Just because the evening had a somber theme--remembering the 40 people who died on United Flight 93--it didn't rule out some laughs for the dinner guests, especially since the jokes were courtesy of two former presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and the Speaker of the House, John Boehner. Almost reliably, Boehner puddled up, and Clinton, like the ace batter he is, hit the tear-stained moment over the far wall.
"I know I get a little teary," Boehner said as he spoke about the passengers who forced hijacked Flight 93 into a death spiral on September 11, 2001. "I'm a great crier. I've met a lot of people who come over to me and say, 'I like you. I'm a crier, too.' "
When Clinton took the stage, he said, "Mr. Speaker, I like it when you cry. You give new meaning to compassionate conservative." The audience roared.
Earlier, Bush and his wife, Laura, appeared at the microphone together. Nodding at Clinton, seated at a table in front, the 43rd President said, "Forty-two, good to see you." Then, looking at the emcee, NBC's David Gregory, he asked, "Are you still on TV?" Gregory is host of the Sunday interview program Meet the Press.
But jokes aside, most of the comments from the stage were about the passengers of Flight 93 and the memorial that has been built in their honor at what is essentially their common grave, a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Boehner, Clinton, and the Bushes were at the Flight 93 Memorial when it was dedicated last year on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center, gored the Pentagon, and caused an overall death toll of almost 3,000. At the dedication Clinton called on Bush and Boehner to help him raise the $10 million needed to finish the work at the site. The dinner, at the Newseum, was sponsored by the Flight 93 National Memorial and the National Park Foundation as part of the fund-raising effort.
Last night, slapping his hands together for emphasis, Clinton cited the $3 million that has since been raised, but lamented, "It's not done. We've done next to nothing for this site compared to what Congress has done for my home, New York," referring to the memorial at the World Trade Center site. "Almost any citizen at any instant can be called upon to be part of our national security. That's what those 40 people did. They made a decision to die for us. They didn't enroll, they didn't go to basic training, and as far as I know there's no other example in recorded history of ordinary people giving up their lives." Then he added, "Ten million dollars is not too much to remember that."
George and Laura Bush, who left immediately after their remarks and before dinner was served, hit the same theme as Clinton. "We believe this is an incredibly important memorial for our country," Bush said. "The further we are from the September 11 date, the more likely we are to forget the lessons of that day." Laura Bush said, "These heroes died alone, in a remote location. I urge you to remember that and to tell your friends that as well. It's important that we honor them."
Before they departed, Bush leaned back to the microphone. "It's been great to be in Washington, but now we're headed back to the promised land, the great state of Texas," he said.
The evening ended with a couple of songs from Vince Gill. While he sang, the photographs and names of the Flight 93 victims filled the large screen behind him. The dinner, from the kitchens of Wolfgang Puck, included a salad of burrata cheese, greens, and heirloom tomatoes; filet mignon with asparagus and potatoes dauphinoise; and a vanilla panna cotta and strawberry dessert. The guests were a mix of corporate and private donors, some families of the victims, and even an Oscar-winning actress, Glenn Close, whose husband, David Shaw, is on the National Park Foundation board.
Clinton not only stayed through the dinner, he lingered long after the catering staff started to clean up the tables. Smiling and relaxed, he was never without a crowd around him, hugging him, shaking his hand, posing for photos. He had time for anyone who wanted time with him. His security detail, close but not too close, were defined by their focus and muscle but also their calm and patience.