West Wing Story: The Politics Of Unpolitics

President Bush won't say much on the first anniversary of 9-11. His speech to the nation that night will last just 10 minutes. Several of the services he will attend will be silent. As is typical of Bush, he doesn't want to seem like he's using the emotional day for either self-aggrandizement or political gain. But don't think for a moment that politics didn't factor into the White House's planning of the day.

Let's start with the backdrop for the speech itself. Scott Sforza--the Emmy-award winning ABC producer who does the White House TV image crafting--outdid himself this time. Bush will be standing on Ellis Island rather than Governor's Island, which was also considered. That is symbolic in itself. Message: immigrants still welcome. But the bonus is that the camera angle of the Statue of Liberty is better from there.

With that American icon over his shoulder, Bush doesn't even have to say the word freedom (though he will) to remind people of the sacrifices we have to make for it. "The President wanted a setting that reminds America again of our moral calling, our higher purpose as the beacon of liberty and freedom for people around the world," Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Monday. And that message will cue up Bush's speech Thursday at the United Nations, where he will make the case against Saddam Hussein in the context of "our moral calling."

Usually, on anniversaries, the White House puts out talking points. To mark the first 100 days of the administration or of military action in Afghanistan, for example, the administration unleashed its many minions to talk up their successes. But for 9-11 there will be no tallies of terrorists caught and bank accounts frozen. "We're not packaging 9-11 the way we normally would," explains one administration aide. "That would look political."

Bush is not the only politician trying to get credit for not being political. Both parties and most candidates have declared moratoriums on ads that day. Last Friday, members of Congress held a special ceremonial session in New York to show a fractious body made whole at least temporarily. "There are no Republicans. There are no Democrats. There are only Americans," Rep. Dick Gephardt said at the session. Fellow Democrat Sen. Tom Daschle and Republican Sen. Trent Lott took time out from squabbling over a homeland security bill to embrace. They will join together again--with other bipartisan members of Congress--to sing God Bless America on the Capitol steps Wednesday afternoon.

Everyone will be a patriot this 9-11. Bush has even declared it "Patriot Day." "I encourage all Americans to display the flag at half-staff from their homes," Bush said in his proclamation designating the day. There was some debate over just how to commemorate the first anniversary. The White House was careful not to declare it a "holiday"--not only because it's not a national day off but because they didn't want to imply that it was a celebration akin to July 4th. Both Congress and the White House claim the heroes on Flight 93 were their saviors. We'll probably never know if that plane, which crashed in Shankesville, Penn., after those on board struggled with the hijackers, was headed for the Capitol or the White House. Lott, for example, thinks it was headed his way. So does White House staffer John Bridgeland, the head of USA Freedom Corp, who told the president not long ago: "They saved my life." To say thank you, the White House will send a delegation of 150 staffers, everyone from a cook to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, to the memorial service in Shankesville, which Bush will visit later in the day for a wreath-laying ceremony.

Bush will go to each crash site over the course of the day, but he can't be at every one at the exact moment of impact. Instead, he'll be on the South Lawn for a minute of silence at 8:46 a.m., when the first plane hit the World Trade Center last year. Not only did that make the most sense logistically--and politically--but he wanted to share the moment with his own staff. That event--and others--will be open to more White House employees than usual. "It's going to be a very tough day for White House staffers," says Fleischer, adding that they will once again be offering in-house counseling.

A year ago 9-11, White House staffers wanted to be anywhere but there. Secret service agents told them a plane was headed right toward them and that they should run. The agents even told the women on the staff to ditch their shoes so they could run as fast as they could--to anywhere. Staffers ended up scattered around town. Today, there is a better-organized evacuation plan in place and an electronic-alert system. There is some nervousness among the staff--especially with the threat alert being raised one notch to orange today, up from yellow. Meanwhile, D.C. cynics dismiss the new alert as the Bush administration's efforts to look alert for 9-11. In other words, just politics.