It was August 2003, almost two years since the tragic events of 9/11, and the sickening plume of smoke that hung over Ground Zero in lower Manhattan had long since dissipated. But steam was rising from the steps of City Hall, three blocks away, where Hillary Clinton was venting her rage at the Bush administration for having lied to the American people.
“I don’t think any of us expected that our government would knowingly deceive us about something as sacred as the air we breathe,” she said, her voice tightening in anger. “The air that our children breathe in schools, that our valiant first responders were facing on the pile.”
Surrounded by fire fighters and the doctors who were treating them for respiratory and other illnesses incurred when they worked on the massive mound of Ground Zero rubble—the “pile” as it was known—the-then junior senator for New York was incandescent. Audio recorded at the time by WNYC captures a Hillary Clinton quite unlike the controlled public figure who is now but a step away from the White House.
The Hillary Clinton who emerges from the WNYC tapes that day is passionate, raw and unrestrained. Above all, she is livid.
She had just learned that the Bush administration had instructed officials of the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reassure New Yorkers after 9/11 that the air over Ground Zero was safe. In fact, they had a pretty good idea that it was a toxic pall of asbestos, cement, glass dust, heavy metals, fuels and PCBs.
“I am outraged,” the senator went on. “In the immediate aftermath, the first couple of days, nobody could know. But a week later? Two weeks later? Two months later? Six months later? Give me a break!”
Of all the varied chapters of Hillary Clinton’s tumultuous 30 years in public life, the story of her response to the Twin Towers attacks is one of the richest in terms of the clues it provides as to what to expect from a Clinton presidency. It reveals elements of her character, of her domestic policy strengths, as well as her tendency to lean towards the hawkish side in international affairs.
As the 15th anniversary of 9/11 approaches on Sunday, the memories of those heady days, and her role in them, remain fresh for many of those who stood by her side. Richard Alles was on the smoldering pile on Sept. 12, the day after the attacks, when Clinton turned up and proclaimed: “This attack on New York is an attack on America, it’s an attack on every American.”
Alles, then a uniformed fire fighter with Battalion 58 in Canarsie, Brooklyn, arrived at Ground Zero 20 minutes after the second tower collapsed and stayed there for two days and nights seeking survivors amid the ruins. What struck him most about Clinton that day, he said, was her “compassion.”
“She really went out of her way to speak to the first responders on the site to reassure them. I never forgot it,” he said.
Alles was also struck by how Clinton quickly grasped the potential health risks of Ground Zero, and how doggedly she pursued treatment for those who suffered. “We all knew from the get-go that the air was contaminated, but we had a job to do so we kept on working. Sen. Clinton was at the forefront over dealing with it, she showed herself to be a fighter.”
On 9/11, Peter Gorman was president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association in New York City, a union that represents largely white, blue-collar workers of the sort who today might back Donald Trump. The union had pointedly put its weight behind Clinton’s opponent in the 2000 senatorial race, the Republican Rick Lazio.
Yet Gorman recalls being pleasantly surprised by Clinton’s commitment, both in terms of her mastery of policy detail and on a personal level. “She would call me on my cell phone to ask how I was doing, how my members were doing. One time I was pumping gas at a Texaco station, it was Christmas Eve, and she wanted to know how things were going. When a senator calls someone on my level, that’s impressive.”
That same personal care made a profound impression on Lauren Manning, who was one of very few people who survived the planes crashing into the towers themselves. She was engulfed by a fireball of jet fuel as she was entering the elevators in the North Tower and suffered burns over 83 percent of her body.
A few months later she was in treatment at the Burke Rehabilitation hospital in White Plains, New York, when she had a visitor. Hillary Clinton walked into her small hospital room and “embraced me as best she could. She was kind and gentle, and she very specifically said to me that she was here for me and that she would remain at my side.”
Manning, who gave a keynote speech on behalf of Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in July, said that her most vivid memory was of the senator’s eyes. “I was covered and swathed in bandages, dealing with a great deal of pain, but she captured me with her eyes. They were wide-open and expressive, and they remained on mine. She didn’t lose sight of what I was saying to her. To me that was the mark of somebody who is sincere, who you want on your side.”
Having declared 9/11 to be an attack on all Americans, Clinton soon discovered that the national response was not entirely united or favorable to struggling New Yorkers. The then-head of the EPA, Christine Todd Whitman, repeatedly insisted the air was safe even as early as three days after the towers collapsed, as did Mayor Rudy Giuliani, despite worries within City Hall that they were facing thousands of liability claims.
Confronted by this wall of denial, Clinton was one of the most powerful voices warning of a major pending health crisis. Ben Chevat, chief of staff to US Rep. Carolyn Maloney on 9/11, recalls the impact.
“The Bush administration was saying, ‘There’s no problem, move along,’ and so it was hard work getting any traction in the media. Yet we knew there was a problem because people were getting sick with respiratory diseases and cancers.”
Chevat, now executive director of 9/11 Health Watch, says, “It took Clinton to put a spotlight on the issue and change the frame.”
Clinton and her allies began small, but over time succeeded in dramatically expanding the health program for 9/11 sufferers. Within weeks of the attacks, she had helped secure $12 million for a pilot project at Mount Sinai hospital screening some 9,000 workers with suspected Ground Zero illnesses.
By April 2004 the program had grown to a $90 million fund, which offered three free medical exams a year to 50,000 first responders and Lower Manhattan residents. In 2010, having passed on the baton to her US Senate successor Kirsten Gillibrand, reluctant Republicans in Congress were cajoled into passing the $4 billion Zadroga Act covering the health costs of those impaired by the toxic fumes. Last year, the program was extended for another 75 years, and now serves 65,000 emergency responders and almost 10,000 9/11 resident survivors.
Philip Landrigan, who hosted the first World Trade Center medical program at Mount Sinai, attributes this success story mainly to Clinton’s relentless pursuit of the subject, coupled with her attention to detail. “She was angry at the Washington political leaders who would come to Ground Zero, have photos taken and then go back to DC and do nothing,” he said. “She became deeply knowledgeable on the subject, not just fiscal and administrative details, but also about medical and mental health problems. She was a sponge for knowledge.”
Clinton’s powerful engagement in the 9/11 health cause is a strong contrast with how her current presidential rival, Donald Trump, spent his time in the wake of the terrorist attacks. He used a loophole in federal funding to help small businesses hurt by the disaster to claim $150,000 in subsidies for a Wall Street real estate project he was developing.
Yet when it comes to this year’s presidential race, several of the people who worked closely with Clinton after 9/11 said they were puzzled by how difficult it appeared for her to win over voters. As a senator operating on the ground, and one to one, she came across as an effective and empathetic leader, but writ large across the nation, her persona struggled to come across.
“She may not be the most natural politician,” said former union president Peter Gorman. “I regret that sometimes she doesn’t come across well in front of a crowd as people don’t know her as so many of us do.”
Fire fighter Richard Alles put her troubles with popularity in 2016—she has an unfavorable rating of 55 percent, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls—down to the criticism she has endured from political opponents and enemies over decades, from Whitewater in the 1990s to Benghazi and the email controversy today. He doubts many of his fellow fire-fighters will back her in November, since the good work she did after 9/11 has faded from view.
“Younger fire officers aren’t aware of what she did as senator. While they were growing up all they heard was this bad stuff about Clinton – the damage has been done,” Alles said.
What hasn’t faded from view is something else that has frequently bugged her: Clinton’s vote in October 2002 to authorize the use of military force in Iraq, a resolution that paved the year for the invasion the following year. The controversial decision—the hardest of her political life, she has said—was presaged on her response to the collapse of the Twin Towers.
As she told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, the 9/11 attacks “marked me, and made me feel [fighting terrorism] was my number one obligation as a senator.”
Micah Zenko, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has studied Clinton’s changing approach to Iraq, suggested that her views were more nuanced and thoughtful than she has been credited for. He pointed to her speech to the Senate floor before casting her war vote.
“She emphasizes the UN and sanctions route, and doesn’t emphasize neo-conservative nation building. She was very conscious that this was not a blank check,” Zenko said.
As early as 2004, Clinton was back on the Brian Lehrer show slamming the Bush administration again, this time for having misled the American people over "weapons of mass destruction" and Saddam Hussein’s links to al-Qaida. “There wouldn’t have been a vote…if everything we knew now had been known then,” she said.
On the other hand, Clinton continued to support the military's involvement in Iraq up until 2005 and only fully disavowed her vote a couple of years ago, when she wrote in her memoir "Hard Choices" that she “got it wrong.” That she continues to wrestle with this vexed subject, and her previous record on it, was shown on Wednesday night when she used a foreign policy town hall to state bluntly that she would not put US ground troops into Iraq “ever again.”
That has not assuaged, however, anti-war campaigners who were active in 2002 and 2003 in trying to prevent the rush to war. They are still angry about her pro-war vote, given the warnings they raised at the time.
As Leslie Cagan, co-chair of the anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice, put it: “There were many warnings: don’t do this, don’t go into Iraq, don’t start a war that doesn’t need to be started. It wasn’t like you couldn’t hear that, if you were listening.”