In his first public appearance in the United States since terrorist hijackers slammed jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Tuesday, former President Bill Clinton condemned the attacks as a "barbaric act" and extended "condolences and support to the victims and their families and to all New Yorkers."
Clinton made his remarks during an unannounced and spontaneous walk through lower Manhattan Thursday afternoon, not far from where rescue workers were still desperately digging through mounds of rubble at what had been the World Trade Center. Clinton, accompanied by three Secret Service agents and an aide, arrived at 4 p.m. at Union Square, where hundreds of people have set up a makeshift memorial to the victims of the Trade Center attack.
As he walked slowly down University Place, Clinton shook hands with startled passersby and stopped to talk quietly with knots of people who had gathered around him. "I want to do whatever I can to help pull the city together," Clinton told one man, who had reached out and clasped the former president's hands in his.
In an interview, Clinton said he had been in Australia when the attacks occurred, and was not immediately aware of them. "As soon as I found out, I made arrangements to return to the U.S. on an Air Force jet." Clinton said he has been traveling for 24 hours and had just arrived back in New York an hour earlier. "I decided to come down here immediately to show support to the people of New York, which is now my home city."
Clinton said he had been in constant contact with wife, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: "She's been telling me what she has seen during the past two days, especially of the heroism of the New York City police and firefighters." When asked if he had talked to President Bush, Clinton chuckled and said: "No, I've talked to Condee Rice. I'm sure the president has more important things on his plate than talking to me."
Clinton said he had just talked to New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani and Gov. George Pataki: "They are doing a fantastic job, as is the president. They have my full support and confidence." The former president refused to speculate about who might be responsible for the terrorist attacks or offer a view about the likelihood of Osama bin Laden ultimately being found to be behind them. "We have the best intelligence and experts working on that right now. The most important thing is to stay united. I hope Americans will also be tolerant and responsible in their reactions to these events."
As he continued walking downtown, hundreds of people poured out of nearby shops and restaurants, surrounding Clinton. Many shouted, "We love you Bill," and "We wish you were still president." "Just seeing him here has lifted my spirits," said Bill Tomsky, who works in a nearby drugstore.
President Bush is scheduled to visit New York Friday.
The pro-Clinton sentiment in the liberal haunts of Greenwich Village is so pronounced that his sudden appearance in the streets quickly took on the appearance of a political pep rally. "Run for mayor, we need you," one man yelled out --"You still have two weeks to campaign." (The New York City mayoral primary scheduled for Tuesday has been postponed until September 28.)
A man who identified himself as a Palestinian walked up to the former president and started talking passionately about the plight of the people in Gaza and the West Bank. Clinton listened, looking somber and sad, and talked with the man for more than 10 minutes. A moment later, a priest and a rabbi walked out of the crowd and also talked to Clinton as onlookers cheered and the afternoon began to take on the appearance of a prayer meeting as well as a rally.
Clinton ended his stroll in the middle of East 12th Street and addressed the crowd that had been growing steadily. "New Yorkers are strong people and will survive this as they have other calamities," he said. Then he climbed into a black SUV with tinted dark grey glass and headed east toward Fifth Avenue.