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Where Did the Unity Go? Lamenting a Lost Spirit


In the days leading up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, both elected officials and a police-union leader spoke wistfully of the silver lining that emerged from the devastation of the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and in a field in Shanksville, Pa. where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed when its passengers thwarted a terrorist attempt to take the plane to Washington. D.C.: a national common purpose that has since vanished. 

"In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people," former President George W. Bush said at a memorial service in Shanksville paying tribute to the Flight 93 passengers who gave their lives trying to prevent much-greater harm.

A day earlier, on a WABC-radio show, ex-Gov. George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani spoke of their decision soon after the terrorist attacks to put aside past differences and work jointly to rebuild the city with the help of Federal aid, contrasting their united front with the squabbling between Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

And Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch, in an interview with this newspaper's Richard Khavkine, recalled the response from residents when they saw cops, firefighters and construction workers searching for first survivors and then remains at Ground Zero heading down Manhattan's West Side toward their labors: "there were hundreds and hundreds of people cheering."

He said that reception "brought a unity that I've never seen before, and unfortunately I haven't really seen after."

Crisis Brought People Together

The incredible loss of life, particularly at the Trade Center, where more than 2,700 people died while a prime symbol of American capitalism was gutted, and, at the Pentagon, with damage done to the home of the Defense Department, had instilled despair and dread about what might come next, particularly because it seemed Mr. Bush had gone into hiding following the attacks out of fear for his own safety.

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But over the next 72 hours, Mr. Giuliani spoke eloquently to reporters and the larger world while projecting grim determination, cops and firefighters returned to the scene where 400 of their colleagues lost their lives in the rescue attempts, and the President paid a visit to the pile and, standing alongside a retired firefighter, told the group massed there, "I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." 

The sense was that Mr. Bush, after being figuratively knocked off his feet by the attack, had gotten up and showed more than many had expected from him. He reinforced that feeling in his first speech after 9/11, when he emphasized that while the terrorists were radical Muslims, citizens should be careful not to hold all Muslims responsible for their atrocities.

In some respects, Mr. Giuliani was an even-bigger revelation, since he had by then worn out his welcome among many New Yorkers as he wound down his final months in office. 

His former Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton, had criticized him for not taking "a peace dividend" from the sharp reductions in crime that he'd made in his first term; the relentless pressure he had cops continuing to apply had produced the overreach in minority neighborhoods that resulted in the February 1999 killed of Amadou Diallo, mistaken for a rape suspect by four Street Crime Unit officers working together for the first time who fired 41 bullets at an unarmed man. 

Two months later, then-PBA President James "Doc" Savage, addressing union delegates, ripped into Mr. Giuliani, saying, "If we don't strike a balance between aggressive enforcement and common sense, it becomes a blueprint for a police state and tyranny."

The following March, shortly after another of Mr. Giuliani's bright enforcement ideas backfired when a security guard named Patrick Dorismond, angered by an undercover cop's attempt to sell him drugs, made the confrontation physical and wound up being fatally shot. The outcry this created led then-Detectives' Endowment Association President Tom Scotto to declare that the Mayor's rhetoric and tactics had created a "toxic" atmosphere for his members in heavily minority neighborhoods.

Throw in a messy divorce later that spring and many New Yorkers couldn't wait to be rid of Mr. Giuliani.

Seemed a Changed Man

His conduct in the wake of 9/11 restored some of the lustre he'd last possessed 15 years earlier, at the peak of his popularity as a crime-busting U.S. Attorney.

It might have seemed surprising that he was often sharing the spotlight with Mr. Pataki, seven years after the gubernatorial race which in which the Mayor stridently supported incumbent Mario Cuomo while predicting that if the challenger and his prime political backer, then-U.S. Sen. Al D'Amato, got control of Albany, "ethics will be trashed."

When Mr. Pataki narrowly defeated the three-term Governor, Mr. Giuliani awkwardly tried to act as if he hadn't said so many nasty things about him, while deferring to him whenever the opportunity arose. Characteristically, he overdid it, at one point declaring he wouldn't bother the new Governor for additional money for the city's struggling school system because the then-Board of Education would probably squander it.

But while the Mayor found the spotlight shining primarily on him, this notorious one-man band  coordinated activities with Mr. Pataki, often appearing together with him at press conferences.

Andrew Cuomo, while seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2002, derided Mr. Pataki's claims of leadership, claiming that what he had done in the wake of 9/11 amounted to "holding the leader's coat."

But that claim had no basis in reality, political consultant George Arzt said Sept. 14, noting that Mr. Cuomo once told him, in harsher language, that the laws of New York tilt power in such a way that "the city can't go to the bathroom without the state's permission."

Symbolic and Necessary

He cited the work Gov. Hugh Carey and Mayor Ed Koch—whom Mr. Arzt later served as Press Secretary—did together in bringing the city out of the fiscal crisis in the late 1970s despite their clashing personalities as an example of the cooperation needed in a crisis.

"Having Pataki there for unity was not only symbolic but necessary to handle the emergency," Mr. Arzt said. "Federal aid flows through the state; he enabled the aid to flow to the city more easily."

It helped that the then-Governor never felt compelled to proclaim his importance at a time when Mr. Giuliani was the star in the eyes of the public.

"I don't think Pataki is an egocentric man," Mr. Arzt said. "He just wanted to get things done."

But the good feelings toward the Mayor began to erode when, two weeks after 9/11, just after the delayed primaries in the race to succeed him had given Michael Bloomberg the Republican nomination and put Public Advocate Mark Green and Bronx Borough President Freddy Ferrer in a runoff for the Democratic nod, Mr. Giuliani floated the idea of extending his term by three months to help whoever won navigate the crisis.

Mr. Bloomberg went along with the idea, and so did Mr. Green, while Mr. Ferrer vehemently opposed it, even as much of the political world and the media realized that the incumbent's request was not a selfless bid to ensure a smooth transition at a rough time. In early October, shortly before the runoff vote was held, the Democratic majority in the Assembly made clear it wasn't inclined to approve legislation to extend Mr. Giuliani's term.

Green Did Himself In

Mr. Green narrowly won the runoff, but it was an acrimonious contest that left him bruised on two counts. 

One was the diminished enthusiasm for him in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. His campaign had been based heavily on a valid claim that he was the candidate who took on Mr. Giuliani regularly long before the race began. Having now consented to allowing the Mayor to share power with him for the first three months of his term if he won the November election, he no longer seemed like someone with the courage of his convictions.

And some of his supporters, particularly in Brooklyn, had taken part in an attempt to convince white voters that Mr. Ferrer was kissing up to the Rev. Al Sharpton to such a degree that their interests would not be honored if he became Mayor. That angered Mr. Ferrer and his Bronx political allies to such a degree that they did not support Mr. Green in the general election, and the unplugged phones in the party's borough headquarters became a major feature of the television footage that night explaining how Mr. Bloomberg—who also benefited from spending $74 million of his own money on the campaign—pulled a stunning upset just a week after polls showed him trailing by double digits.

Mr. Giuliani's endorsement was also credited with being a key factor in Mr. Bloomberg's win—it figured prominently in his campaign commercials—but by that time the state legislation to extend his term, which Mr. Pataki had pledged to sign into law, had foundered. Its only residue was serving as a preview of the ways in which he would attempt to capitalize on the positive attention he had gained on the night of 9/11 and the days that followed to further his political career.

President Bush's popularity had also soared in the wake of 9/11, but he too overplayed his hand, guided by Vice President Dick Cheney. The administration steered legislation like the Patriot Act that infringed on civil liberties through a compliant Congress. They followed up in late 2002 by asking Congress to authorize the President to go to war against Iraq—which had no role in the 9/11 attacks—claiming there was evidence that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Cheney enlisted the aid of Secretary of State Colin Powell to make that case, banking on the respect he commanded from both parties and saying of his approval ratings, "You're pretty popular. You can afford to lose a few points."

Bush Begins to Tumble

The invasion began in March 2003, and Saddam was overthrown and then captured by U.S. forces nine months later; he would be executed three years after that. But he had no weapons of mass destruction, and what Mr. Bush prematurely pronounced a quick, relatively painless victory (Mission Accomplished!) turned into an eight-year slog before U.S. troops were finally withdrawn in 2011 by his successor, Barack Obama. (Mr. Pataki, usually reluctant to criticize fellow Republicans, cited the Iraq invasion as a key element in undercutting national unity during a Sept. 12 appearance on "Meet the Press.")

Mr. Bush eked out a second term against U.S. Sen. John Kerry, aided by a scurrilous outside ad campaign that portrayed his opponent—a genuine hero during the Vietnam War who had angered some of his comrades by becoming the leader of a veterans group that opposed the conflict—as a coward. 

The reality that Mr. Bush had used family connections to avoid being sent to war, spending a brief period in a National Guard unit instead, didn't cost him, but the lies propping up his administration began to wear thin. The loss of faith climaxed during the 2008 national recession caused by the manipulations of Wall Street pirates who engineered a collapse of the housing market. With Mr. Bush winding down the final few months of his term, the blame fell on the Republican looking to succeed him, Sen. John McCain, whom Mr. Obama defeated by an unexpectedly large margin to become the nation's first black President.

Mr. Obama's elevation brought to the surface the seething anger of militias and other right-wing groups willing to peddle lies about his being a Muslim, and a mainstream Republican Party willing to play along in a bid to ensure he did not get a second term. When he did, it opened the door for a first-time candidate—Donald Trump—to capture the GOP nomination in 2016, despite a checkered record as a businessman and a penchant for lying, because he appealed to the worst instincts of the party's base. He brought out voters who had become disillusioned with more-mainstream presidential candidates. 

Mr. Trump took particularly pleasure in thrashing the early favorite for the party's nomination that year, Jeb Bush, George's brother, whom he dubbed "Low Energy."

Mr. Trump, with Mr. Giuliani serving as his ruthless but erratic wingman, did what he could to tear down the U.S.'s standing in the world while trashing every prominent institution of the nation, from the media to the courts, that tried to interfere with his strong-arm style of governing. When his incompetent response to the coronavirus assured that he would not gain re-election last November, he orchestrated an insurrection that was an attempt to overthrow the democratically-elected President chosen to replace him.

Party Turned Upside Down

The opposition of Mr. Bush and his late father, George, to everything that Mr. Trump stood for served as a reminder that as flawed as the two of them had been as Presidents, they were basically decent men who believed in the system of government the disgraced ex-President had tried to smash.

The contrast between those two living Presidents was particularly clear on 9/11. Mr. Trump avoided any of the memorial ceremonies from New York down to Washington while providing color commentary for a travesty of a boxing match that night. George W. spoke sadly of how things had changed from the point eight months into his first term, when the nation began its climb out of the ruins of the Trade Center, to the time when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security considers the greatest threat to democracy to be the domestic terrorists who are the muscle part of Mr. Trump's base.

"When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own," Mr. Bush told his audience in Shanksville. "Malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment, That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together."

His sobering assessment continued, "We have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders but from violence that gathers within. There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them."

'Truest Version of Ourselves'

He concluded on an upbeat note, reminding the audience that 20 years earlier, "terrorists chose a random group of Americans on a routine flight to be collateral damage in a spectacular act of terror. The 33 passengers and seven crew of Flight 93 could have been any group of citizens selected by fate. In a sense, they stood in for us all...This is not mere nostalgia. It is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been and what we can be again."   

The former President's words were heartfelt. Mr. Giuliani, on the other hand, waxed nostalgic with Mr. Pataki on the radio about their cooperation in stabilizing the city in a desperate time. He then attended the Trade Center memorial services the following day, pretending that he had not stepped onto the other side of the conflict in his evidence-free quest last fall to get the courts to overturn Mr. Trump's defeat, and his crazed cry Jan. 6 to his mad boss's marauders: "Let's have trial by combat!"  

He and Mr. Bush both bear some responsibility for their assurances, less than a week after 9/11, that the air in the vicinity of the Trade Center was safe to breathe—a pledge that however wrongheaded and ultimately ruinous to the health of so many who toiled there for months searching for remains was prompted by the desire to send a signal to the world that America was so resilient that it was already set to reopen for business in its commercial capital.

It's one more example of a loss of the unity both men spoke of in marking the anniversary. Mr. Bush has tried to redeem himself; Mr. Giuliani threw away his conscience a long time ago, maybe even before he threw in with Mr. Trump.

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