Ex-Bush advisers urge Republicans to soften criticism of mosque near Ground Zero

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010; 5:08 PM

Many of the Republicans who have urged their party to tone down its sharp rhetoric against the construction of an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero or who don't oppose the project share a common trait: service as top advisers to then-President George W. Bush.

Although prominent Republican figures such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have loudly condemned the proposed mosque, several top Bush aides have criticized President Obama's handling of the issue but urged a more nuanced debate among Republicans.

(Photos: The mosque near ground zero location)

They have not coordinated with one another, nor the former president, who has said nothing about the mosque or virtually any other issue since he left office in January 2009. But their comments illustrate what has emerged since Bush left office: a GOP that has not fully rejected or embraced the ex-president's legacy. Bush famously called Islam a "religion of peace" during his presidency, a phrase few in the party have invoked in discussing the current controversy.

"I think it's important even -- and perhaps especially -- for those who oppose the mosque being built near Ground Zero to make clear they are not conflating all of Islam, and certainly not all American Muslims, with wahhabism and bin Ladenism," Peter Wehner, who ran what was akin to an in-house think tank in the Bush White House, wrote in an e-mail message. "This debate -- because it touches on such sensitive issues -- needs to be done in a manner that is careful, precise, and that even includes a measure of grace. I think some of the comments by the former speaker [Gingrich] fall short of that."

(Interactive: Explore the area around the mosque near Ground Zero)

Michael Gerson, who was Bush's chief speechwriter, and Mark McKinnon, who produced ads for both of Bush's presidential campaigns, have defended the mosque being built and suggested Obama's initial statement emphasizing the right to have a mosque near Ground Zero was correct.

Ed Gillespie, who was a top counselor to Bush, emphasized the party should not overplay the controversy for political reasons. James K. Glassman, who was undersecretary of state for diplomacy under Bush and now heads the ex-president's think thank, the George W. Bush Institute, in recent days has emphasized the importance of the U.S. communicating a message of tolerance to most Muslims while highlighting opposition to figures such as Osama Bin Laden.

To be sure, many Republicans who were close to or allied with Bush oppose the mosque project and have sharply condemned it or Obama's comments. Karl Rove, perhaps Bush's closest adviser in the White House, said in an interview Wednesday on ABC News that Obama did "real damage to America's standing in the world by this inconsistent and incoherent answer that he gave Friday night with a different answer on Saturday morning."

And some who have also urged more careful rhetoric on the issue, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, were not members of Bush's circle.

And Republicans might not have ample reason to heed the advice of the ex-Bush aides. Many in the GOP adamantly oppose building a mosque near Ground Zero no matter what signals it sends to Muslims, a feeling shared by the majority of Americans according to polls. And Bush's team's political blunders helped lead Republicans to devastating defeats in the elections of 2006 and 2008.

But the debate among Republicans in some ways mirrors that of another divisive issue: immigration. Although many in the party have either said little or backed the recently passed tough immigration law in Arizona and the efforts by some Republicans in Congress to change the 14th Amendment -- which guarantees anyone born in the U.S. citizenship, including the children of illegal immigrants -- several of the Bush aides have also opposed those ideas.

Bush pushed aggressively for immigration reform in his presidency and frequently touted Islam as a religion of peace while highlighting the danger of its more radical elements. But he seemed aware he had not convinced many in the Republican Party on the former issue; in one of his last interviews as president, he urged Republicans to be "open-minded" in an interview on FOX News.

"We should be open-minded about big issues like immigration reform, because if we're viewed as anti-somebody -- in other words, if the party is viewed as anti-immigrant -- then another fellow may say, 'Well, if they're against the immigrant, they may be against me," he said in January 2009.

McKinnon and Glassman declined to comment on the ex-president's views of the mosque or the fact that several of the Republicans who broke with the party on the issue served under him. Wehner, in an interview, said he suspected "there's a certain cast of mind of those who worked for Bush" on the mosque issue because of their work immediately after Sept. 11.

"Bush himself, if you look over at his rhetoric on these kinds of matters, his policies were divisive, but he was not personally divisive," Wehner said.

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