Come Sept. 11, when the city again relives its worst day, New Yorkers will be spared words written by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, John Donne and the biblical psalmist David. Great thinkers and writers from the past have effectively been banished from this year’s ceremony by the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, whose chairman is Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.
Readings from literary sources have been a tradition at the Sept. 11 ritual, performed by a few elected officials, who choose from a menu of passages built on a theme set by City Hall. None of them get to speak their own words, not even presidents, as Barack Obama and George W. Bush learned last year on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
A few days ago, the memorial and museum announced that even presidents no longer have a role. Any officeholders who show up at the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11, the mayor included, will have to keep lips zipped. It is to ensure that the ceremony is “free of politics,” with the focus solely on the roll call of the dead, said Joseph C. Daniels, president of the memorial and museum.
No one should doubt that Mr. Bloomberg had a mighty hand in formulating this announcement. On Monday some 9/11 relatives struck back, describing the ban as a “vindictive decision.” They said the mayor specifically wanted to freeze out the governors of New York and New Jersey for having expressed concern, directly or through surrogates, about the rising costs involved with creating the museum.
“This is totally hypocritical,” said a group called 9/11 Parents and Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims, “because banning the governors of New York and New Jersey from speaking is the ultimate political decision.”
City Hall elected not to respond formally, although officials noted that families of the Sept. 11 victims are not a monolith and that some have praised the no-politicians edict. It might also be noted that New Jersey’s blustering governor, Chris Christie, did his fellow politicians no favors by making a ruckus last year over the invitation list. (Mr. Bloomberg stirred controversy of his own by musing aloud at one point about possibly dispensing with the reading of the victims’ names. He came to understand soon enough that this idea was a nonstarter.)
The feeling here has long been that elected officials, guided by the mayor, repeatedly fail in their duty to seize a major occasion like the 9/11 anniversary to speak about where they believe we have been and are headed as a people. Sure, there is always a risk that some bloviating politician will deliver remarks that are pablum or, worse, utterly self-serving. But that doesn’t mean that leaders should be relieved of the opportunity — no, the obligation — to behave like, well, leaders.
Instead, City Hall has had officials do nothing more at the annual ceremony than read lines written ages ago, as if John Donne or the Book of Psalms covers all situations for eternity. Might as well hand that assignment to actors; they’d do the job better. To borrow from Michael Burke, whose firefighter brother, Capt. William F. Burke Jr., died at the trade center, imagine Gettysburg with someone handing Lincoln a poem and ordering him to read it.
Now, elected officials are being more than muzzled. They’ve in effect been exiled.
Actually, when it comes to Sept. 11, the political class in New York is worse than tongue-tied. It seems almost terrified of democracy itself.
This Sept. 11 was supposed to be Primary Day for state offices. With near-unanimity, the Legislature shifted the voting to Sept. 13, a Thursday, hardly a day of the week when New Yorkers are accustomed to voting. You may reasonably expect a turnout that is barely detectable. This was Albany’s idea of how to honor the 9/11 dead.
As for speeches on the anniversary, Sally Regenhard, an outspoken member of the 9/11 Parents group, agreed that leaders should do more than quote from, say, the Declaration of Independence. Ms. Regenhard’s firefighter son, Christian, died in the trade center’s north tower. “I’d like to see these people say something about where we are in terms of this country and protecting this country,” she said.
That’s not going to happen, not this year anyway.