implies that GM might not be alive under policies recommended by those who wanted to, say, “put GM into bankruptcy,” such as Romney. This confuses the difference between bankruptcy and going out of business. Obama ultimately put GM into bankruptcy — but ensured that his union friends’ contracts were protected — so his real difference with Romney is over the terms of that bankruptcy. Here, too, history will be the judge: whether GM emerged stronger as a result of the taxpayer-funded terms imposed by Obama, or if it would have emerged stronger under the regular rules of bankruptcy.
It is an adage of politics that a bumper sticker beats an essay every time. And so, just as “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead” helped propel President Roosevelt’s campaign in 1904, “GM is alive and bin Laden is dead” is boosting President Obama this year, regardless of the facts.