Who Hillary Clinton Really Helped After 9-11

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Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley pause for a moment of silence for the victims of the Paris terrorists attacks before the start of the 2nd Democratic debate.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, have become one of the most relied-on tropes in politics.  George W. Bush ran his re-election campaign based on them, and Rudy Giuliani’s 9-11 role was the basis of his 2008 presidential bid. Even Chris Christie, a private citizen the day of the World Trade Center attacks, frequently invokes the attacks. 

On Saturday, at the Democratic party debate in Iowa, Hillary Clinton did too.

“I represented New York on 9-11 when we were attacked,” Clinton responded, oddly, to a Bernie Sanders question about why she’d raised so much money from Wall Street. “And where were we attacked? In downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York, it was good for the economy and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.”

I was with Hillary Clinton on September 12, 2001, when she first visited Ground Zero, the smoking piles of burning debris that had been the World Trade Center towers. She would later call the scene “the gates of hell.”

In those early hours, no one knew how many were dead, or if more attacks were coming. But Clinton had already been on the phone and on the floor of the Senate in Washington, wrangling aid. In a slow, stunned voice, Clinton told reporters “You know New York is America and America stands ready to defend what we care about and that’s the city and its people.”

The experience changed her. As she later told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, the attacks vaulted fighting terrorism to the fore. “I mean that marked me,” Clinton said, “and made me feel that was my number one obligation as a senator."

In the days after 9-11, she voted for the Patriot Act, and we still live with its far-reaching consequences today. She supported trying suspected terrorists in military tribunals, and the war in Iraq – a decision she would come to regret.

But on the domestic policy front, Clinton won widespread praise, particularly for her work on legislation addressing the health needs of first responders who’d spent days or weeks breathing in a toxic cloud of PCB’s and other chemicals on the “pile” in Lower Manhattan. 

Clinton understood how the White House worked, and she wasn’t afraid to say it publicly, loudly, or sharply, as she did when the federal Environmental Agency was charged with deep-sixing safety warnings about the air quality. Hiding health warnings "a week later, two weeks later, six months later later? Give me a break!" Clinton said. "They knew and they didn’t tell us the truth and the White House told them not to tell us the truth!”

At the same time, Clinton displayed real empathy, relating what a firefighter from Chappaqua, where she lived, told her.  “I can’t sleep, I can’t breathe. His wife said he never had a sick day in his life before 9-11. I hear that over and over and over again.”

In 2004, first responders held a ceremony for Clinton, thanking her for the passage of the health care legislation. “Senator Clinton, thank you very much, if you decide to throw your hat in the ring to run for the other office, you have my support,” said Chuck Capo, head of EMS local 3621.

So, there is real gratitude.

But until Clinton mentioned it Saturday night, fighting to save the financial industry has never been a central plank for any of Clinton’s campaigns. In a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon, spokesman Bryan Fallon didn’t back away from Clinton’s contention – that her Wall Street support has come, in part, in gratitude for seeking federal funds for New York after the attacks.

“That advocacy which continued for years after that to make sure that what was the lifeblood of the New York economy was not undermined, should not be conflated or misunderstood to mean she was anything other than a zealous advocate for strong regulation of that industry,” Fallon said.

On the domestic front, Clinton spent most of her energy post-9/11 fighting for the little guy.  On Saturday night, she inexplicably claimed credit for helping the big guys.

WNYC Archivist Andy Lanset assisted with this story.