The Pervasive Politics of Sept. 11 Six years after they occurred, the Sept. 11 attacks continue to play a major role in American politics. Witness the presidential prospects of Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York on Sept. 11 and led the city's response.

The Pervasive Politics of Sept. 11

The Pervasive Politics of Sept. 11

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Six years after they occurred, the Sept. 11 attacks continue to play a major role in American politics. Witness the presidential prospects of Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York on Sept. 11 and led the city's response.


Two presidential candidates were at today's Ground Zero ceremony - former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Senator Hillary Clinton. Giuliani made brief remarks while Clinton had no speaking role.

BLOCK: There is an effort every year to keep politics out of the 9/11 commemoration, but there is no doubt that the attacks six years ago have had a transforming effect on American politics.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: Of all the people running for president this year, only one was in a position to make 9/11 the centerpiece of his campaign. And he has. Rudy Giuliani's performance in the days after the attacks is the number one rationale for his White House bid, and it's the main reason he's been leading national polls of Republican voters. But according to Republican strategist Mike Murphy, even for the hero mayor of New York, 9/11 is turning out to be a double-edged sword.

Mr. MIKE MURPHY (Republican Party Strategist): There was a period in politics where Giuliani's admirable performance during that time made him kind of untouchable. But now that a real presidential campaign's about to start, everybody becomes highly touchable, including Rudy on that issue. So he's got plenty to fight from, but I don't think he's invulnerable. And I think there will be criticisms.

LIASSON: There already is. Consider the firestorm that greeted this comment of Giuliani's.

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Republican, Presidential Candidate): This is not a mayor or a governor or president who is sitting on ivory tower. I was at Ground Zero, as often, if not more than most of the workers. I was there working with them. I was there, guiding things. I was there, bringing people there. But I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to. So in that sense, I'm one of them.

LIASSON: Rather than being one of them, rescue workers complained that Giuliani failed to protect their health, curtailed the search for human remains, and actually spent only a tiny fraction of the time they spent at the site.

Recently, his rival for the Republican nomination, Senator John McCain, questioned whether Giuliani's 9/11 leadership really adds up to national security experience. In last week's Republican debate in New Hampshire, Giuliani deflected the question this way.

Mr. GIULIANI: The reality is that I'm not running on what I did on September 11th. I'm running on the fact that I was mayor of the largest city in the country, the third largest government in the country. I was tested in that position with crisis almost every day.

LIASSON: Giuliani is not the only candidate who's tried to assume the 9/11 mantle.

Here's Hillary Clinton at a rally with union workers near Ground Zero on Saturday, recorded by cable channel New York One.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): From the first moment that I came to Ground Zero on the day after the evil attacks on our city and our country and saw the conditions under which the firefighters and the police officers and the E.M.T's and the paramedics were laboring, I knew that we were going to have problems - that people would get sick and people would die.

LIASSON: In addition to sparking a debate about the health effects of the Ground Zero cleanup, Republican strategist Mike Murphy says that the 9/11 attacks have had a much broader impact on American politics.

Mr. MURPHY: What 9/11 has done is it's made security issues more important, which is good for the Republicans. It's also created an opportunity for the Republicans to be held responsible for mistakes and fumbles - in which there had been plenty - and that is good for the Democrats, making them more competitive than they normally are in an issue of national security that's normally a Republican issue.

LIASSON: Over the past six years, the political effects of 9/11 have begun to change. In the first few years after the attacks, Democrats were in a defensive crouch about anything related to terrorism. Now, they're more willing to question the administration's response to 9/11.

Here's John Edwards at Pace University in New York City last week.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Democrat, Presidential Candidate): The world stood united behind America after September the 11th. But instead of leading a truly visionary campaign against global terrorism, our president led America down a garden path.

LIASSON: Edwards accused the president of using the attacks to justify a preconceived war against Iraq. Barack Obama accused Mr. Bush of exploiting the attacks for political gain.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): What could have been a call to a generation has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power. A tragedy that united us was turned into a political wedge issue used to divide us. It is time to turn the page. And it is time to write a new chapter in our response to 9/11.

LIASSON: There's a reason Democrats are so emboldened now, says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. The public is rejecting the central premise of the war in Iraq, that it was an appropriate response to the 9/11 attacks.

Mr. GEOFF GARIN (President, Peter D. Hart Research Associates): Americans are uncertain in terms of how much safer we are as a country today than we were six years ago. Somewhere really right after the 2004 election, people started to separate the war in Iraq from the broader war against terror and keeping America safe. So people in America now don't really believe that the war in Iraq is part of protecting America from future terrorist attacks.

LIASSON: That's a change in public opinion that the Democratic candidates are eager to exploit, and there's also the inconvenient fact raised by many Democrats this week that the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden, remains at large.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.