The right’s atwitter — literally, in some cases — about President Obama’s comment to Bob Woodward that America “can absorb a terrorist attack.” This unobjectionable remark — maybe it would have been better if the president had said the country would crumble in the face of another attack? — is taken as evidence that Obama is uncaring about the prospect of American lives lost and unserious about prosecuting the war on terror. The reaction says more about Obama’s critics and their willingness to read whatever they want into the president’s remarks than it does about Obama’s worldview.

“I think that may be the most outrageous thing that’s been reported about this book,” former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton told Fox News. “How can an American president say that as if he’s a detached observer and doesn’t care about Americans dying. I think people have been worried about his qualifications to be commander in chief for a long time, and that ought to prove it.”

The American Enterprise Institute’s Marc Thiessen piled on, calling the quote “a shocking insight into Obama’s thinking when it comes to the terrorist threat” and “stunningly complacent words from the man responsible for stopping such a terrorist attack. … He is effectively saying: An attack is inevitable, we’ll do our best to prevent it, but if we get hit again — even on the scale of 9/11 — it’s really no big deal.”

Let’s roll back the tape to what Obama is actually quoted as saying. Woodward’s book isn’t out yet, but The Washington Post account of it, and the context in which the quote is used, says it “portrays Obama and the White House as barraged by warnings about the threat of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and confronted with the difficulty in preventing them.”

Hardly the picture of a White House heedless of or complacent about the terrorist threat. But then there are the president’s own words, which the critics seem determined to ignore. What Obama actually told Woodward was, and the italics are mine, “We can absorb a terrorist attack. We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever … we absorbed it and we are stronger.”

How does this fairly translate to not caring about Americans dying and dismissing an attack as no big deal? Put the same words in George W. Bush’s mouth — that the country absorbed the shock of 9/11 and was stronger for it — and these same folks would be cheering him on. And speaking of cheering on, which is a more responsible presidential statement: that the country has the fortitude to withstand another terrorist attack, or the mocking, inciting “bring ’em on” that Bush offered up?

If Obama is, as Thiessen asserts, “stunningly complacent” about the prospect of an attack, what does that make Dick Cheney, who said the question about another terrorist attack was “not a matter of if, but when”?

Or consider this “stunningly complacent” government official: “There will be another terrorist attack. We will not be able to stop it. It’s something we all live with.” That was FBI Director Robert Mueller — in 2002.

Woodward’s latest book, which details Obama’s desire to extricate American forces from Afghanistan as quickly as possible, may end up showing the president in an unflattering light — unflattering, at least, to those who believe that national security may require more time and resources than the president appears prepared to give.

That’s a fair subject for debate. Twisting Obama’s words about a terrorist attack isn’t.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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