Mitt Romney began the 2012 anniversary of Sept. 11 by calling for a suspension of politics. "There is a time and a place for that, but this day is not it," he said at a morning National Guard gathering in Reno, Nev.
Just hours later, Romney could no longer resist. Angered by YouTube clips of an offensive video that mocks the Prophet Muhammad, mobs had attacked diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt. U.S. diplomats in Cairo, hoping to stem local furies, had issued a statement hours earlier: "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims--as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."
Romney saw an opportunity to tie his claim that Barack Obama apologizes for American greatness to the news cycle. At 10:09 p.m. E.T., before the full death toll was known, the Romney campaign sent an embargoed e-mail to reporters. "I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi," Romney wrote. "It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."
In the hours that followed, the news got worse. The U.S. casualties in Libya grew to four, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. The White House made it clear that it had not approved the Cairo memo and condemned the events.
By Wednesday morning, stern condemnations from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for swift justice competed with a hastily called press conference by Romney to explain his late-night barb. "The statement that came from the Administration was a statement which is akin to apology," Romney said, standing his ground even as he acknowledged that the White House had neither authored nor defended the embassy press release. "I think [it] was a severe miscalculation," he said.
Presidential elections usually turn on big issues and broad trends, but sometimes it's the unexpected and unimaginable things that matter. What top Obama and Romney political strategists fear most in the final stretch of the 2012 campaign is the stuff they can't see coming--a terrorist attack, an economic crisis, a deadly weather event or a madman's rampage. No one could have predicted that an inflammatory attempt at moviemaking would imperil U.S. interests in the Arab world or lead to the murder of American diplomats. But when it happened, the contrast was striking, even if the full impact of the developing story remains unknown.
While Romney explained his political barbs Wednesday morning, Obama made no mention of politics or his opponent in his statement following the attacks. From the Rose Garden, he spoke only of the dead, of his personal outrage, of the greatness of America's freedoms and his plan for a national response. "Make no mistake," Obama said. "We will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people." Later that day, Obama took his shot in an interview with CBS. "Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," he said.