“After weeks of an increasingly nasty presidential campaign, the candidates took a respite from partisan politics Thursday,” according to NPR. “On the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, John McCain and Barack Obama promised that they would not campaign. They even appeared together in New York City to silently pay their respects at ground zero — but each candidate did try to use the anniversary to his advantage.
The morning belonged to the families of the victims of Sept. 11. The names of those killed at the World Trade Center attacks were read out, one by one. The ceremony paused at the moments when the planes hit the towers.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg specifically asked McCain and Obama to skip the morning service. He said it would have turned a somber memorial into a media event. Instead, the two came to ground zero in the afternoon.
McCain and Obama walked side by side into the construction pit along a ramp lined with flags. The candidates didn’t speak publicly but chatted with each other and shook the hands of first responders.
Before they arrived at ground zero, however, each candidate dabbled in a little politics.
McCain spoke in Shanksville, Pa., about the passengers of Flight 93, and he took the opportunity to make allusions to his own heroism in the military.
“I’ve had the great honor and privilege to witness great courage and sacrifice for America’s sake, but none greater than the sacrifice of those good people who grasped the gravity of the moment, understood the threat and decided to fight back at the cost of their lives,” he said.
Obama released a statement Thursday that also praised the heroes of Sept. 11, but he did something McCain didn’t: He reminded voters that the terrorists responsible are still at large.
On Wednesday night, he drove the point home on the Late Show with David Letterman.
“The big difference between myself and George Bush, I think, would have been to stay focused on Afghanistan, not get distracted by Iraq,” Obama said. “I think we would have tamped down al-Qaida. We could have, if not captured or killed bin Laden, at least made sure they weren’t setting up the kind of base camps that have now reconstituted themselves.”
Candidates have learned to be subtle about how they talk about Sept. 11 and use ground zero. But politics has been intertwined with the place since the attacks. When George W. Bush grabbed a megaphone on the smoldering pile at ground zero, he also grabbed the defining moment for his re-election.
“I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you,” he said at the time. “And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
But when Bush tried to use images of rescue workers at ground zero in his political ads in 2004, there was a huge outcry, and the ads were pulled from the air.
Likewise, neither Bush nor his Democratic rival, John Kerry, attended the memorial services in 2004. Although the election was centered on national security, and the Republican convention was held in New York, an appearance at ground zero was deemed too crass.
Now, four years later, the taboo is gone. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was the first presidential candidate this cycle to air an ad featuring Sept. 11. And former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani based a whole campaign on his actions that day.
On Thursday morning at ground zero, family members of the victims seemed fine with McCain and Obama’s appearance. But Jim Samuel, who lost his son on Sept. 11, says observers shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking it was an altruistic act.
“They’re not coming, you know, just because they want to,” he said. “They’re coming here to make a show and it’s going to look nice for the political campaign and all that.”
He said he wasn’t offended by their presence at the site. And another family member said that at least having the candidates at ground zero would remind them what’s really important in this campaign: keeping the country safe.