Political Hay

Being There

Rudy Giuliani's personal connection to Sept. 11 and the temptation to move on.

By 9.14.07

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Rudy Giuliani's decision to participate in the Sept. 11 commemoration ceremony at Ground Zero on Tuesday generated controversy in all of the familiar places, with the New York Times preemptively editorializing that "the families' pain should not be a backdrop for a campaign commercial."

Even though the former mayor, who received widespread praise for his leadership on Sept. 11, had participated in every ceremony at Ground Zero since the fateful day, critics argued that simply because he was now running for president, he should decline an invitation to appear.

In the end, the remarks Giuliani delivered at the ceremony were brief and far from political. "On this day six years ago, and on the days that followed, in the midst of our great grief and turmoil, we also witnessed uncompromising strength and resilience as a people," he said. "It was a day with no answers, but with an unending line of those who came forward to try to help one another." He followed with a quote from Elie Wiesel.

Giuliani's presence at the ceremony was far less controversial among the general public than it was in the media. A USA Today/Gallup poll found that 92 percent of Americans believed it was appropriate for Giuliani to participate.

But the debate over his appearance raised questions about what role Sept. 11 should play in Giuliani's candidacy and what implications his direct connection to the Sept. 11 attacks has on the way he sees the world.

Liberal blogger and anti-Giuliani crusader Greg Sargent has attacked Giuliani repeatedly for "naked opportunism around 9/11." But this tactic is nothing new to liberals who seek to portray any mention of Sept. 11 by a Republican as evidence that the party is exploiting a tragedy.

The same criticisms were made in 2004, when the Republican National Convention was held in New York City. At the time, Giuliani defended the location of the convention, as well as making Sept. 11 an issue in the campaign. He told the New York Times that the terrorist attack was ''the single most significant event that has happened in the last four years, and is maybe one of the most important events in our history....So it has to be an issue in the election. Not discussing it would be like conducting an election for Abraham Lincoln and not discussing the Civil War.''

Giuliani has spent months talking about his record fighting crime, cutting taxes, and slashing welfare rolls as mayor of New York City and he has rolled out a list of 12 Commitments that include policy proposals on health care, spending, and energy. Despite this, many people still have the impression that he is running purely on Sept. 11, because that is how most Americans know him, and because he continues to argue that terrorism is the defining issue of this campaign.

Liberals clearly have an interest in changing the image Americans have of Giuliani as a strong leader during crisis because his high favorability ratings make him a threat in the general election. But beyond that, liberals benefit from an environment in which discussing the tragedy is seen as off limits. Giuliani irritates them because he is unapologetic about bringing up the issue.

"If we don't talk about Sept. 11, you can't prepare to try to avoid another Sept. 11," he said last week.

If there's one thing that Giuliani conveys when speaking about terrorism and Sept. 11 it is: it's personal.

"I was there when it happened, and I've been there every year since then," he said last week in Florida when defending his decision to attend Tuesday's ceremony. "If I didn't, it would be extremely unusual. As a personal matter, I wouldn't be able to live with myself."

In an interview with the New York Times's Matt Bai, Giuliani, who lost friends in the attacks, said, "I guarantee you, there's nobody in this country who wants to catch Bin Laden more than I do....And it is personal." In his book Leadership, Giuliani recalls telling President Bush three days after Sept. 11, "If you catch this guy Bin Laden, I would like to be the one to execute him."

The emotion that Giuliani has over Sept. 11 was on full display in the presidential debate earlier this year when he responded with visceral anger to Ron Paul's suggestion that American foreign policy was to blame for the attacks.

One question voters will have to ask themselves when evaluating Giuliani as a presidential candidate is whether his personal connection to Sept. 11 is a good thing or a bad thing.

Many of Giuliani's critics have argued that his focus on Sept. 11 has distorted his perception of the world, making him have an exaggerated view of the terrorist threat, and preventing him from seeing Islamic terrorism as one of many national security challenges America faces. His selection of neoconservative icon Norman Podhoretz as a foreign policy adviser raised fears among critics that a President Giuliani would be eager to bomb Iran. Andrew Sullivan has accused Giuliani of "9/12 extremism" -- an insinuation that the former mayor is stuck in the mindset that dominated the emotionally charged environment in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and thus incapable of making rational foreign policy decisions.

But for those who do believe that the struggle against Islamic terrorism is the defining issue of our times, Giuliani's personal connection to the tragic event should be seen as a plus. One of the dangerous possibilities in this ongoing war is that the further removed we are from Sept. 11th, the more temptation there will be to move on, and the more people will argue that the threat of terrorism is not that big of a deal.

The intellectual groundwork for this point of view was laid last year when political science professor John Mueller wrote Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them, in which he argued the threat of terrorism has been greatly exaggerated.

The general narrative that America needs to get beyond 9/11 is consistently pushed in the media. A New York magazine article on Giuliani written earlier this year matter-of-factly declared, "Except for those who have a personal connection to the tragedy, people have generally moved on." As the sixth anniversary of the event approached, the media were running stories on so-called "9/11 fatigue," and seeking out people who would lament the fact that we are still grieving the tragedy after all these years. But Giuliani had a different perspective.

"For me every day is an anniversary of Sept. 11," Giuliani said in St. Petersburg last week.

Obviously, Giuliani's personal connection to Sept. 11 shouldn't be the sole argument in support of his candidacy, but the crucial challenge for the next president will be to make sure America remains vigilant in fighting terrorism. The graphic images of the carnage of Sept. 11 will always be seared into Giuliani's memory, and he is unlikely to let short-term fluctuations in polls or petty political controversies cloud his view of the bigger picture.

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Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein