With two years of hindsight, we can now look back and say that September 11 didn’t quite change everything. We still like irony. The culture wars are still being fought, and now with the fragrant and very unlikely twist that a legacy-minded Sandra Day O’Connor seems to have come over to our side. Pop culture is still frivolous in most of the ways it was frivolous on September 10, 2001, and even in a few new ones.
But it sure has changed our politics. Remember, shortly after the tragedy, and then again during the New York gubernatorial election last year, how the refrain went that the events of September 11 must not be politicized? I agreed. Who didn’t? But it seems to be turning out that when Republicans said September 11 should not be politicized, what they really meant was that Democrats should not politicize it.
After George W. Bush himself, probably no currently sitting elected official benefited more from September 11 than George Pataki (a minor case can be made for new Georgia Republican senator Saxby Chambliss, who defeated Democrat Max Cleland—who lost three limbs in Vietnam—by labeling him unpatriotic). The September 10 Pataki was semi-vulnerable heading toward the 2002 campaign, but after the attacks, Pataki enjoyed the same kind of immunity that was awarded the president. A cross word was verboten, as Andrew Cuomo learned when he imploded himself in April 2002 by remarking bluntly that Pataki had “held the leader’s coat” after 9/11, referring to Rudy Giuliani (and Cuomo, as we were reminded last week, has quite an aptitude for cross words, whether aimed at a political opponent or his wife).
At any rate, the real import of the Cuomo fracas was that it gave the vague and flabby phrase “don’t politicize 9/11” a very specific meaning: Don’t criticize the pols who were on duty when it happened. And once that was understood to be the precise meaning of the phrase, its obverse was rendered true as well: That those same pols have every right to use it to whatever end they wish.
On May 2, the Daily News’s excellent ground-zero reporters, Greg Gittrich and Maggie Haberman, broke the story that Pataki was “apparently” getting set to lay the cornerstone at ground zero in a ceremony to be held during the Republican National Convention here in the city next year—a ceremony, they noted, that Bush would be certain to attend. They had to throw in that “apparently” because they got the scoop in a slightly backhanded way: Ground-zero leaseholder Larry Silverstein was speaking to reporters and editors of the News, and it was he who released the cat from its bag, as it were. Their story noted that a gubernatorial spokeswoman declined to comment, and PR pasha Howard Rubenstein called the paper to “clarify” Silverstein’s comments and assert that maybe the developer misunderstood something Pataki had told him.
Lots of journalists seem to feel compelled these days, what with patriotic fervor and all, to take politicians at their word; it’s a sort of opposite Woodward-and-Bernstein effect, where the motive is now to invest leaders with credibility they may or may not in fact have (see “Iraq, imminent threat to U.S. of”). But trust me on this one—experience teaches that in this town, when a gubernatorial spokeswoman declines to comment and Howard Rubenstein calls unprompted to “clarify” remarks, the story is true.
“You might think that someone would step in and say, just for the record, what an unimaginably offensive idea this is.”
This would have seemed to me big news. But there it sat, a little orphan, for weeks, until June 13, when the Times’s also-fine ground-zero reporter, Edward Wyatt, picked it up. Wyatt had it from “rebuilding officials” (unnamed) that they hoped to scurry through the environmental-review process by next spring, which “would allow them to lay the cornerstone” for the new tower “during” the GOP convention, which he thought solid and important enough to play in his lead paragraph.
Well, when it’s in the Times, it’s real, right? Again, as experiences teaches, maybe not. The next day, the paper was forced to run a correction: “State officials had considered that at one point, but they recently decided not to do so,” it said.
That sounds possibly semi-plausible. On the other hand, I’ve been on the receiving end of those calls demanding corrections from the governor’s people (and on a matter that my sources insist was completely accurate).
In either case, at this point, you might think that someone in the media would step in and say, just for the record, and just in case they are considering it, what everyone who gave the matter two seconds’ thought was thinking—namely, what an unimaginably offensive idea this is. Picture it. During the most political event American politics has to offer, a quadrennial nominating convention, the assembled honchos trudge down to ground zero and perform their ceremony. Pataki, Bush, Giuliani, Bloomberg; former president Bush, no doubt, and every major Republican figure from the past twenty years, with not a Democrat in sight (although, bet on it, the Boys Choir of Harlem or some other suitably multicultural outfit would be on hand). It would obviously be broadcast on every cable channel, and probably on the real networks, too.
An event like this would make every person who died on the site a martyr—to a reelection campaign. If that’s not politicizing 9/11, there is no such thing.
So you would think someone would say something. Maybe the Times would editorialize on it. Lo and behold, the Times did—and said it was a pretty grand notion! “Some critics,” the paper wrote, not noting that said critics included those rebuilding officials (undoubtedly Republican) and, implicitly, its own beat reporter and his editors, have accused Pataki of “laying out his timetable so that he can have something to show his fellow Republicans when they come to New York City next August for their national convention. Mr. Pataki has denied such a partisan motive. But in reality, it is not a terrible idea to have an August 2004 deadline for the governor and the mayor to be able to show their colleagues and the international media how much progress they have made at ground zero.”
I don’t know how you read those sentences, but I can tell you exactly how they were read in the governor’s chambers: Green light, baby!
Something very strange has happened to a culture in which a plan like this can be bruited and elicit no outrage at all. Democrats in New York are battered and playing defense. The Democrats’ paper, the Times (although is it? It has endorsed Pataki twice now for reelection), first reports the story and then editorializes against its own reporting. And Pataki, whose 9/11 halo remained in place for more than eighteen months, until the recent budget fight, is smart enough to know that when he changes the subject back to ground zero, the halo starts to reappear.
The result is an unchallenged flood of 9/11-inspired symbolism in which the image gets around the world before the reality can even get its pants on. A statue of Saddam Hussein is toppled, while the real Saddam Hussein is apparently very much alive. Bush declares victory and touches down on an aircraft carrier, while the U.S. has suffered nearly half as many fatalities since the war “ended” as it did during the shooting. And now they are permitted to contemplate using their convention to appropriate an event that broke the heart of every American, Democrats included, and turn it into an endlessly looped campaign commercial.