The Paradoxical Meeting of Bush and Obama at Ground Zero

Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush stood together at Sunday morning's 9/11 memorial

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President Obama and the First Lady boarded Marine One wearing black in the early morning dark on Sunday, the tenth anniversary of 9/11. When he and Michelle landed in New York, they took an uneventful ride to Ground Zero and met former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura. The four of them walked together past the names of those who died in the attacks and stood by the North Memorial Pool, where the north tower of the World Trade Center once stood. "Both couples held hands as they walked slowly along the wall, etched with names of those who died," McClatchy's Leslie Clark reported from the memorial. "[Obama] gazed upward quietly, and the three followed his lead as he stepped forward, his hands grazing the names on the wall."

At the 9/11 Memorial, family members read the names of the victims aloud, and the two former Presidents stood together at Ground Zero for the first time--behind bulletproof glass. President Obama spoke first and read Psalm 46. "Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth," he read. "He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and cuts the spear in two." President Bush quoted a letter from Abraham Lincoln to a widow, whose five sons had died in the Civil War. "I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming, but I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that can be found in the thanks of a republic which they died to save," reads the letter.

The contrast between the two speeches was met with contrasting reactions from the crowd. Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt from The New York Times report, "Unlike Mr. Obama, Mr. Bush drew a brief cheer from the crowd before his reading." They frame the scene as a paradox of sorts, one that casts a shadow on Obama:

The tableau was striking: the president who spent years hunting Bin Laden next to the one who finally got him. The president defined by his response to Sept. 11 standing alongside the one who has tried to take America beyond the lingering, complicated legacy of that day.

For Mr. Obama, Sept. 11 underpins what has become one of the great paradoxes of his presidency. A Democratic leader who opposed the Iraq war and is pulling troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan has, at the same time, notched up a record as a lethal, relentless hunter of terrorists.

This isn't a mystery, though. We've been learning increasingly over the past two years of the Obama administration that there are many things that Barack Obama the president has done that defy what Barack Obama the candidate stood for. In an interview with NBC News' Brian Williams, Obama talked about  the challenges the nation has faced over the past ten years. "The truth of the matter is that there have been some changes since 9/11," he said. "Some innocence, perhaps, has been lost."

Inevitably, we'll look at the picture of Obama and Bush standing side-by-side at the reflecting pool as an illustration of that loss of innocence. The two mens' contrasting postures, some will surely say that image serves as an illustration of the other side of that paradox. Obama stands with his chin to the sky, sun on his face and Bush stands in the shadow, his brow pointed at his shoes. It's a visual reminder that Obama has finished what Bush started, despite having opposed it, and will reap the political benefits.

After the ceremony, President Obama rode back to the airport in the presidential motorcade, another uneventful trip, and headed to Shanksville, Pennsylvania for another appearance. According to The Times, he'll strike the same tone as he did in his interview with Williams, one that best summed up with what he said just after hinting at our collective loss of innocence. Obama declared, "But our core values--our core character, how we interact with each other, our love of this country, and our ability to work through difficult issues in a way that's peaceful and democratic--those things haven't changed."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.