During last week’s Gov debate, the moderator asked the candidates “what, in your personal experience, has prepared you to lead should another catastrophic event affect Massachusetts?” (She had prefaced the question by mentioning 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.)
Deval Patrick gave a pretty good answer – he said that “before 9/11, the largest criminal investigation in American history was the investigation into the attacks on black churches and synagogues in the South,” which he had led in President Clinton’s Justice Department. Patrick also came up with one of the evening’s most memorable sound bites:
The worst thing in the world, in my view, that the president did after Katrina, was fly over in Air Force One. Get out of the plane, walk around, talk with people, show up.
Chris Gabrieli booted the question, IMHO. Dropping out of medical school to start a business doesn’t exactly qualify as preparation for leading the state through a major crisis, especially if even that fairly run-of-the-mill experience led to “a few panic attacks at the beginning,” as Gabs said it did. I’m not saying that Gabrieli had no effective answer to that question. I am saying that the one he gave didn’t really work.
Tom Reilly’s answer, at first blush, sounded pretty good. Here’s a chunk of what he said:
I came right back to Boston and there was an effort made to close and stop the election for the seat of the late congressman, Joseph Moakley. I stepped up and made a decision immediately. That election was going forward, I ordered that it would go forward. If there was one day that we were going to show the strength of our democracy, it was going to be that day. That election went forward because of the decision that I made.
Problem is, that’s not a very good description of what actually happened. Here’s a news report dated 9/11/01 reporting on that very situation:
Earlier this afternoon, [Secretary of State Bill] Galvin was poised to ask the Supreme Judicial Court to suspend voting after hearing reports that at least two polling places in Boston had been closed, but acting Governor Jane M. Swift and Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly said the voting should continue.
After speaking to Swift and Reilly, Galvin abandoned his effort. “I can’t do it without their consent,” said Galvin, who said he was concerned about fairness to voters who were unable to vote or traumatized by the spectacle in New York.
At a press conference from the state’s emergency bunker in Framingham, Swift argued strongly that shutting down the polls would send the wrong message. “The best thing the citizens of our good country and great commonwealth can do today is to send a very strong message: We will not bend to terror,” Swift said.
The NY Times reported similarly (reg. req’d):
Secretary of State William Galvin of Massachusetts said he considered asking the state’s highest court to suspend polling because of the terrorist attacks. He ran into opposition from acting Gov. Jane M. Swift and Attorney General Thomas Reilly. “We will not bend to the terror that has been inflicted on our citizens and our nation,” Ms. Swift said from a state emergency bunker in Framingham. “The election will continue.”
So, yes, Reilly was clearly opposed to delaying the special election. But so, apparently, was then-Acting Governor Jane Swift. Swift was the one making the public statements, at least the ones that got picked up by the press. And Reilly’s claim that he “ordered” the election to go forward seems to be, at best, an overstatement. It looks like what he actually did was to tell Bill Galvin that he wouldn’t represent him in court to get an emergency order delaying the election.
Al Haig famously declared himself “in control” immediately after President Reagan was shot in 1981 – an assertion that was both legally incorrect and hugely embarrassing, as Haig is now probably remembered as much for that one self-aggrandizing sentence as for anything else he did in his long career. Lesson: politicians need to be careful not to claim authority they don’t have. Tom Reilly didn’t have the authority to “order” the election to go forward on 9/11, nor did he have the authority to “order” that it be delayed – the former was the status quo, and the latter would have required a court order. What Reilly did was decide not to seek the court order Galvin was looking for. Nothing wrong with saying that, instead of embellishing.
UPDATE: Peter Porcupine has expressed similar thoughts!