It’s not that New York lacks the talent. From Ted Sorensen, who crafted the ringing ask-not cadences of John Kennedy’s inaugural, to Peggy Noonan, a wordsmith so gifted that she could even make the first President Bush sound eloquent, the city is home to the nation’s finest speechwriters. Yet the commemoration of September 11 will be built around borrowed rhetoric, a historical pastiche of the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and FDR’s Four Freedoms.
Why can’t we find fresh words to bind our wounds and mourn those who perished simply because they went to work on a sunny September morning? Is it because Mike Bloomberg, George Pataki, and New Jersey’s Jim McGreevey are tongue-tied orators? Certainly, the mayor sounded as inarticulate as a George W. Bush press conference when he was asked why he chose to highlight Lincoln’s 139-year-old words. “It talks about hallowed ground. It talks about the continuity that is America,” Bloomberg said before losing control of his syntax. “And it points out that the 2,800 people who died on 9/11 are heroes who have died so that we can continue to practice our religion and have the freedoms that we want.”
Huh? Lincoln never used that morning-television honorific heroes, and he never referred to freedom of religion. Yes, the site of the World Trade Center is what Lincoln called “consecrated” ground, but to describe it as “a great battlefield” is an inadvertent injustice to the unarmed innocence of the victims. That’s the problem with relying on shopworn patriotic prose: It doesn’t properly convey the unprovoked horror of the airborne terrorist assaults. But at least Bloomberg gets to play FDR, and Pataki gets to be Lincolnesque. Pity McGreevey, who is stuck with excerpting the run-on sentences of Thomas Jefferson’s bill of particulars against King George. Presumably, he will skip that portion of the Declaration that complains that the king “sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People.”
Who among our leaders could find the language to do justice to this anniversary? Bill Clinton would excel at the lip-biting empathy but might fall short of poetic grace. Mario Cuomo would revel in describing the melting-pot origins and the striver dreams of those who perished in the World Trade Center, but could he be trusted not to plug his son’s flagging gubernatorial campaign? Ronald Reagan would have been the lone political figure of the last generation who could be trusted (with Noonan) to find the right tone to revere the dead and to honor the living.
But then, Reagan, the master of the dramatic pause, was our last president whose speaking style was honed on the radio rather than in the chatty confines of television. Our attention-deficit culture has erased traditional eloquence, and the something-borrowed, everyone-blue quality of the September 11 ceremonies reflects this void.
There is one overarching reason that might explain the timidity of the September 11 speakers. On the eve of the anniversary, we are still unable to fathom the larger meaning of the 2,800 deaths. Was this, as the president insists, the first onslaught of an unending war without borders that will define our existence? Or were the attacks a heartrending aberration akin in irrationality to the assassin’s bullets that felled the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King? Either way, we remain woefully and tragically at a loss for words.