Without saying a single word, but in the simple act of showing up (90 percent of life, as Woody Allen famously put it), silently laying a wreath, and respectfully speaking with dress-uniformed officers flanking him, Barack Obama managed to neutralize what has arguably been the most potent piece of Republican iconography of the last decade: its total political ownership of 9/11, and of Ground Zero itself.
Photos: Obama at Ground Zero
From George W. Bush’s famous “megaphone moment” three days after the attacks until now, Ground Zero has belonged symbolically to the Republican Party. This situation was owed partly to the happy (from their point of view) accident that all the relevant leading politicians with some claim on the real estate were members of that party. Bush, Gov. George Pataki, and, of course, Rudy Giuliani, and then Giuliani’s successor as mayor, Mike Bloomberg. It was they who presided over the memorial services, held the trembling hands of widows, and offered manly salutes to their natural confederates in the politico-cultural zeitgeist, police officers and firefighters.
Video: President Obama Lays Wreath at Ground Zero
But if the circumstance was a mere fortuity, the way the GOP used Ground Zero to its benefit was very much a matter of design. I was covering New York politics at the time, and I remember clearly that a sort of rule emerged from the rubble that 9/11 “should not be politicized.” But it didn’t take long, as I wrote in New York magazine in 2003, for the real meaning of that phrase to emerge, which was that 9/11 should not be politicized ... by Democrats.
For Republicans, though, the rules were different. The 2002 midterm elections, conducted even as Bush was resisting the creation of a commission to investigate the events that led to 9/11 (he relented shortly thereafter), turned to a great degree on whether Democrats possessed enough resolve to protect America. Two years later, when his own electoral number came up, Bush went straight for the jugular, that March releasing three different television ads that used Ground Zero imagery—the towers’ wrecked carcasses, the firefighters combing the smoldering ruins. There was the selection of New York as the GOP’s 2004 convention site, the purpose of which was obvious. There were even ghastly plans afoot in Pataki land for Bush to be able to lay the cornerstone of the new development at Ground Zero during the convention—that is to say, during the most overtly political event on the American calendar. Fortunately, saner heads prevailed, and the apathetic pace of Manhattan redevelopment would have prevented it in any case.
Starting today, they can’t use it anymore. How it must grate their cheese that it was Barack Obama—crypto-Kenyan, effete urbanite, paller-around-with-terrorists—who turned these tables! What’s been playing out in the four days since the killing of Osama bin Laden—the Republican insistence that Bush deserves credit too, the claim that torture must be given its due, and all the rest—is equivalent to, and about as charming as, a bully’s incredulity that a smaller but nimbler foe has bested him. The seminal event, of course, was bin Laden’s death. Today’s appearance by Obama simply provides the symbolic capstone. It’s no wonder that Bush snappishly sees today’s event, according to a New York Daily News story, as an Obama “victory lap.” Ground Zero was his. Now it’s not. (Imagine the ceremonial orgiastics we’d probably be enduring right now if Bush or John McCain had brought OBL to justice.)
Let me say firmly: if Obama and the Democrats in the future try to appropriate Ground Zero as theirs, that will be just as wrong. Democrats and Republicans—and those who are neither—died down there, and it’s a site that certainly should belong to no party. Obama’s decision not to make a speech today indicates an awareness, one hopes, that milking the moment for personal or partisan gain would have been off beam. Maybe, a decade later, the old rule about the event, and the real estate, not being politicized can finally become true.
Newsweek/Daily Beast special correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.