President Obama’s visit to ground zero on Thursday was all about handshakes and hugs – not high fives to celebrate the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, an architect of the 9/11 terrorism attack.
It had its poignant moments, such as the president's meeting with young Payton Wall of Rumson, N.J., who lost her father, Glen, on that September day and then wrote Mr. Obama to tell him how she has handled the loss.
It had some symbolism – Obama laying a red, white, and blue wreath at the foot of the “Survivor Tree” originally planted at the World Trade Center site in the 1970s. It was rescued from the smoldering ruins of the site and nursed back to health.
There was also plenty of patriotism – the Star Spangled Banner hanging from construction cranes at ground zero, flag-waving New Yorkers outside the site.
But most important, the event seemed to provide some comfort to the families of those who lost loved ones on 9/11.
“Without a doubt, it certainly helps,” Alexander Santora, who lost his son, a firefighter, on 9/11 told the Monitor. “People keep asking, is there any kind of closure? There is never closure when you’ve lost a child, especially when you lose a child in such a horrific way. There is always a hole in your heart.”
It was a sentiment repeated by Obama. When he met with members of the New York Police Department, he told them he understood how hard it would be “to fill the hole that occurred as a consequence of losing folks you had worked with for so long.”
Some political observers say Obama got the tone right by keeping his New York visit low key and by concentrating on the families. He hugged women and men equally. He gave no formal speeches, although he did speak to the firefighters and police officers.
“This is not a time to play politics,” agrees Leslie Sorrell of the Magnolia Group, political strategist in Dallas. But, she says, getting the tone just right is difficult. “We are in unprecedented waters here,” she says. “You’re not sure about the protocol.”
Present at the wreath laying were members of both political parties, including some who have been critical of Obama, such as Rep. Peter King (R) of New York. Obama went out of his way to shake Representative King’s hand.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican who has several times contemplated running for president, was also at the firehouse and ground zero. Obama commented that they have their political differences most days, but said they are Americans first.
Obama, says Mr. Sabato, is taking a well-earned victory lap. “It continues on Friday, when he flies to Fort Campbell [in Kentucky] to meet with the Navy SEALs’ Team Six [which killed bin Laden]. When you are the president of the United States and running for reelection, everything is political.”
However, many of the 9/11 families downplayed the visit's political aspect. Mr. Santora's wife, Maureen Santora, acknowledged that she is not an Obama fan. But she says she was impressed by his short address Sunday night, and was glad to be invited to the event on Thursday.
“Whatever the critics may say, [such as] it’s a political maneuver, he is doing the right thing, reaching out to the people that had a loss, a loss that they will never recover from,” she said.
Although he had no prepared remarks at the wreath-laying event, Obama spoke the firefighters of Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 – better known as “the Pride of Midtown.”
The firehouse suffered more losses on 9/11 than any other, losing 15 firefighters, including the Santoras' son, Christopher. Obama said bin Laden's death “sent a message here back home that when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say – that our commitment to making sure that justice is done is something that transcended politics, transcended party; it didn’t matter which administration was in, it didn’t matter who was in charge, we were going to make sure that the perpetrators of that horrible act, that they received justice.”
Obama then thanked the firefighters “on behalf of the American people for the sacrifices that you make every single day.”
Indeed, thanks seemed to be order of the day.
Sally Regenhard, who lost her son, firefighter Christian Michael Regenhard, said before meeting the president that she would tell him “thank you for doing what you promised you would do.”