The production values of federal investigatory commissions have been stuck in a time warp since the Watergate heyday of Senator Sam Ervin. An august collection of defeated or retired politicians, plus Richard Ben-Veniste, sits behind a very long dais. Opposite, behind a much smaller table, is a single witness, or sometimes a pair. Oh, a few things have changed since 1973: No one smokes in the hearing room. And a few more of the participants aren’t male, or white. But the main players speak the same numbing government-insider language of acronym and denial, making these rituals of investigation seem as fossilized as the Latin Mass.
On May 18 and 19, though, the 9/11 commission will switch from Washington to New York, and things will be very different. The emotional tenor will be more somber, of course, because the hearings will take place not far from where 2,749 people were murdered at the World Trade Center. But there will be drastic stylistic distinctions, too.
Inside the Tishman Auditorium at the New School, a place that usually hosts tapings of Inside the Actors Studio, the commission is planning to “re-create” the events of September 11. Unedited videotape shot by two French documentarians will be projected. Every so often, the narrative will pause for witness testimony. These are the very rare government hearings that come with a warning label attached: An italicized paragraph on the commission’s Website says, “If you plan to attend, view, or listen to the proceedings, please be aware that information presented at this hearing is sensitive and may be upsetting in nature.”
The commission is already besieged by accusations of political partisanship. Now, with its attempt to replay the city’s most horrific day, the commission seems to be inviting the Post and other critics to blast it as voyeuristic. It would be a shame if the bold staging overshadows what promises to be the real high drama: a low-key confrontation between two of New York’s most compelling, albeit nonpracticing, politicians.
If Giuliani can be led into showing how badly Bush failed New York, his testimony could be very damaging.
The windows of Bob Kerrey’s eighth-floor office on West 12th Street face south. The former Nebraska senator moved to New York to become president of the New School in February 2001, and he was here at his desk on the morning of September 11. “I think it’s going to be really hard, emotionally, when the commission re-creates the day,” Kerrey says quietly. “But we will try to use the video, as well as other conversations that were picked up on tape, in a very respectful fashion. The objective is to get the key people to give us commentary: what was going on, what they were doing, what their strengths were, weaknesses were, what surprised them, how they adjusted.”
Kerrey and his nine fellow commissioners traveled to a Times Square skyscraper to ask Rudy Giuliani those questions on April 20. Amazingly, the three-hour closed session inside a conference room at Giuliani Partners was the first time the former mayor had been extensively quizzed on his actions before and during September 11. The commissioners mostly listened to Giuliani’s recollection of what he saw and the decisions he made.
The families of World Trade Center victims, led by the now-famous Jersey Girls, have been pressing the commission to pursue nuts-and-bolts questions like why the FDNY’s radios failed, why Giuliani allowed the historic friction between the NYPD and the FDNY to get in the way of establishing a unified command structure for terrorism incidents, and why the towers themselves didn’t conform to New York’s fire codes. And at the public hearings in May, the commission will indeed ask some of those questions, of Giuliani and other city officials. But there’s little percentage in attacking Giuliani, a glorious hero to most of the public, over parochial problems. Kerrey is among those who view the former mayor as valiant. “His willingness to go to all the funerals is, to me, all by itself heroic,” Kerrey says. “Because it allowed us all to grieve. It allowed us to participate, and I think it was important to feel each one of these deaths personally.”
Kerrey’s high regard for Giuliani is genuine. Implicit in his praise, though, is a criticism: Kerrey is contrasting Giuliani’s behavior with the fact that George W. Bush hasn’t gone to any of the funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq. His kind words are also a hint of how the Democratic commissioners, at least, will question Giuliani. The former mayor is one of the Bush reelection campaign’s most potent weapons, a stirring speaker and an unbeatable fund-raiser. But if Giuliani can be skillfully led into showing how badly the Bush administration failed New York, his testimony could be very damaging to the president.