Let this be the last time. Please, let it be the last.

Let this be the last commemoration of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to be used as any sort of backdrop for political theatrics, even if the show is bipartisan.

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain plan to visit Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan on Thursday, to “honor the memory of each and every American who died” in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have agreed to suspend negative television advertising on the anniversary, an unassailable idea for uncountable reasons.

Yet their decision to visit the site where the Twin Towers once stood is distasteful stagecraft, the sort that a city still striving to recover can probably do without. The Obama campaign says the joint visit was set when the Democratic candidate phoned McCain to congratulate him on his speech to the Republican National Convention, and said that “since they’d be in NYC together that they should go to Ground Zero together,” an Obama campaign aide said. “McCain immediately agreed.” The two candidates are scheduled to speak on Thursday night at the ServiceNation Summit in New York, an event organized to promote national service as an appropriate response to the events of 9/11.

That, in a word, is the issue. What is appropriate for two political candidates, neither of whom represents New York or the metropolitan area that suffered so much, in a city that grieves so openly on this day?

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office has, as usual, organized a sober and dignified ceremony at the site, which is held annually in the morning, at approximately the time the planes struck. Again there will be a reading of victims’ names, during which surviving family members will be allowed to place flowers at what is, for most of them, the grave site for their loved ones. “The ceremony will pause at four moments — twice to mark the times that each plane hit the towers, and twice to mark the time when each tower fell,” the official schedule says.

For days, Bloomberg has been peppered with questions about just what McCain and Obama intend to do, and he has been clear that they are not attending the official city ceremony. “We’re trying to work out a time and a venue where they can pay their respects,” the mayor said Monday. “We don’t want to take the morning’s program and turn it into what would be a media — circus isn’t quite the right word, but event.”

In fact, the ceremony is so reverential that President Bush on the first anniversary only visited Ground Zero later in the day, according to Stu Loeser, the mayor’s spokesman. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush have been to other commemorative events in New York on previous anniversaries. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is to attend this year and do a reading; in 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also did a reading. Notice that neither is a candidate for any office.

Even former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has read victims’ names at each of the anniversary events and will read again on Thursday, caused a political dust-up last year because he was then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

It seems likely that Bloomberg, an adept politician in a city that demands more than the usual amount of dexterity, will find something suitable for McCain and Obama. How I wish he didn’t have to.

If the two candidates really wanted to use their good offices for the benefit of New York and the nation, they have many — too many — opportunities. The annual homeland security report card compiled by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer is, as usual, a compendium of national failure. Border security, port security, mass transit security — even aviation security — still fail to meet the most common-sense recommendations of the multitude of commissions and committees that studied what went wrong that awful day. We are still forcing people to take off their shoes at airports, but not inspecting cargo that gets shoved into the hold.

Sept. 11 is a day of mourning. When the videotapes of the planes slamming into the towers are juxtaposed once again with the wail of the bagpipes, the tears will come. I will cry not only for the dead, but for a politics that still exploits them.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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