“If you’re the mayor’s speechwriter, what’s your job” after the Towers fall? You’re going to start thinking about “how do you find something redemptive out of this attack? How do you try and encapsulate those emotions?”
John Avlon, then the chief speechwriter for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, led the group that spent the weeks after 9/11 writing eulogies for each fallen fireman and police officer, giving him the “dark distinction of probably writing more eulogies than anyone else alive.”
Now a senior columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, he spoke with the Voice about his experience, stressing that the important thing wasn’t his personal story but those of the uniformed officers whose lives he tried to honor. What follows is a lightly edited transcript:
AVLON: I started with Rudy a year out of college as an advance man. I’d written some campaign literature and it didn’t even occur to me that if you won, you generally got a job offer. I remember my freshman year in college, when Dinkins was mayor, walking by City Hall and thinking, “being the speechwriter for the mayor of New York, that’s got to be a great job.” So after we won, I said I’d like to work as a speechwriter. At the time, it was considered a really undesirable. People asked, “really? Are you sure?”
Rudy had a reputation for not reading speeches, which was largely true. There are two main models in terms of politicians giving speeches. There’s the Kennedy-Reagan model of a person who’s scripted and a great performer, and there’s the Nixon-Rudy model of former prosecutors, very smart and trained to think on their feet. They really resist being scripted; they are not performers. But I thought that speechwriting was where politics and policy and writing all came together. It’s the best place in the world to be, especially if you’re a young guy. You get to learn from the mayor and work directly with the mayor.
Growing up in New York in the 70s, seeing all the brick lots and burned out buildings – the city looked like Dresden in some parts then – to see it all turning around was inspiring and I wanted to be a part of it. There was so much turnover in the speechwriting office that I ended up running the department at I think age 26, and then being deputy communications director as well. Oddly enough, I was going to leave the administration to get a master’s degree in counter-terrorism at the Monterey Institute on September 6 and Rudy asked me to defer for a semester and wait until the end of his term. So I did. I’d gotten interested in counterterrorism because I’d been involved with the Office of Emergency Management around Y2K and Rudy had created OEM.
I’d been working as staff on the charter revision commission and on September 10, we handed in a major document – one of the things on the ballot was making OEM a permanent agency. I slept late the next day because I’d just handed in this report, and it was supposed to be a relatively quiet day. I remember Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft was coming out – I was planning on going to J&R and get that at lunch. I was living on Cornelia Street, in a fifth-floor walk up and all of a sudden I heard this roaring sound, and I saw the first plane fly over my window. I remember seeing the silver belly of the plane, and you knew it was going to crash. But it didn’t occur to me or any of us that it was an intentional missile attack, in effect. There’s something very sweet about New Yorker’s civic naïveté on 9/11 initially. The day was what’s called radical clear – a bright blue-sky day after violent storms the night before, and still there was this sense that it had to be an accident.
When you’re the mayor’s speechwriter, you mainline New York City history, and one of the purposes of history in politics is to provide a sense of context. The only parallel we had was a B-25 in 1945 that hit the Empire State Building in the fog. Two things about that: First, it was an accident; Second, the Empire State Building stood. So that was sort of a mental template before the second plane hit. But I do think there’s something civically sweet about the fact that we all assumed it had to be an accident despite the fact that it made no rational sense. If pilots are in a crashing situation in New York City, they’re supposed to land in the river, which is what Sully did.
By the time the second attack occurred I was on my way out the door, walking past the Our Lady of Pompeii church on Bleecker and Carmine, past the playground on the corner of Houston and Sixth across from the firehouse where I would be four, five hours later, where I met Rudy later that day. I walked against the tide of people leaving downtown–felt for some reason I should be at work, this sort of misplaced sense of civic duty. There was really nothing that I was going to be able to do, but I felt I should be there. And I had people I worked with – I was responsible for not just the speech-writing team but research and all the written products that came out of the administration. So I walked down and by the time I got down to City Hall, people were streaming uptown and it was remarkably calm. As I wrote in The Resilient City, it was the response of a civil society to a massive attack.
You could see this quicksilver sheen around the impact zone. It almost reminded me at the time of the special effects in Terminator 2, this quicksilver sheen.
Our thought really was given the parallel of the Empire State Building that the buildings would just – they’d have a hole in them, it would be a fire, but they would stand. We didn’t have a parallel for buildings imploding. By the time I got to City Hall, people were clustered around the gates and it almost reminded me at the time of those scenes you see at the fall of the U.S. embassy at Vietnam. The cops on guard recognized me, I got inside and there was a very small group. And I remember that the newspapers on the table in the press office were instantly irrelevant, they were reflecting a different world – news from another century. There was a lot of misinformation flying around. We heard another plane hit the Pentagon. There were rumors they’d shot down another plane. Nobody had a clue. We were living in a fog of war.
Rudy was setting up for a press conference on the corner of Vesey Street -people were jumping, but the towers were standing so there was no dust cloud yet-and I was trying to evacuate my team. We evacuated all non-essential personnel and we were standing outside on the steps and then I remember Rudy Washington, the deputy mayor, saying the towers were coming down. And there was this shock of recognition. No one had a mental template for that. The sound of the towers coming down was one of the things I’ll never forget. It registered a 2.4 on the Richter Scale and the sound was like being behind a thousand jets when they took off. There was almost this sigh of humanity you could hear echo through lower Manhattan and then the cloud of ash and debris rushing toward you – at a distance it’s slow and then as it gets closer it’s very fast – and then enveloping this 1832 building City Hall and hearing the debris pitter patter on the stone roof and seeing people respond.
People respond different ways. Some people went fetal, some people were crying, some people were shouting orders in different directions. It’s the fog of war. No one knows what’s going on. We heard rumors that Tommy Von Essen, the Fire Commissioner, had been killed. I remember one person coming up to us and saying, “we lost Tommy.” It wasn’t true. But we lost 343 firefighters. In one day, one hour, one minute, that was more than the department had lost up to that point in its history.
We commandeered a bus in between the two towers collapsing. At that point, there was still somehow the thought that, “well, there’ll just be one tower.” And we commandeered a bus to get people up from City Hall and the second tower fell and it was this grey wasteland of ash and smoke pierced by sirens. Rudy sent word for me to go back into the building to look for Beth Hatton, his longtime executive assistant who was married to Terry Hatton, who was the captain of Rescue One. These were people we knew, these were people we worked with, who had raced into the towers. We got into a van that was underneath the municipal building–myself, Beth Hatton, Kate Anson the mayor’s scheduler, and Owen Brennan–and we went to meet the mayor on Houston Street. He was in the firehouse, and that’s where we reconvened, and then went on to the Police Academy that became the new operations center. The OEM headquarters was in 7 World Trade, so that was already on fire and would soon collapse.
But one of the amazing things because of all the drills we’d done, we were able to reestablish a functional emergency operation center first at the Police Academy and then at Pier 51 very quickly. The pier setup was really thorough, and that all was done in around 72 hours.
That day was so surreal and dichotomized, especially as you walked uptown: Some people were covered in ash and other people were going about their day. You looked downtown and there was this plume of smoke. In Midtown, there was a stark difference. There were these shocks of recognition that hurt your heart. I remember seeing people playing Frisbee in a park while other people walked by covered in ash. I remember trying to go into every church I walked by. You know you’d seen a lot of people die that day, and you didn’t know how many at that point–and you didn’t know what would happen next. The adrenalin kept you moving.
So if you’re the mayor’s speechwriter, what’s your job? You’re going to start thinking about how do you make this event mean something–not “make this mean,” that’s wrong–how do you find something redemptive out of this attack? How do you try and encapsulate those emotions? How do you capture a sense of perspective, comfort and resolve – something useful that can give people strength at that time. I realized later that I was incredibly lucky to have a job that allowed me to do something with all those emotions at the time–even though necessarily you compartmentalize those emotions in order to get the job done. We worked 15 to 18 hours a day, every day. I remember, my first day off was Thanksgiving.
The next morning, Rudy asked me to go down to City Hall to get some things from his office. So I drove down the FDR Drive and it was a beautiful day, again, and I remember right as we hit the exit ramp there was a stack of police cars piled on top of each other that had been crushed. I went to City Hall, and it was ghostlike. I walked into the Mayor’s office, where there’s that portrait of La Guardia over his desk looking very stern. I collected some things and then I walked a few blocks. You could see where people had written in the ash, they’d taken their fingers and written in the windows: “9/11/01”, “Never Forget”, “RIP”.
It was a rescue mission at that time, not a recovery – and I remember looking for something redemptive, some sort of visual image. We didn’t know that we were going to be doing the Prayer for America memorial service yet, but we knew something like it was going to happen. And I was amazed that one of the historical asterisks of this attack–I hate it when people call it a tragedy, by the way. I really resist and resent and reject that. It was not a tragedy; it was an attack, an act of war.
Everything in the World Trade Center complex was destroyed. Every single building that was numbered was destroyed, whereas the buildings that framed the site were intact, including much older buildings, including of course St. Paul’s Chapel, which is where Washington prayed before he was inaugurated as the first president of the United States. And I remember walking around, and the graveyard of St. Paul’s was full of debris – the preponderance of paper that made up the ash that was so deep and thick, really mocking the importance we place on things that are essentially impermanent and unimportant. The photographs that had been on people’s desks that were just lying underneath this ash of paper. And I remember that up in one tree there was this venetian blind rattling in the wind.
But the church itself stood. No only did it stand, but I walked around the church because I wanted to validate a rumor that I’d already heard, which is that not a window was broken. It didn’t look like a window was broken, and ultimately I ended up calling the vicar of the church, John Howard, to confirm that, and it was true. And John later married me. We became friends and he officiated my wedding.
So we went back to the Police Academy and we started to realize the scope. I remember talking to Tommy Von Essen and his aides and just the scope of loss was unimaginable. You’ve got to remember that New York City stops in a civic sense whenever a cop or a firefighter dies. That’s a compact we make. It’s an equivalent of a state funeral on a local level. We knew there were a lot of funerals coming, though we didn’t know how many people were lost at that point. The first funeral we began to prepare was Father Mychal Judge [who had been the FDNY chaplain]. We knew he was dead because his body had been laid at the altar of St. Peter’s church, the oldest Catholic parish in lower Manhattan. There’s that famous photo of Judge being carried out in a chair, he’d been hit by debris. That was the first funeral we worked on. We knew there were a lot more coming.
Ultimately our losses included 343 firefighters, including two EMTs, 37 Port Authority police officers and 23 New York City police officers. The mayor of the city of New York goes to a lot of funerals – it’s probably the most hands-on government job in America, but that’s an important civic function. And when you have a firefighter or police officer die, the city does stop. We made a determination that each of those individuals deserved that same equivalent of a state funeral, and a eulogy from the mayor that was commensurate. I don’t mention this as a dig, but the governor ended up sending essentially a form letter to all the funerals. We determined we’d try to do it differently, in part because it’s what we could do for these people. But Rudy felt a special obligation – so we did not only a state funeral for all of them, but eulogize them in a way that was specific to their life and accomplishments. It was a group process that we set up that proved fairly effective. We had as many as 45 funerals in a single weekend and I had a stack of paper on my desk that had the name of the individual, date, the close contacts. And the speech writing team -which was myself, Owen Brennan Rounds, Matt Lockwood and Mark Ribbing – we started working on these eulogies. We would call up and talk to someone in the family or a close friend if they would talk to us and get information about who they were, and what they loved, and what they liked. It’s the process you would undergo whenever a uniformed official would die.
We had lost three firefighters on Father’s Day that year and it was considered a civic tragedy. The city stopped and I remember Rudy saying at the time, this is one of the worst days in the history of the city. So, multiply that.
As these speeches evolved, different themes would come in and out depending on what the mayor was saying-obviously everything the mayor was saying at press conferences, that’s pure Rudy. We worked on eulogies and then the occasional major memorial speech like the Prayer for America (I remember putting the kybosh on an idea to call that “Pray for America”), the UN speech, firefighter promotions. We took the eulogies very seriously. I always took a firefighter or police officer funeral seriously, would work on them for days if I had the time. You wanted to get it right, it was the least that you could do. And here it was an especially vivid, pressing sense of obligation on that front. We had a framework that would change every day or two or three and we would insert several paragraphs of personal information at a minimum.
There are lines I remember we were using at the time. “We met the worst of humanity with the best of humanity” – it’s still true. “We’re the land of the free because we’re the home of the brave.” You think you think of those things as a writer. Sometimes you do, but sometimes you take them out of the ether. Some of those lines ended up making it into the consciousness of the time, and some of the stuff just reflected that consciousness. People got tired, people burnt out. I remember – it’s not a linear response necessarily – I was always a little more sad writing a eulogy for a firefighter or cop who died before he had children, without leaving that physical and spiritual part of them behind.
The funerals were tough, St. Patrick’s Cathedral every day. Terry Hatton’s funeral was incredibly difficult for everyone because this was part of our family. When you’re working those hours in the mayor’s office, the people you’re working with become your family -and for me in my 20s it was a formative experience in every way. To have that experience, it’s like going to war. And there’s a certain pain that’s beyond articulation or comprehension -but you hold on and keep going.
Some of the writers who really nailed it at that time – I remember we in the speechwriting shop read Peggy Noonan sometimes not for inspiration exactly, but perspective. She nailed it. Pete Hamill’s stuff right afterwards and Leonard Pitts, columns that are in Deadline Artists. We didn’t have a lot of time to read external stuff. But we weren’t going to try to do this all ourselves, we wanted to see the best we could learn from and adopt because there was the unique moment where Rudy Giuliani was being looked to for leadership in a hurt world. And obviously 95% of that was him speaking off the cuff. So much of what he said was pitch perfect because he was honest and unflinching. He was the right person at the right time. Whatever else you think of him; he was sort of born to be mayor at that moment. [
The process of the funerals went on for months and months. Remember, fires burned for three months. People forget that. And the process wore on you, but of course what you were going through wasn’t a tenth of what the families were. Still, it was life-changing. It was the defining moment of my personal life, and my professional life, and it will be until the day I die. That searing experience changes how you view the world and it never entirely leaves you. But I think the obligation to us the living is to learn from it, to emerge better and stronger and more appreciative of the opportunities of life as a result of all we have experienced. And that, at the end of the day, is the transformative message of all eulogies.
I have this dark distinction of probably writing more eulogies than anyone else alive. Even before 9/11, that was always my specialty, oddly, that’s what I did well: the summing up of a life, trying to catch a sense of the spirit of a person. In the books I’ve written since, especially Independent Nation, you try to get a beat on a person and capture a sense of what makes them unique. In eulogies in particular there’s a special obligation to do that, to try to capture the essence of someone in a way that’s genuine and resonates with the people who knew them. It’s a difficult thing to do. It’s not working in the salt mines, but it does require a feat of empathy. There’s a projection in trying to catch that spark. And sometimes there’s not a lot to work with because the essence of a life isn’t always captured in the facts of a life.
I remember there was an ad I saw over one of the subway entrances by St. Paul’s the day after the attacks, covered in ash. It was for Investors Business Daily, and it said “Choose Success.” And it’s these very portentous statements of self-obsession and striving for its own sake that can preoccupy us, especially New York City. Our currency becomes flash and wit and cash – things that are entirely disposable and have very little real importance. And one of the things that 9/11 reawakened us to I think is the essential importance of physical courage. And the examples that the firefighters set for us in particular, running into the fire when other people were running out. That’s core. Societies and civilizations survive by honoring those examples, and emulating them in future generations. That’s one of the transcendent lessons of that day.
Their example is heroic in the epic sense, and that’s how it should be understood. One of the things the firefighters and police officers remind us is that you don’t have to be perfect to be a hero. There’s no point in pretending that all these people were perfect. They weren’t. But they were courageous when it mattered most. They were selfless when it mattered the most. That was part of their job description and they lived up to it. So let’s not simplify them into two-dimensional characters–there’s plenty to take from what they actually did. After all, this is the actual physical contemporary embodiment of those Biblical passages that say, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Literally and directly, that’s what we’re talking about. That’s precisely what they did. And that’s what they went into the buildings knowing they might do. We lost the people we would normally turn to in a time like that. But what’s so extraordinary here is the spirit of resilience and the civic muscle memory. There is this deeper impulse that takes hold. There’s some kind of fundamentally helpful civic peer pressure. But you bring it on yourself.
I think the benefit of the doubt is an obligation to people in that line of work, and especially at that moment. What you can say with some degree of certainty is that there’s been a higher incidence of cancer and other diseases for people who worked on the pile at Ground Zero. We were very proud as an administration of the fact that nobody died during the rescue and recovery effort. That’s very unusual. And it was because Rudy was very firm: if you weren’t wearing your mask, you were out. A relatively high percentage of even administration personnel have suffered cancer at some point. I do think there’s something to that, and I do think benefit of the doubt is appropriate. You have cranks and conspiracy theorists and con artists in every line of work at every time, but I think there’s an obligation to assume the best of people who gave their best. And everyone who worked on the recue and recovery who’s come down with cancer or other illnesses afterward should be covered. It’s the very least we can do.
You can never give a proper appreciation for what those people did. But as a writer who constantly goes back and sees the scars in what you’ve written, asking what you would have done differently, I’ve never once done that for that period of time in my life because I do know that we did the very best we could, and that’s all we could do. There was never going to be an ability to perfectly capture those heroes the way they deserved to be, but I know we couldn’t have worked any harder, we couldn’t have tried to be any more true, so no – I haven’t had moments of wishing I could have done it differently. It’s one of the ironies in life, that the moment you have the maximum amount of responsibility, in paying tribute to these heroes and their lives, you have the least time for reflection.[
One of the greatest sins I see is a 9/11 amnesia that I think is starting to afflict us, people who want to put this inconvenient memory away. It happens less in New York but you can feel it. We do need to assimilate the facts of loss into our lives, that is part of life. But then how do you hold on to the things that are truly transcendently important? That is one of the things that 9/11 taught us. When we start devolving back into the temptations of the Summer of the Shark [August 2001 news coverage in New York had been dominated by shark attacks up and down the Northeast, along with the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy story], when we let ourselves get distracted by things that are fundamentally meaningless, there’s a civic laziness that creeps in. There have been over 40 failed terrorist plots since 9/11 that have been documented, so to treat this as some sort of bad-day blip is historically ignorant. I think it denigrates the people who died. We do have an obligation to think bigger and live better in a very real sense.
We thought at the time that there could be a follow-up attack. Remember the Mayor took a lot of grief for increasing the security procedures when we redid City Hall Park. But it was based on FBI threat assessments about the lack of security at City Hall. People glossed that over. It was all, “King Rudy, oppressing civic expression.” It was actually based on credible threats we’d gotten from the FBI at the time.
Keep in mind the extraordinary and difficult things that occurred that fall. It’s difficult to remember, because 9/11 eclipses everything, but a plane fell out of the sky in the Rockaways. We were having a morning meeting on the second floor of City Hall and a plane falls out of the sky in the Rockaways–that doesn’t happen every day. Anthrax – one of the envelopes had gone to the basement of City Hall.
Two years ago, there was a guy who ran a coffee cart down in lower Manhattan, Najibullah Zazi, who was convicted for trying to blow up subways. That said, I do think the reason we haven’t had a train or a bus blow up here to date. It’s because America works. People come here and they see the prospect of a better future. And don’t forget how much the mainstream American Muslim population has been tremendously helpful in reporting and stopping potential threats. Radicalization is much more difficult to achieve in America because America works, I believe.
The fact that Ground Zero languished for as long as it did was a failure of political leadership, as well as a reflection of litigation. The fact that Silverstein was able to build a tower [7 World Trade Center] very quickly and fill it I think was a decisive moment in terms of getting our confidence back. We were letting fear make our decisions for us to some extent. Let’s not forget the larger issue for lower Manhattan and New York City in terms of recovery is actually defeating the purpose of terrorism, which is getting free people to change their behavior. It’s aim is to try and intimidate you, to get you to make decisions based out of fear, insecurity and doubt rather than the confidence that comes with a free people making choices about their future. That impulse needs to be confronted very consciously with a sense of civic purpose. When Silverstein built that first tower and tenants started to come in, I think that was a decisive moment: it broke the logjam. The museum itself is beautiful, and it’s harrowing. The fact that some of the trees that survived the attack are still on site. The fact that the cross is going to be there. The fact that the footprints of the towers themselves are kept intact, that’s vitally important. But the ultimate message and memorial is the rebuilding. It’s the fact that we as a free society can remember the attacks and honor the attacks, but the ultimate sign of the defiance of terrorism is the persistence of life in a free society. The rebuilding and the redevelopment, that is the ultimate defiance–that is the ultimate statement of purpose and resurgence. It’s the persistence of life in the city and in lower Manhattan. That’s why the fact that Lower Manhattan is now the city’s fastest growing residential community is such an affirming sign here on the 10th anniversary because it really does show that we defeated the terrorists, that we have followed through on that initial instinctive impulse that comes with life in a free society and democracy when faced with the totalitarian impulse of terrorists–which is that we meet the worst of humanity with the best of humanity. We have followed through on that impulse with the way we have repopulated this neighborhood in a way that it hasn’t been for 100 years.
With regard to religious participation [and the lack of it at the tenth anniversary ceremony], first of all, at the Prayer for America ceremony we had at Yankee Stadium we intentionally had clergy of every faith including Islam there. The Mayor thought it was enormously important not to paint Islam with a broad brush and to understand we’re dealing with Jihadists. We’re dealing with Islamist terrorists. It’s a perversion of a theology–it’s really an ideology. So on the one hand, I’d say it’s appropriate to have members of every major faith represented and each offering a simple, short prayer [at the 10th anniversary memorial service]. On the other hand, the people who are getting upset today about the lack of any clergy in the ceremonies, I just want to be sure that they wouldn’t have been offended if an imam took part, and I’m not entirely certain they wouldn’t be. I understand where they’re coming from, but I think it’s wrong. It’s important to make sure we’re applying consistent standards here across the board. This primarily should be for the families and the firefighters and the police officers and of course faith has an integral role to spiritual healing. This was a physical wound but it was also a psychic wound and a spiritual wound.
I’m fundamentally uncomfortable talking about this stuff in a first-person sense beyond what I wrote in The Resilient City because I’m an asterisk at best. I mean, who cares? I had a job to do and I did it. It is at best an interesting perspective on a historically painful time.
It’s one of those things that I think everyone who lived through 9/11 felt: you were trying to balance two serious juxtapositions: the enormous personal loss that you felt, which took time to heal in your own life, and the fact that your searingly personal experience was also a very public experience, replicated on televisions around the world. There are very few other searing personal experiences that you have to relive on television day after day after day. And for me, the healing process took time.
Part of that process was to move back to lower Manhattan, two blocks from Ground Zero, where I live now with my wife. It was a conscious decision to say ‘fuck you’ to the terrorists and to take our neighborhood back. One of the things I love about the neighborhood is that this is where Washington walked. St. Paul’s is where Washington prayed before he took the oath of office. The Bill of Rights was proposed here. Washington and Jefferson and Adams and Hamilton and Madison, they all worked and lived here when this was the nation’s first capitol. And to have this defining moment of our lifetime take place on this same ground, it highlights the fact that this really is hallowed ground. That’s the thing about history: we have the brief opportunity to make new history, and that is an obligation to take very seriously. The only way to get over old history is to make new history. When you think of the density of the history that has taken place in lower Manhattan, this attack on our soil is a new layer to that history. And it’s our chapter. The phrase “9/11 Generation” is absolutely appropriate. It is the defining moment of our time in the same way that the baby boomers used to remember where they were when JFK was killed and really, an even more applicable comparison, to the greatest generation and Pearl Harbor.
This year I’ll be attending the services and staying downtown and trying to spend time with the people I was with on that day and in those days. Again, it was this strange dichotomy of a deeply searing personal experience that was also a very public event. The team from Rudy’s City Hall still gets together for dinner every year on 9/11. It’s a time to remember, and reflect, and appreciate those bonds with people who understand better than anyone else what we worked through during those weeks and months. And that’s a bond that will always keep us together.
We can’t wait for a disaster or a terrorist attack to unite as a nation. 9/11 taught us that, but that we’ve forgotten. And that to me is a source of frustration: We shouldn’t have to learn that lesson again. We shouldn’t have to learn that lesson again. That’s the thing I feel most strongly about.