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The Grief Police

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Bernstein didn’t know what to think when he read the piece, except that it was clear that Burlingame had a far more ambitious agenda than he had realized. The irony, of course, was that until that editorial, the IFC was thought of as too friendly to George W. Bush, and not really about anything. “It had nothing to do with the substance of what we do, and she knew it,” Bernstein says. “She’d met with us. We really had engaged people on both sides of the aisle.” He had told her, he says, about how he’d enlisted John Bridgeland, who ran the USA Freedom Corps for George Bush after September 11, to form a bi-partisan group to develop a public-service component to the museum. “I was savaged for my connections to Human Rights First,” he continues. “But the first cases both Bridgeland and I handled in our legal careers were political-asylum cases. That’s all this museum was supposed to be about—fleeing oppression and coming to America with nothing but your ideals. Burlingame knew that, but she had no interest in the truth.”

Where the families had once simply laid claim to the moral high ground, Burlingame was showing them a new way: She’d tapped into culture politics, artfully associating the IFC with liberal intellectuals, the antiwar movement, and the p.c. police. This was no longer just a local development fight. Now it was a struggle between down-home blue-collar American values and the self-loathing predilections of the liberal cultural elites—a red-state-blue-state battle. “She articulated the strategy,” says Charlie Wolf, “and we all participated in it, to let the public know about it so it would become a political issue.”

Overnight, the families became a conservative cause célèbre, and Take Back the Memorial was formally established. From the start, the group had right-wing connections. Its Website, takebackthememorial.org, was created by Robert D. Shurbet, a Californian who also runs a conservative blog called Lime Shurbet; this past September, Lime Shurbet chided Tom DeLay for not being enough of a fiscal conservative. Early takebackthememorial.org postings lambasted IFC advisory board member Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, and supporter George Soros. Next came family-member appearances on The O’Reilly Factor, Fox & Friends, and Inside Edition, designed to float speculation about the IFC’s supposed secret agenda. The group met in person at times but mostly by conference call, taking hours to strategize. What was once a plea to remember September 11 became a crusade to save the memorial from interlopers; anyone who was for the IFC was, by extension, against the families, and anyone against the families was against America.

The IFC’s responses were mostly hapless. When Bernstein and Dick Tofel appointed an advisory board of supportive family members, including Paula Grant Berry, Take Back the Memorial simply suggested these family members had sold out. When Tofel wrote a rebuttal to Burlingame in the Journal, he refused to refute her point by point, which only opened the door for the IFC’s foes to brand him a dissembler. Again, part of the problem was that the IFC’s mission still seemed so nebulous. When Tofel appeared on the Fox News Channel, Neil Cavuto surprised him by asking if the museum would contain stories about atrocities. Tofel’s answer—“Atrocities is such a loaded word”—did little to satisfy Burlingame and her colleagues.

In the end, there may have been no defense. Bernstein and Tofel knew the IFC wasn’t left wing, but how can you prove a negative? “My sense of that blame-America thing was that it’s McCarthyistic,” Tofel says. “It does no more good to say you haven’t blamed America than it would to say you haven’t beaten your wife.”

It didn’t take long for anything associated with the IFC to become radioactive. On June 24, the Daily News ran a piece suggesting that the Drawing Center, which was to be housed in the same building as the IFC, would run exhibits by artists who were in the blame-America crowd; the Drawing Center’s leaders publicly denied it and privately started searching elsewhere for space. Within weeks, Take Back the Memorial called on all corporate funders to withhold donations from the World Trade Center Memorial until the IFC was ejected, and the papers picked up the story. Although Mike Bloomberg and LMDC chairman John Whitehead had voiced their support for the IFC on June 20, the governor remained silent.

It was always hard to know what Pataki was thinking. As the person who called the shots at ground zero, the official who essentially controlled the LMDC, he was the man who mattered most. Yet throughout the redevelopment, the governor has had a tendency to sit on the sidelines and wait for events to unfold, form a position only when the politically expedient option becomes clear, and then change position unannounced as necessary. When the public sought a plan for ground zero, he appointed the LMDC, let it plan and deliberate, then undermined the group whenever it suited him. He selected Libeskind as master planner when the LMDC was leaning toward a more bold and less commercially minded design, then forced him to collaborate with Childs when Larry Silverstein asserted his rights as leaseholder and demanded a more rentable design. He forced the Port Authority (which owns the sixteen acres, and which he also controls) to preserve the footprints when activists like Ielpi made a fuss. Then he rushed the Freedom Tower into a groundbreaking on July 4, 2004, in time for the Republican convention.


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