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The Grief Police

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At one point not long ago, Pataki obviously had seen the cultural institutions as a major part of his legacy—a feather in his cap that might prove useful in a future run for national office. Last November, in a speech to the Association for a Better New York about the future of lower Manhattan, he even borrowed from Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union playbook by singling out a special guest in the audience—Amchok Thubten, a Tibetan monk who fled to America after peaceful political protest subjected him to years of brutal imprisonment—as a way of basking in the monk’s glow and illustrating the glories of the IFC. “Thank you for making the International Freedom Center, and your dream of freedom, a reality,” the governor said, and the audience of business leaders applauded.

“The Take Back the Memorial families,” says one 9/11 widow who supported the Freedom Center, “don’t differentiatebetween being heard and being obeyed.”

But that was November. Now, in June, Take Back the Memorial was demonstrating at ground zero, and Michael Burke, whose brother Billy was a firefighter, was saying, “Nobody is coming to this place to learn about Ukraine democracy or to be inspired by the courage of Tibetan monks. They’re coming for September 11.” On June 24—the same day of the Daily News Drawing Center exposé—Pataki broke his silence by compelling the IFC to take an oath of patriotism. “We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America, denigrates New York, or freedom—or denigrates the sacrifice and courage that the heroes showed on 9/11,” Pataki said. He went on to demand “total respect for the sanctity of that site.”

The request was clearly the first step in a long, slow public hanging. “It was instantly clear to all of us that we would never be able to give the governor the full range of assurances that he sought,” Tofel remembers. On the other hand, Pataki hadn’t officially killed the IFC, so Tofel and Bernstein felt compelled to try to save it. On July 6, the IFC sent Pataki a letter with the assurances he had sought. There was no response. Next, Pataki’s people asked the IFC to file a longer report on the museum in 45 days. But once they did, the IFC was told privately that the governor’s chief of staff, John Cahill, hadn’t even read it. One IFC source says he was told, off the record, that the governor was biding his time.

Burlingame and Bernstein still had one thing in common: They were both on the board of the WTC Memorial Foundation. At a board meeting in mid-July, they saw one another for the first time since Burlingame had written her editorial. Seizing the moment, Bernstein tried to explain to Burlingame that he wanted what the families wanted—for the memories of their loved ones to live on forever—and that one way to achieve that goal was with a museum that tied their memory to the ideals of the society in which they lived. She was unmoved: Two months later, she was quoted in the Post speculating wildly again about the IFC. “Will we see pictures of people in the West Bank celebrating the attack?” she said.

As the summer went on, the IFC started running out of friends. “Nobody wanted to get crosswise with these people,” one source close to the rebuilding effort says, “because they were starting to get scared.” Labor unions, including the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, sided against the IFC. A Web petition garnered thousands of anti-IFC signatures. The Post ran 26 different editorials against it—one roughly every three days for months. Three New York congressmen called for a House probe of $2.7 billion in federal funding for ground zero in order to ensure nothing went to the IFC. Privately, the IFC was pressured to consider moving—first to the old Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street, across from the New York Stock Exchange; then, almost halfheartedly, to the Freedom Tower, though Larry Silverstein hadn’t even been consulted.

By September 22, when the IFC submitted its final report to the LMDC, Take Back the Memorial had become a movement. The IFC report was never considered. Two days later, Hillary Clinton stepped into the fray, announcing, in a Post exclusive, that family members had persuaded her to pull her support. Rudy Giuliani chimed in against the IFC soon after. Pataki’s position was now a foregone conclusion. On September 28, days before the LMDC was expected to discuss the IFC, the governor announced the IFC would be not be in the cultural center, and the IFC declared itself out of business.

As angry as the Take Back the Memorial families had been at the IFC, the center’s supporters were now equally furious with the Take Back the Memorial families. Facing a possible mutiny by angry board members, the chairman of the LMDC, John Whitehead, who also chairs the WTC Memorial Foundation, had to be judicious in his reaction, yet his rage was palpable. “Regrettable and dangerous rhetoric was thrown about irresponsibly,” he said at the time. “The names of people of good character and goodwill were unacceptably dragged through the mud.” LMDC board member Roland Betts, Bernstein’s partner in Chelsea Piers and another friend of the president’s, resigned from the board within days. “What was attacked here was our country, our ideals, our system,” Betts said in an open meeting. “And it was attacked at that location. What better place to be able to talk about these things?” What bothered him just as much was the way the families did a number on the LMDC. “It is hard for us to negotiate and settle the many issues that will come before us in the months ahead,” he said, “unless we are seen by others to have the necessary ability to make the decisions.”


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