Never Forget (To Vote for Me)

Why 9/11 is no longer a day free of politics.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Sarah Palin

The liberal panic of the week, now that Saturday’s Quran-burning ceremony has been canceled, is the mystery-cloaked rally that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are holding in Anchorage tomorrow evening. “Right Wing Leaders Plan To Use September 11th Anniversary To Make Money,”writes Lee Fang at ThinkProgress. “Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck Exploit 9/11 for Profit”reads a headline at Firedoglake.

Instant outrage, just add water—although unlike every other news-cycle-burner of the year, there might be some actualoutrage here. Between the Palin/Beck event in Alaska, the launch of a new war-on-terror documentary ( America At Risk: The War With No Name) produced by Newt Gingrich in Washington, a rally against the Park51 Community Center in New York City, and the made-for-cable idiocy in Florida, there is something new about the way the 9/11 anniversary is being played in 2010.

Until this year, America basically operated under the impression that politics stopped on Sept. 11. In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign caught some flack for promoting a fundraiser with Warren Buffett that would have been held on the 9/11 anniversary; in public, both his campaign and McCain’s campaign were pulling down TV ads. They spent the anniversary attending a solemn memorial at Ground Zero, and that was it.

Two years on, that just seems quaint. In New York, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio (yes, him) has super-glued his campaign to the spat over the construction of a Muslim community center two blocks from Ground Zero. His commercial on the topic is as subtle as a bazooka, with imagery of the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center as the background for his plea that “New Yorkers have been through enough.” He’s not dropping it as the holiday approaches, and he is one of many politicians holding events and fundraisers tomorrow—as if Sept. 11, 2010, were just another Saturday. If there’s been a backlash, no one’s noticed it.

How did we get from 9/11 as sacred day-of-no-politics to this? With a lot of hard work. For nine years, supporters of an aggressive approach to terrorism as a response to 9/11 worked to make sure that they owned the anniversary. For nine years they got brushback from the media and from the political actors who had the most to lose if 9/11 was seen as proof that ultra-tough conservatives were right and that ultra-tolerant liberals were wrong. And the conservatives won.

The early skirmishes came during the 2002 campaign, when several Democrats lost re-election to Republicans who argued that their votes were making Osama bin Laden, wherever he was, happy. The first big spat came in March 2004, when the Bush-Cheney campaign included two seconds of 9/11 imagery in an ad. Cue the outrage. MoveOn.org demanded that ad be taken down, and marshaled some liberal family members of 9/11 victims to make the case. That got Debra Burlingame out of her chair and into the pages of the Wall Street Journal. The sister of the pilot of the jet that crashed into the Pentagon, Burlingame went after the people referred to by the press as “the 9/11 family members” in a way no one else had the credibility to do. “By disingenuously declaring themselves ‘non-partisan’ and insisting that [anger at the ad] is a matter of ‘taste,’ ” wrote Burlingame, “they retain a powerful weapon that they have learned to exploit to their advantage. They are ‘9/11 family members’ and therefore enjoy the cloak of deference that has been graciously conferred upon them by the public, politicians and, most significantly, the media.”

Burlingame’s column notwithstanding, the Bush ad stayed off the air. Using any imagery from 9/11 remained a good way for a candidate to get involved in a controversy, typically the kind of controversy that cost him votes. One example: Rudy Giuliani’s imploding presidential campaign was seen as proof that 9/11 politicking just didn’t work, and his campaign spent days denouncing a third-party fundraiser that asked supporters to give him donations ending in $9.11.

The rule of 9/11 politicking used to be simple: Leave it up to 9/11 family members to denounce any politicking on or about the event.

That’s just not the case anymore. Supporters of the “war on terror,” as formulated by the Bush administration, don’t back down when they’re accused of “exploiting” 9/11. They have no choice, you see: If they don’t use the anniversary to make their argument, then they’re partly responsible for allowing Obama’s policies to make America less safe. When I talked to Burlingame this week, she suggested that the failure of people like her to point this out meant that the “narrative” of 9/11 would continue to drift away from the one that Americans bought in 2001: There was a clash of civilizations, and winning it meant paying any price. And she argued that the idea of a “truce” on 9/11 politicking before this year was a ruse.

“Somebody just said to me, the other day, that it was so nice that Barack Obama and John McCain stopped campaigning on 9/11” in 2008, said Burlingame. “I laughed at that. Really? You think that wasn’t political? It was a joint campaign appearance! They were both campaigning for themselves.”

Is Burlingame right? Was the 9/11 politicking truce just politicking by other means? If you nudge Republicans, they’ll admit that they crossed their fingers and hoped for poll boosts in 2004 and 2006 after the anniversary. They might even admit that the timing of the 2004 Republican convention, pushed to the latest-possible date at the start of September, was meant to ride the momentum of the anniversary—tastefully, of course!

It’s worth going all the way back to the weeks after the 2001 attacks, when politics supposedly stopped cold. Sept. 11 was the date of the New York City primary, which four Democratic mayoral candidates were scrambling to win. Voters had been going to the polls for an hour when Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. The city locked down; the election was postponed to Sept. 25. And the candidates stopped stumping for votes. “The campaign is over,” said a spokesman for eventual Democratic nominee Mark Green on Sept. 13, “Now we’ll have an election.”

Maybe that thinking was one of the reasons Green lost. The campaign wasn’t over. It had become a campaign about 9/11. Mayor Rudy Giuliani floated the idea of staying on as mayor, and Green was slow to reject it (although he eventually did). Green’s rival, Freddy Ferrer, made a play for nervous voters by pledging to put Giuliani on a “recovery board” after the election. When Green attempted to touch the 9/11 “issue,” he got burned—he was mocked for saying that, if he were mayor, he could have rallied the city like Giuliani did, and he was attacked after Bill Bratton, Giuliani’s former police commissioner who’d endorsed Green, said the Democrat could better prepare the city for terror threats than Republican rival Michael Bloomberg could.

Having never led in pre-election polls, Bloomberg beat Green. Looking back, that seems inevitable. It’s much harder for Democrats to finesse 9/11 politics, because the anniversary appeals to inchoate, patriotic anger that only Republicans promise they’re going to act on. It’s the same anger that led to Republican support for the war in Iraq and for Toby Keith songs—or, if they’re desperate, Darryl Worley songs. Those liberal attempts at making 9/11 a “day of service” and trying (with little success) to convince people that a “Ground Zero mosque” is OK? Well, Republicans see right through that. Liberals want a 9/11 “truce” because the truce is the only way for them to win. So the truce is over.

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