The Kerry fear room

William Safire:

Down the block from The Times's Washington bureau is a Christian Science church, which, since 9/11, has had this message on its wall: "Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest."

That's comforting, because the Fear Room at Kerry campaign headquarters is on a hair trigger to turn any breaking news into a personal threat.

You an oldster? The fearmongers' pitch is that President Bush is plotting to snatch your Social Security check. Bush's sound idea of setting aside a small portion of your payroll tax as a personal nest egg for your retirement is twisted by the fearmongers into the dread word "privatization." Many older Americans safely covered by Social Security now needlessly worry about being thrust out into the snow.

You a youngster? The fearmongers noticed an urban legend floating around the Internet about a "January surprise" to bring back the draft and throw you into the first wave into Falluja. Never mind that it won't happen, because the military knows that a volunteer army works best; the scare tactic is sure to whip up the old fears in the young voters.

You got a cough? The Fear Room says it is probably the flu and that anti-health Bush stole your vaccine. With the shortage caused partly by drug companies' concern about punitive lawsuits, millions who never bothered with flu shots last year now have to have them. By pushing the panic button, the Fear Room pushes up demand and worsens the shortage.

The fearmongers used the death of Christopher Reeve as a news peg for its stem cell desk. Kerry had been gloomily denouncing Bush's "ban" on such embryonic research when there isn't a federal prohibition - indeed, some federal funding has begun, and Harvard is likely to compete with the State of California and others to develop new cell lines. Meanwhile, John Edwards outrageously used Reeve's death to offer false hope that paralyzed people like him would "get up out of that wheelchair and walk again."

After approving ads that strike fear into U.S. television viewers by exploiting terrorist beheadings of Americans, John Kerry had the chutzpah to say of Bush's reminders of 9/11: "He's scaring people." That was a classic Fear Room maneuver: as soon as editorial revulsion at scare tactics breaks into print, direct that reaction at the other side.


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