Years ago, as a young city desk editor, I drew the Saturday shift, rolling into work about 10 a.m., likely a little fuzzy from that fifth beer the night before. It was quiet. I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the newsroom. I sipped coffee and read the morning edition. Then the phone started ringing.
“What is wrong with you people over there?” he yelled into the phone. “It’s Pearl Harbor day and there isn’t one damn mention of it in the entire paper this morning. Cancel my damn subscription!”
There were several more calls that morning expressing the same sentiment. To be sure, I looked through the entire morning edition and they were right. No mention of Pearl Harbor on that Dec. 7 morning. Later in the day, when the managing editor phoned to check on things, I briefed him on the calls. He was quiet for a moment and I remembered thinking he was a veteran, Navy I think. He told me to make sure we had some sort of story rounding up Pearl Harbor commemorations in the next day’s paper and that it run on Page One.
I often think about that moment when we commemorate the anniversary of 9/11. “Never forget,” we solemnly say. And of course, on a large scale, we will never forget. But might there come a day 40 or 50 years from now, like that sad morning in the newsroom, when we just fail to acknowledge it? Even as the whole world paused to recognize the 20th anniversary of 9/11, you could begin to see the mystic cords of memory start to fray a little bit.
On one hand, the memory of 9/11 was honored in a moving, dignified and emotional ceremony at Shanksville, Pennsylvania that was highlighted by a speech from George Bush. His remarks were eloquent and concise and struck at the very heart of America.
“In those fateful hours . . . we saw that Americans were vulnerable but not fragile, that they possess a core of strength that survives the worst that life can bring,” Bush said. “We learned that bravery is more common than we imagined, emerging with sudden splendor in the face of death. We vividly felt how every hour with our loved ones was a temporary and holy gift. And we found that even the longest days end.”
This is what leaders do. They provide context for us. Here is what else Bush said: “I come without explanations or solutions. I can only tell you what I’ve seen. On America’s day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know.”
Leaders call us to higher ground in the midst of chaos. Bush again: “At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know.
“At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know.
“At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know.
“This is not mere nostalgia. It is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been and what we can be again.”
Leaders have the responsibility — and the privilege — of helping to shape our collective memory. They can do it with pragmatic optimism, lifting us up to be our better selves in spite of adversity, as Bush did at Shanksville. Or they can abdicate that role by giving in to more base, craven instincts — which we saw on full display by Donald Trump.
The former president did commemorate 9/11, in his way. He paid a surprise visit to New York police and firefighters on the day, delivered brief remarks, and posed for pictures. It was a day to recognize sacrifice and heroism, resiliency and unity. But Trump chose to attack a sitting president, berating Biden for the Afghan affair.
“It was gross incompetence and I hate to talk about it on this day,” said Trump, but he did anyway. Then he forgot about 9/11 altogether and repeated how great police were, how they couldn’t do their jobs anymore because the politicians won’t let them, and how he’d turn the cops loose on crime if he was mayor.
“I would love that!” he said.
But it was later in the day when Trump cut the cords of memory altogether.
On a day of national remembrance, he spent the evening at some sordid money-grab at the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida, where a 44-year-old mixed martial arts fighter pummeled 58-year-old Evander Holyfield. Trump provided commentary on the pay-per-view spectacle, but judging from this clip on Twitter, Trump is no Howard Cossell.
Trump, however, really wasn’t there to provide “commentary.” He was there to stoke the fires of adulation and feed his insatiable ego. And he did so at an event that reflected the underbelly of American culture. No serious boxing fan had any time for this “celebrity” fight featuring a man who was starting to wonder when he might activate his Social Security payments. This wasn’t about sport. It was about a five-letter word that rhymes with “honey.”
It was as far away from the spirit of 9/11 — honor, bravery, fortitude — as Hollywood, Florida is from Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It didn’t just ignore the memory of 9/11, it corrupted it. Seeing pictures of Trump at the fight, on this of all days, made me think of Joe Welch’s classic challenge to Joe McCarthy — “At long last, sir, have you left no sense of decency?”
Continuing down this path — of spectacle over respect, conflict over comity, individualism over community — will only degrade our collective memory until one day, like that morning in the newsroom long ago, it will just fade away.
Leaders make choices. On 9/11, Bush chose grace, humility and respect. Trump chose something else. At this precarious moment in America, there is a lesson there. We should all heed it.