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
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,
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
George and Laura Bush, who left immediately after
their remarks and before dinner was served, hit the same theme as
“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
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.
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.