In tragedy’s shadow

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  September 19, 2007

Ogonowski echoes the sentiment, even though his first campaign ad focused in large part on his brother and included images of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. “That’s part of my history, that I was tragically impacted by 9/11,” says Ogonowski.

In an election defined largely by the Iraq War, Ogonowski clearly hopes that voters will see his personal connection to 9/11 as a reason to trust him with the job of fighting terrorism, with Iraq being part of that job.

The rival campaigns have been trading jabs on Iraq, spurred by the national focus on General David Petraeus’s recent testimony to Congress and George Bush’s subsequent Iraq-policy speech — which some say Bush coordinated with the 9/11 anniversary, in his own use of political symbolism. Ogonowski opposed entering the Iraq War, but now argues that America must see it through in the name of national security. Tsongas favors a timetable for withdrawal of troops.

Yet even as they argue about the war, both candidates denounce its politicization. In advance of Petraeus’s testimony, Ogonowski released a statement calling on Tsongas “to not engage in partisan rhetoric and political attacks. . . . Let’s not politicize the war.” Tsongas called Ogonowski’s characterization of her Iraq position as “a political tactic lifted directly from Karl Rove.”

With all that in the background, Livingston admits he may have been naive to think that this year’s commemoration could have avoided political overtones.

The trouble with that event started the weekend before September 11, when state GOP executive director Robert Willington complained to the press that Ogonowski, who had participated in four previous State House 9/11 events, was not given a role this time. Willington accused state Democrats of barring Ogonowski in order to help Tsongas.

Livingston insists that this wasn’t the case. A commission of victims’ family members decided this past spring to exclude all family members from speaking at this year’s commemoration event, he says, in order to focus on the beneficiaries of the 9/11 Fund’s grants. Ogonowski raised no objection in conversations several days before the event, according to Livingston, and even indicated that he planned to suspend all appearances that day, anyway.

But Ogonowski now defends the state party’s complaints, and says that he was most likely excluded for Tsongas’s benefit. “Was it political?” asks Ogonowski. “I think the evidence suggests that it was.”

Failure to understand
Tsongas had intended to keep a relatively low profile on September 11, attending a memorial with Lowell firefighters — but then let herself get dragged into the affair. She released a statement after the Ogonowski controversy hit the papers, saying she was “surprised” at his exclusion and that he “should be invited to participate in the ceremony.”

That was unfortunate, according to some political observers. By chastising the event’s planners, Tsongas legitimized the GOP’s complaints and kept the story going.

Thanks to the flap, the memorial event drew more attention than it might have otherwise — and that lent a megaphone to Patrick’s first official 9/11 speech in office, in which he plucked a phrase he has used before in discussing 9/11 — “a failure of human understanding” — and dropped it, without context, into his brief remarks.

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