On Sept. 11, McCain, Obama Put Aside Rancor Amid an increasingly nasty presidential campaign, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama agreed to take a break from partisan politics on the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. However, the attacks remain a potent political symbol.
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On Sept. 11, McCain, Obama Put Aside Rancor

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On Sept. 11, McCain, Obama Put Aside Rancor

On Sept. 11, McCain, Obama Put Aside Rancor

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The Presidential campaign has gone increasingly nasty. But today, the candidates took a break from partisan politics. Barack Obama and John McCain promised they would not campaign today, the 7th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. And the two men appeared together at Ground Zero to pay their respects.

But as NPR's Robert Smith reports, each candidate tried to use the day to his advantage.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

ROBERT SMITH: The morning belonged to the families of the victims of 9/11. 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.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

SMITH: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg specifically asked McCain and Obama to skip this morning's service. He has said it would have turned a somber memorial into a media event. Instead, the two came to Ground Zero this afternoon. John McCain and Barack Obama walked side by side into the construction pit along a ramp lined with flags.

The candidates didn't speak publicly, but they chatted with each other and shook the hands of first responders. You couldn't ask for a more respectful photo-op. But before they arrived at Ground Zero, each candidate did dabble in a little politics.

John McCain spoke in Shanksville, Pennsylvania about the passengers of Flight 93, and he used the opportunity to make allusions to his own heroism in the military.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Nominee): 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.

SMITH: Barack Obama released a statement today that also praised the heroes of 9/11, but he did something that McCain didn't: he reminded voters that the terrorists responsible are still at large. Last night, he drove the point home on the "Late Show with David Letterman."

(Soundbite of TV program, "Late Show with David Letterman")

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Nominee): The big difference between myself and George Bush, I think, would have been to stay focused on Afghanistan, not get distracted by Iraq. I think we would have tamped down al-Qaida. We could have, if not captured or killed bin Laden, at least made sure that they weren't setting up the kind of base camps that have now reconstituted themselves.

SMITH: Candidates have learned to be subtle about how they talk about 9/11 and how they use Ground Zero. But politics has been intertwined with the place since the attacks. When George Bush grabbed that megaphone on the smoldering pile at Ground Zero, he also grabbed the defining moment for his re-election.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who…

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. BUSH: …knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SMITH: But when Mr. Bush tried to use images of rescue workers at Ground Zero in his 2004 political ads, there was a huge outcry

In that election year, neither George Bush nor John Kerry attended the memorial services at Ground Zero, even though the election was centered around national security and the Republican convention was held in New York, an appearance at site of the attacks seem too crass.

Now, four years later, that taboo is gone. New York Senator Hillary Clinton was the first presidential candidate this cycle to air an ad featuring 9/11.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man: She stood by Ground Zero workers who sacrificed their health after so many sacrificed their lives and kept standing until this administration took action.

SMITH: And former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani based a whole campaign on his actions that day.

This morning at Ground Zero, family members of the victims seemed just fine with McCain's and Obama's appearance at the site. But Jim Samuel, who lost his son on 9/11, says we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking it's an altruistic act.

Mr. JIM SAMUEL: They're not coming, you know, just because they want to. In a way, they're coming here, yeah, to make a show and it's going to look nice, you know, for the political campaign and all that.

SMITH: Does that offend you in any way?

Mr. SAMUEL: Not really. No.

SMITH: As another family member told me, at least having the candidates at Ground Zero will remind them what's really important in this campaign: keeping the country safe.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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