The Have-They-No-Shame Contest for New York Presidential Pretenders was a draw: Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki demonstrated an equal willingness to distort the meaning of the attack on their own city in craven efforts to position themselves for 2008 runs. Giuliani, at least, did it with guile.
After cherry-picking three swing states for anecdotes about Americans who came to New York’s aid in the attack’s aftermath, George Pataki became the first and only prime-time speaker at the GOP convention to mention the unmentionable: Osama bin Laden. No one else invoked the man George Bush said was “wanted dead or alive” almost three years ago, because they knew better than to remind Americans that the proud Texas swaggerer had yet, as promised, to “smoke ‘im out.” George Pataki was the only speaker to think that was Bill Clinton’s fault.
“You know the history,” Pataki started, before establishing that he didn’t. “Osama bin Laden declared war on America, and then came the attacks—the first World Trade Center, the embassies, the U.S.S. Cole—hundreds dead, thousands injured. How I wish the administration at that time, in those years, had done something. How I wished they had moved to protect us. But they didn’t do it.” The breathless governor then switched to “Al Qaeda”—not bin Laden—saying it “made a terrible mistake” and “attacked again,” but that this time Big Bad George Bush was up to the task of taking them on.
A few tiny problems. Bin Laden issued the first fatwa calling for attacks against the U.S. in February 1998, five years after the 1993 WTC bombing. His two earlier fatwas called for attacks against Western “occupation” facilities in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and other Islamic lands. The 9-11 Commission report says that bin Laden’s “involvement” in the ’93 bombing “is at best cloudy.”
Second, Bill Clinton launched cruise missiles at bin Laden’s Afghan training camps and a suspected Al Qaeda nerve gas plant in Sudan in direct response to the embassy bombings, killing 20 to 30 people and, according to the commission, missing bin Laden by a few hours. The commission notes that the missile assault occasioned “partisan,” wag-the-dog sniping at a Lewinsky-impaired Clinton that, together with other factors, “likely had a cumulative effect” of discouraging future Clinton strikes against bin Laden. The GOP leaders Pataki was partying down with at the Garden—including former president George H.W. Bush—denounced as a diversion the only assertive military response ever undertaken by a too-passive Clinton.
Finally, the U.S.S. Cole was attacked on October 12, 2000, 25 days before the election. The CIA repeatedly told Clinton it had “no definitive answer on the crucial question of outside direction of the attack—how and by whom.” The Bush administration likes now, in its own defense on 9-11, to call that “no actionable intelligence.” Though candidate Bush said that October that there “had to be a consequence” for the Cole, he and his team soon decided to do nothing. Condi Rice told the commission that “while there was never a formal, recorded decision not to retaliate,” conversations including the president, the CIA, Defense, and others “produced a consensus that tit-for-tat responses were likely to be counterproductive.”
Could there be a more partisan, false, and reckless rendition of this history than the one offered by the governor whose state was attacked?
Why do the media fail to note—when Pataki, Giuliani, et al., quote Bullhorn Bush at Ground Zero promising that “the people who knocked down these buildings” would “hear all of us soon”—that the three culprits then featured on every TV screen, bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, are still waiting to hear? How can both the governor and ex-mayor of this still-wounded city mislead the nation about the Iraq war, drawing rhetorical lines connecting it to the president’s GZ promise, as if Saddam Hussein were one of “the people who knocked down these buildings”? A commission including five prominent Republicans and praised by the president categorically rejected this nonsense, yet Giuliani insisted in his hailed address that “the barbaric terrorists who attacked us” had “heard from us in Iraq,” a slur on all who perished here and their families. Pataki couldn’t even get the Bush quote right, but he made precisely the same invidious connection.
Giuliani, of course, had the good sense not to mention bin Laden, though in the heady days of 2001, he’d put in an application with Bush to become Osama’s executioner. “America’s Mayor” used terrorism and associated derivatives 44 times in the speech without ever referring to the No. 1 Terrorist who murdered several people dear to him and shattered his city. He invoked Iraq or Saddam 10 times. Imagine if Al Gore had been in the White House on 9-11, made the same bullhorn vow, sent a puny army into Afghanistan, left the Pakistan border unguarded when we had bin Laden cornered at Tora Bora, and shifted Special Forces and CIA operatives away from the bin Laden front to Iraq. How many times would Rudy Giuliani have mentioned bin Laden in what might well have been his acceptance speech—as presidential or vice presidential nominee—at the RNC this month? Jimmy Carter’s daily hostage-crisis drumbeat would seem muted by now.
Even The New York Times was provoked by Giuliani’s claim that on September 11, he grabbed his then police commissioner, Bernie Kerik, and said, “Thank God George Bush is our president.” The Times speculated that the anecdote “seemed almost too scripted, too on-message to be true,” but then suggested it might be, since Giuliani recounted it first on Meet the Press way back in December 2001. Actually, that first use of the anecdote was also a perfect occasion for an on-message script: He was sitting next to Laura Bush, addressed the comment to her, and concluded that it meant “there was some divine guidance in the president being elected.”
Giuliani has told this curious tale—which does not appear in the detailed accounts he gave Time magazine, Tim Russert, and the 9-11 Commission—differently several times. The Orlando Sentinel quoted him on June 26, 2003, as telling a Bush fundraising luncheon in Florida that he thanked God for Bush “as the second tower was struck.” However, he told a Virginia Republican gathering a month earlier that when the White House granted his request for military jets to patrol NY’s skies, he “turned to the city’s police chief” and gave Kerik the Word. That happened 50 minutes later, when he and trusty Bernie, who was his campaign driver in 1993 and is now an employee of Giuliani Partners, were in a Barclay Street office building. He said the same thing to Larry King after his convention speech, claiming he “had just talked to the White House” when he grabbed Kerik. In the speech, however, he said it was after they fled from the Barclay building, which would’ve been 15 or 20 minutes later.
Whether the quote is hype or truth, it’s bizarre. Giuliani didn’t attend the 1996 Republican convention, saying he wouldn’t waste his time on it, and he ran for re-election in 1997 as a nonpartisan mayor who claimed he didn’t see much difference between Clinton and Bob Dole. His endorsement of Mario Cuomo in 1994 remains the undercurrent to the enmity between Pataki and him that may well again be a staple of NY politics between now and 2008. Yet here he is, at the worst moment of his own and his city’s life, merging God and party, two loyalties he’s long disdained. The 9-11 Commission, by the way, recounts the disaster that air cover was that day, misdirected and useless up and down the East Coast.
Giuliani and Pataki clearly plan to run for president on the strength of 9-11. It has already made Giuliani a multimillionaire. Pataki turned the July 4 Freedom Tower groundbreaking into his own day in the GZ sun, minus, even, Giuliani. They will twist every meaningful fact about it to suit political agendas. They will join the conspiracy to forget bin Laden. They will continue their silence about the scandalous Bush attempts to stonewall the 9-11 Commission. And they will do it all, by their own pious accounts, in honor of those who died.
Research assistance: Nathan Deuel, Deborah S. Esquenazi, and Ben Reiter
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 31, 2004