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

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 10 2010 7:02 AM

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. Click image to expand.
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.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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.



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