WASHINGTON -- Wisconsin Senate candidate Tommy Thompson (R) appears to be exaggerating his response to the 9/11 terror attacks, saying he was handing out bandages in New York the morning after, when he was actually delivering a speech in Washington, D.C.
Thompson, who is locked in a tight race with Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, was the Secretary of Health and Human Services when America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and he's been touting his role in the response on the campaign trial while simultaneously casting Baldwin as a far-left radical because she voted against a bill that included a 9/11 resolution.
Thompson's agency did indeed mobilize a massive response to the attacks, including shifting multiple teams of doctors, morgue workers and supplies to both New York and the Pentagon area.
But Thompson's descriptions appear to be embellished.
He has described his actions repeatedly in the campaign, saying he got a plane from the Centers for Disease Control, which is under the purview of Health and Human Services, to fly from Atlanta to New York on the afternoon of the attacks while all other planes were grounded. He also seems to imply that he either got there with it to personally hand out supplies the next morning, or that he arrived on his own the next morning to do so.
"We had fifty tons of medical supplies to the city of New York by 5 o’clock that afternoon," Thompson said on the anniversary of the attacks this year, speaking to the Milwaukee Rotary. "I was the first secretary to go to New York, walk down there and see the towers. The next day I delivered 200,000 gloves, 200,000 masks to the volunteers up at the Twin Towers.”
"I was the only Department that was able to get a plane in the air," Thompson told the Wausau Daily Herald on July 30, 2012. "We delivered 50 tons. The next morning I was the first person in New York delivering bandages, masks, and gloves.”
"We were able to get an airplane with 50 tons of medical supplies delivered to the city of New York by 5 o’clock on 9/11. And then the next morning, I was up in New York delivering 200,000 masks and prophylactic gloves to be able to help volunteers." Thompson said in an Aug. 1 interview with Conservatives Coast to Coast.
But there's a problem with Thompson's account. According to a HHS official and a press release sent out the day after the attacks, on Sept. 12, 2001, Thompson was not in New York first thing in the morning handing out bandages near the smoking ruins: He was addressing workers in the hallways of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Independence Ave. in Washington, D.C.
"Secretary Thompson began the day by greeting HHS employees in the lobby as they came to work and then delivered a morning address to all 63,000 HHS employees nationwide, pledging that HHS will 'go the extra mile to help those in need' following the terrorist attacks," the release said.
Thompson did not arrive in New York until Sept. 13. It's not clear why Thompson has been moving up his arrival, and his campaign neither answered questions about his arrival nor provided The Huffington Post access to a press call Thompson held Friday about 9/11 with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Another problem with the story is that it's unclear whether the masks he is talking about were at all usable. According to extensive reviews of the responses to 9/11, there were at most some 150,000 of the type of respirator masks that did any good in the toxic cloud around the fallen twin towers during the entire recovery. Five days after Thompson's actual Sept. 13 visit, there were only 2,550 respirator masks in use each day.
Thompson may be talking about paper or surgical masks, but those were nearly useless, according to studies.
Thompson spokeswoman Lisa Boothe did email to suggest Thompson's descriptions could include the less useful masks, but she did not specify what Thompson meant and did not answer followup questions.
There is not much reason for Thompson to hype his actions. While 9/11 advocates eventually became deeply dissatisfied with HHS over its longterm response to the tragic consequences, the agency did mobilize an enormous, agressive and complicated immediate response.
Sept. 11 responders -- who were already upset at Thompson's recent use of 9/11 in the campaign -- thought they saw a political reason for Thompson to burnish his personal response.
"I'm a bit incredulous that at a time when the administration, which included him, which included the EPA, were all trying to pooh-pooh [the air quality problems] and throw it off to the side, all of a sudden now they cared about our health the first few days?" said Bill Romaka, who was a Brooklyn firefighter on 9/11, and is now a union official.
"He's not only sullying the reputation of the responders who gave their lives on 9/11 and continue to die, but he's also replacing history, the American spirit and the resolve, where it was the mom and pop stores, the hardware stores and the Home Depots who generously donated what they had to get these things done."
"Anyone trying to replace that resolve and American spirit with trying to make the government or their own individual self look good for a political purpose is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of," he added. "They sent all these bandages there, well guess what? We didn't really need that many bandages. Everybody was dead. The words he's using don't even make sense for the situation."
The Baldwin campaign has been calling attention to anger at Thompson among 9/11 advocates and responders, and Thursday sent a press release featuring 9/11 families and responders demanding that Thompson take down an ad that attacks Baldwin for failing to vote for a resolution in support of responders. Baldwin's campaign has argued that she opposed one 9/11-related bill that was "politicized" with add-ons dealing with immigration and the Patriot Act.
“My only son, Mark Bingham, was the last person to board United Flight 93 on the morning of September 11, 2001," wrote Alice Hoagland, referring to the plane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania that day. "He was also one of the brave souls who charged down the aisle of that ill-fated flight towards the cockpit, unarmed, to confront the knife-wielding hijackers.
"My son is an American hero and died saving countless lives on that morning, but he did not die so you could score cheap political points in your election," Hoagland wrote. "On behalf of my son, and his memory, I respectfully request that you immediately stop this and take down your television advertisement.”
Thompson's campaign defended its accusations in the call with Giuliani, who reportedly said criticism of the ad was just Baldwin throwing dirt.
Giuliani also hailed Thompson's 9/11 service.
“He was the first to come to Ground Zero, and deployed thousands of people to help get us through this. If it wasn’t for Tommy’s leadership, we wouldn’t have been able to help it, he’s [an] unsung hero of 9/11. He mobilized into action and stayed with us every minute of day.”
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.