September 20, 2001: Hillary Clinton Signals the End of “Unity”

This is my 9/11 post, a day early. For my remembrance of 9/11, go here.

I reluctantly watched George W. Bush’s post-9/11 speech before a joint session of Congress. I say “reluctantly” because I cannot abide the posturing, pomposity, and wrong-headedness that are the usual ingredients of political speeches — even speeches that follow events like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the atrocities of 9/11. (Churchill’s rallying speeches during World War II are another thing: masterworks of inspirational oratory.)

In any event, Bush’s performance was creditable (thanks, no doubt, to his writers and ample preparation). And I found nothing to fault in what he said, inasmuch as I am a libertarian hawk. The vigorous and evidently sincere applause that greeted Bush’s applause lines — applause that arose from Democrats as well as Republicans — seemed to confirm the prevailing view that Americans (or their political leaders, at least) were defiantly united in the fight against terrorism.

But I noted then, and have never forgotten, the behavior of Hillary Clinton, who was a freshman senator. Some of Clinton’s behavior is captured in this video clip, from 11:44 to 12: 14. The segment opens with Bush saying

Terror unanswered can not only bring down buildings, it can threaten the stability of legitimate governments. And you know what, we’re not going to allow it.

The assemblage then rises in applause. The camera zooms to Hillary Clinton, who seems aware of it and stares at the camera briefly while applauding tepidly. (Compare her self-centered reaction with that of the noted camera-hog Chuck Shumer, who is standing next to her, applauding vigorously, and looking toward Bush.) Clinton then turns away from the camera and, while still applauding tepidly, directs a smirk at someone near her. I also noted — but cannot readily find on video — similar behavior, include eye-rolling, at the conclusion of Bush’s speech.

Clinton — as a veteran political campaigner who knew that her behavior would draw attention — was sending a clear signal of her reluctance to support Bush because … because why? Because he had an opportunity for leadership that her husband had squandered through his lame responses to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the downing of U.S. helicopters in Somalia, and the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa? Because Bush was a Republican who had won the presidency after great controversy? Because she resented not being at the center of attention after having been there for eight years, as an influential FLOTUS?

Yes Clinton was “hawkish” on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But I will always suspect that her hawkishness was, in part, a kind of atonement for her public display of disdain for George W. Bush on an occasion when such a display was inappropriate. No president should be given leave to do as he will, for any reason, but neither should his unexceptionable remarks on a solemn occasion be mocked.

Regardless of Clinton’s later stances, her behavior on January 20, 2011, signaled that the war on terror would become a partisan feast for Democrats and head-in-the clouds pseudo-libertarians. And it became just that.