Politics encroached on 9/11 this year in Massachusetts, even if nobody wants to admit it
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: Like it or not, Ogonowski was shaped by 9/11, and now it’s shaping his campaign.
Jim Ogonowski, a 28-year military veteran and small-farm owner in Dracut, brings plenty of life story, personal accomplishments, and policy positions to his campaign for US Congress in Massachusetts’s Fifth District, where he is running as the Republican nominee against Democrat Niki Tsongas. Regardless of all that, he is a walking symbol of the tragedy of 9/11: his brother, John, was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, which was hijacked after taking off from Boston’s Logan Airport, and flown into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
Politics came first
Six years ago, in the first days after the attacks, politics frequently reared its head. Questions were raised about whether to suspend the congressional election taking place on September 11 (won by Stephen Lynch), and some candidates were criticized for campaigning that day. Massport, in the spotlight for its security failure, was criticized as a haven for unqualified patronage appointments, quickly bringing down its head, Virginia Buckingham.
Word choices brought condemnation then, as well. Three days after the attacks, when Congressman Marty Meehan criticized Bush for failing to return quickly to the White House, public reaction was so severe that Meehan had guards posted at his Lowell office. Congressman Richard Neal also took heat, for criticizing the “blandness” of Bush’s early response.
However much we might try to separate politics from personal tragedy, 9/11 has come to stand for a wide range of important issues, including domestic security, the fight against international terror, the Patriot Act and other sacrifices of civil liberties, the detainment and treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and, thanks to President George W. Bush, the war in Iraq.
So perhaps we should not be surprised that this year’s 9/11 anniversary, which came in the midst of Ogonowski’s congressional campaign, triggered a politicized mess in the Bay State.
Accusations first flew when Ogonowski was not invited to speak at a State House ceremony commemorating the anniversary. Then, Governor Deval Patrick’s choice of words at that event set off another round of criticism.
Politics hangs on small, symbolic points such as who stands on a stage and what phrases an officeholder employs. When applied to an occasion with the symbolic weight of a 9/11 commemoration, the stakes are multiplied.
Blame the event’s organizers and Patrick, then, for failing to grasp how every little detail would be magnified in that context. And blame state GOP leaders and talk-radio conservatives for overreacting to trivia.
But perhaps we should stop pretending that it’s possible to keep politics out of 9/11 — at least for the duration of this congressional election.
It is considered uncouth, in a state that lost more than 200 people in the attacks, to acknowledge that 9/11 carries inherent political overtones. To do so, local pols say, would bring immediate criticism.
“Victims’ families have made it pretty clear that they don’t think politics, and the commemoration and contemplation of those who were lost, have any connection,” says Ted Livingston, executive director of the nonpartisan Massachusetts 9/11 Fund, which organizes the annual memorial.
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.