This evening, John McCain and Barack Obama will make a rare joint appearance on the campus of Columbia University. The talks they’ll deliver, to an audience composed of students, community leaders, the families of 9/11 victims, and some scattered members of the media, will be sponsored by ServiceNation, a nonpartisan coalition that aims to restore “the great tradition of citizen service” in the country. The theme of the talks—the candidates will speak separately, as they did at their last joint appearance at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church—will pay tacit tribute to today’s anniversary. It will be, fittingly and simply, “public service.”
And the tone of those talks, belying weeks—months—of petty bickering on the campaign trail, will surely be cordial, even respectful. Because Today Is September Eleventh, after all, and it is for us, the living, to pay tribute to the memory of those we lost that day by paying each other a little respect.
How sad. Not that we’d treat each other with respect in the first place, of course, but that we’d set aside a day to do it. How sad that McCain and Obama will take a break from belittling each other—and the rest of us, in the process—because this evening’s meeting happens to be taking place 2,555 days after the terrorist attacks. How sad that, 2,556 days after the attacks, they’ll return to their brawling. You can’t help but think of the people who pray for each other inside the church and then swear at each other while jockying for space in the lanes leading from the church parking lot.
The press accounts of tonight’s event will likely make much of the cordiality sure to exist between the men who, tomorrow, will return to their bitter rivalry. In the media summaries of the events, we’ll likely be hearing and reading phrases like “setting aside their differences” and “putting politics aside” and “out of respect to the anniversary” and the like, all of them rendered in the congratulatory tones that would seem to suit such noble self-sacrifice on the part of the candidates. But here’s hoping we get more than empty compliments.
Here’s hoping some of the media members who record the talks will question the validity of complimenting candidates for being, you know, cordial to each other. You could argue that, in some sense, every day is September 11, every day is an anniversary of what happened that morning seven years ago. It would be nice if the candidates remembered that. And it would be nice if the press reminded them.Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.