Notwithstanding all the hundreds of millions of dollars that were spent, the tens of thousands of miles that were traveled, the many thousands of speech?es that were de?livered and all the furor over debates, swiftboat vets and "Fahrenheit 9/11," the defining moment of this year's Presidential election may well have occurred on the sidewalks of New York on a hot summer night in early September.
That was when George W. Bush went to the Italian Charities hall on Queens Blvd. in Elmhurst to be endorsed by New York City's Firefighters. It was a night like none other I have seen in politics. It was a night that embodied what" George Bush is all about and -as it turned out-showed what the heart and soul of our nation are all about.
By all that passes for conventional political wisdom, George Bush should have been counted out long before Election Day. Yet, on the morning of Nov. 2, when my wife Rosemary anxiously asked me who I thought was going to win, I said, "No guarantees, but I really think it will be Bush. It's going to be close, but I'd rath?er be Bush than Kerry."
George Bush had conducted the past three years of his presidency and run his entire campaign on his central belief that Sept. 11 had forever changed our world. We were at war with international terrorism, and our sur?vival as a nation depended upon the outcome of that war.
'Marched Into Hell'
No one personified this struggle more than the members of the FDNY. They had been the first soldiers in the first battle of the first great war of the 21st century. Un?flinchingly, they had march?ed into the fires of Hell, and 343 never returned.
Throughout the summer, John Kerry-with media ac?quiescence-had been posing as the Firefighters' candi?date, surrounding himself with "Firefighters for Kerry" placards at virtually every campaign appearance. Na?tional fire union officials fell in line behind Kerry.
But the group who gath?ered in the Italian Charities hall the September evening knew better. Steve Cassidy, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters' Association, supported George Bush, and he knew that the great majority of his members supported the President. This night he was standing up to his national leadership and giving the UFA endorsement to President Bush.
The room was packed tight with more than 100 firefighters, all wearing dark blue golf shirts emblazoned with Bush-Chenev '04 and the FDNY seal. The guys there were the real deal.
There was my old pal Jimmy Boyle, a life-long Democrat and former UFA President who lost his son, Michael, on 9/11. There was firefighter Ken Haskell, who lost two brothers at the Twin Towers. And there was Bob Beckwith, the retired firefighter who had stood with President Bush in that famous photo taken in the ruins of the World Trade Center just three days after the attacks. And there were so many more.
Firefighters are a tough crowd. They have no time for frauds or impostors, and al?ways have a healthy skepti?cism toward politicians. This evening, though, from the moment George Bush walked into the room, they roared their support and approval, chanting "four more years, four more years." As the President made his way through the cheering crowd, he saw me, grabbed hold of my shoulder, and said, "These guys are the best; they're the best."
Steve Cassidy emotionally announced the UFA endorsement. With equal emotion, the President accepted the endorsement, saying that his day with them at Ground Zero three years before "has shaped my thinking forever." Then, the President and First Lady milled with the fire?fighters for almost an hour, posing for endless photos and alternating between joking around and tearfully embracing relatives of the slain.
Took It As a Sign
There was no pomp or pre?tense, and as I watched this camaraderie between heroes and leader, I became certain that the Americans who got it would vote for Bush.
Americans who got it wanted a President with integrity who would never say that he voted for something before he voted against it. They wanted a leader who would do what was best for America without worrying about passing a global test. And they wanted a guy who was one of them-a guy who confidently walked the corri?dors of power throughout the world but was most at home in this old-time fraternal hall.
These values of integrity, leadership and innate decency would be dramatically affirmed by the American people on Nov. 2. But in some ways, it all began with New York's Bravest on that lazy summer night on Queens Blvd.
Congressman Pete King (R-?N.Y.) is a member of he Homeland Security Committee. He grew up in Sunnyside, one block off Queens Blvd. His late father, Lieut. Pete King, had 33 years in the NYPD.