No Bush At Zero: President Steers Clear Of The Site

There will be no formally sanctioned commemorations at the site of the former World Trade Center during the Republican National Convention, convention planners and government officials have told The Observer .

With the exception of demonstrators who will be allowed to gather across the street, Ground Zero-the birthplace of the war on terror, where President George W. Bush memorably threw his arm around firefighters on Sept. 14, three days after the 9/11 attacks-will remain in the background at the convention.

In fact, the ash-stained firefighter who stood next to the President when he spoke via bullhorn to rescue workers at the site, Bob Beckwith, told The Observer that he has not been contacted by anyone in connection with the Republican convention. He added that he is not planning to attend any convention-related events.

Ground Zero’s conspicuous absence from the flurry of events beginning in two weeks is noteworthy because New York was chosen to hold its first Republican convention specifically because of the 9/11 attacks. And Ground Zero is where many Americans first came to identify Mr. Bush as a wartime President. There was no mistaking the symbolism when the President, during his tour of the still-smoldering site, climbed atop a wrecked fire truck and told the thousands of rescue workers: “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!”

In some ways, the situation is analogous to the Democrats selecting Hawaii for the site of their 1944 convention (even though it was not yet a state) and then not having Franklin D. Roosevelt or any members of his administration visit Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor. The Republicans are very likely steering clear of the site to avoid appearing as though they’re exploiting a tragedy for political gain.

“If you were to do something overtly political around Ground Zero, you’d get hammered for it, and rightly so,” said Michael McKeon, a Republican strategist and former top aide to Governor George Pataki.

His view was echoed by several other Republican officials. Leonardo Alcivar, a spokesman for the R.N.C.’s Committee on Authorities, addressed the matter with some delicacy. “The Republican Party understands the resonance that Ground Zero has not only with New Yorkers, but people throughout the country and the world,” he said. “We believe it would be inappropriate at the convention to hold any political events at Ground Zero because, as so many of us know, it is a sacred place-a place that plays a role not only in the lives of people who lost loved ones, but people who live and work near Ground Zero. As we hold our convention, our thoughts and prayers will be with those who gave their lives in 9/11 and those who lost loved ones, but we will not hold any political events on site.”

It is a delicate balancing act, because it’s clear that the Republicans want to stress the President’s management of the war on terror and, more specifically, his actions immediately following 9/11. The American-led overthrow of the Taliban and the dispersal of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network had universal support among U.S. allies. The war in Iraq, of course, has been another matter entirely.

Even if there are no official events at the site where the war on terror began, it’s certain that many visitors-delegates, politicians and reporters alike-will find their way to Ground Zero that week. And the media, of course, will frame many of their stories in the physical context of a still-recovering city. What’s more, the Republican hierarchy has granted former Mayor Rudy Giuliani a coveted prime-time speaking slot at the convention-and Mr. Giuliani, of course, is inextricably linked to 9/11. His leadership on that day rescued his flagging reputation, and it is hard to imagine that he would have been given such a prominent role had the attacks never happened.

A Wartime President

Clearly, then, the Republicans don’t want American voters to forget about Sept. 11. Rather, they want to benefit from the aura of a wartime President, without opening themselves up to accusations of blatant political exploitation.

Even before it became clear that there would be no official events at Ground Zero during the convention, evidence was emerging that the Republicans realized the terrible hole in the ground could cause problems. In May of 2003, World Trade Center leaseholder Larry Silverstein told the Daily News that Governor Pataki wanted to lay the cornerstone of the Freedom Tower, the site’s 1,776-foot iconic skyscraper, during the convention. At the time, a Pataki spokeswoman declined to comment on Mr. Silverstein’s assertion. A year later, however, Mr. Pataki announced that groundbreaking would take place on July 4 of this year. The blueprints for the building hadn’t even been completed yet, but the event was timed far enough before the convention to avoid the appearance of political opportunism.

As Republicans and Democrats both know, symbols matter, in many cases much more than words. Nobody remembers what Mr. Bush said when he landed on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln ; all that most people remember is the image of Mr. Bush in a flight suit, standing in front of a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.” That image, of course, has come to haunt the President and his supporters, since the mission in Iraq seems far from accomplished. In choosing to stay away from Ground Zero, the President and his party will avoid another potentially damaging photo op.

Nevertheless, as the Republicans gather for the first time in New York, the images of that awful day three years ago will not be swept away. For the President, the task is not only to remind Americans of how they felt on 9/11, but to do it without being overtly political.