By Jennifer Peltz
NEW YORK — The Sept. 11 anniversary ceremony at ground zero has been stripped of politicians this year. But can it ever be stripped of politics?
Today, for the first time, elected officials won’t speak Tuesday at an occasion that has allowed them a solemn turn in the spotlight. The change was made in the name of sidelining politics, but some have rapped it as a political move in itself.
It’s a sign of the entrenched sensitivity of the politics of Sept. 11, even after a decade of commemorating the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. From the first anniversary in 2002, the date has been limned with questions about how — or even whether — to try to separate the Sept. 11 that is about personal loss from the 9/11 that reverberates through public life.
The answers are complicated for Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon. She feels politicians’ involvement can lend gravity to the remembrances, but she empathizes with the reasons for silencing officeholders at the New York ceremony this year.
“It is the one day, out of 365 days a year, where, when we invoke the term ‘9/11,’ we mean the people who died and the events that happened,” rather than the political and cultural layers the phrase has accumulated, said Burlingame, who’s on the board of the organization that announced the change in plans this year.
“So I think the idea that it’s even controversial that politicians wouldn’t be speaking is really rather remarkable.”
Remarkable, perhaps, but a glimpse through the political prism that splits so much surrounding Sept. 11 into different lights.
Officeholders from the mayor to presidents have been heard at the New York ceremony, reading texts ranging from parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address to poems by John Donne and Langston Hughes.
But in July, the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum — led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as its board chairman — announced that this year’s version would include only relatives reading victims’ names. Politicians still may attend.
The point, memorial President Joe Daniels said, was “honoring the victims and their families in a way free of politics” in an election year.
“You always want to change,” Bloomberg said in a radio interview in July, “… and I think it’ll be very moving.”
Some victims’ relatives and commentators praised the decision. “It is time” to extricate Sept. 11 from politics, the Boston Globe wrote in an editorial.
But others said keeping politicians off the rostrum smacked of … politics.
The move came amid friction between the memorial foundation and the governors of New York and New Jersey over progress on the memorial museum. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, have signaled their displeasure by calling on federal officials to give the memorial a financial and technical hand.
Some victims’ relatives see the no-politicians anniversary ceremony as retaliation. Both states’ governors have traditionally been invited to participate.
“Banning the governors of New York and New Jersey from speaking is the ultimate political decision,” said one relatives’ group, led by retired Deputy Fire Chief Jim Riches. His firefighter son and namesake was killed responding to the burning World Trade Center.
To Riches, political leaders’ presence shows a nation’s respect and recognizes their role in passing laws that aided victims’ families and people sickened by working at ground zero.
With politicians excluded, “the 9/11 families are having to turn their backs on the people who helped us so much,” he said.
Spokesmen for Christie and Cuomo said the governors were fine with the memorial organizers’ decision.
For former New York Gov. George Pataki, the change ends a 10-year experience that was deeply personal even as it reflected his political role. He was governor at the time of the attacks.
“As the names are read out, I just listen and have great memories of people who I knew very well who were on that list of names. It was very emotional,” Pataki reflected by phone last week. Among his friends who were killed was Neil Levin, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
But Pataki supports the decision not to have government figures speak.
“It’s time to take the next step, which is simply to continue to pay tribute,” said Pataki, who expects he’ll continue to attend.
Of course, it’s difficult to remember 9/11 without remembering its impact on the nation’s political narrative. As both an event and a symbol, it’s “seared into the American social and political psyche, with profound consequences,” says Baruch College political science professor Douglas Muzzio.
And from the start, the anniversary has been a flashpoint for accusations of playing politics with Sept. 11.
The first anniversary engendered political flaps from New York to Pikeville, Ky. New York Republicans said a Democratic television ad featuring the Gettysburg Address was aimed at upstaging Pataki’s ground zero reading from the same text. In Pikeville, a judicial candidate complained when the incumbent was tapped to sing at the Sept. 11 ceremony in the town of roughly 7,000; organizers let the judge perform, anyway.
When Republicans scheduled their 2004 national convention in New York City less than two weeks before the anniversary, some victims’ relatives accused the GOP of using Sept. 11 as a political backdrop. And some family members and firefighters objected that former Mayor Rudy Giuliani would bring politics into the ceremony by participating in 2007, when he was a Republican presidential candidate. Giuliani ultimately made brief remarks.
“I’ve tried very hard not to politicize Sept. 11, particularly around the time of 9/11, but it’s almost impossible not to be criticized for politicizing it because it’s a political event,” Giuliani told the news website Politico last year.
Several family members sent a political message of their own as they read names at the 2005 ground zero ceremony, calling for a fitting memorial amid a fight over a then-planned “freedom museum” that some said would politicize the site. And the 2010 anniversary unfolded amid protests and counterprotests over a proposed mosque near ground zero, as well as a furor over a Florida minister’s ultimately canceled plan to burn copies of the Quran.
Charles G. Wolf feels it’s time to take political voices out of the anniversary this year. He thinks that the public’s connection to Sept. 11 has changed, and that the ceremony should, too.
“We’ve gone past that deep, collective public grief,” says Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, was killed at the trade center. “And the fact that the politicians will not be involved, to me, makes it more intimate, for the families.