From David Letterman’s emotional monologue to George W. Bush’s World Series first pitch, these collective experiences helped the nation process its shock and grief.
While the United States was still reeling after the September 11 terrorist attacks, it was the country’s comedians, musicians and screen stars, along with a symbolic sports moment, that played a prominent initial role in helping America collectively process its shock and grief.
Pop culture’s response to the attacks was all the more remarkable because the entertainment world essentially ground to a halt just minutes after the Twin Towers fell. In television, “even cable channels that…didn’t have news operations were either carrying a feed of news coverage, or some of them just put up a card that says we said ‘We are temporarily suspending programming,’” says Bob Thompson of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. “Sporting events stopped. Award shows were postponed. Broadway wasn’t doing shows. It was a complete shutdown of entertainment.”
But the world of late night comedy, in particular, began planning how to return on air almost immediately. “Clearly, late night TV has become the entertainment industry’s first responders, and that really comes to the fore the week after September 11,” says Thompson, noting that several late night moments from that week have become embedded into our collective memory.
From emotional late night monologues to star-studded telethons and a presidential first pitch at the World Series, here are five indelible pop culture moments that helped Americans move forward after September 11.
WATCH: Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, The HISTORY® Channel will premiere three documentary specials, starting on September 10. Watch a preview for all three specials now.
The Return of Late Night Television
At the height of his popularity, David Letterman was considered the dean of late night. That was never more apparent than on Sept 17, 2001, less than a week after the attacks, when “The Late Show With David Letterman” returned to the airwaves from the Ed Sullivan Theater in Midtown Manhattan with a somber opening monologue that touched on the emotions many viewers were probably experiencing: grief, confusion, admiration for first responders—and solidarity with ordinary New Yorkers. “It’s terribly sad here in New York City, we’ve lost 5,000 fellow New Yorkers and you can feel it, you can feel it, you can see it. It’s terribly sad,” Letterman told the audience. “If you didn’t believe it before, you can absolutely believe it now: New York City is the greatest city in the world,” he said.
As the first late night host to return to the airwaves, “Letterman comes back and sets the standard for late night with a monologue that is still considered an extraordinary nine minutes of television,” says Thompson.
“Live from New York… It’s Saturday night” might be one of the most iconic lines in television history, and it was never more so than on Sept 29, 2001, when “Saturday Night Live” opened its 29th season. Eschewing the traditional cold open—which often parodies the biggest news story of the week—the show instead had New York native (and rock legend) Paul Simon perform his 1969song “The Boxer,” at the request of SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels, who felt the song about a young man struggling to make it in New York “would capture the strength of the city and the emotion.”
Simon was introduced by then-New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was flanked by the chiefs of the city’s police and fire departments and uniformed members of both departments. After the song ended, Michaels somberly (and famously) asked Giuliani if “we can be funny now?” Thompson recalls. “Giuliani says, ‘why start now?’ and everybody gets a laugh.”
While that line is the most famous, Thompson says what happened moments later is just as significant. “When Rudy Giuliani says, ‘Live from New York,’ that had never been a more emotionally charged use of that opening line before,” he said.
The footage of soot-covered firefighters and police officers at Ground Zero left many Americans—including several celebrities—wondering how they could help first responders. The heads of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC also began planning “America: A Tribute To Heroes,” a celebrity telethon that would air on all the major networks simultaneously in order to raise money for the specially created United Way’s September 11 Telethon Fund just 10 days after the attacks.
After Bruce Springsteen opened the program with his song “My City of Ruins,” which the singer described as “a prayer for our fallen brothers and sisters,” actor Tom Hanks addressed the audience with a reminder that while the musicians and actors they were about to see were not police or fire personnel, they were hoping to use their talents to help in the best way they knew how. “We are not protectors of this great nation,” said Hanks. “We are merely artists, entertainers, here to raise spirits—and, we hope, a great deal of money.”
Creating the celebrity-packed program—musical acts included Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Billy Joel, Jon Bon Jovi and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, while presenters included Muhammad Ali, Will Smith and Cindy Crawford—in a little over a week was a feat organizers worried they’d be unable to pull off. So many performers wanted to participate that actor George Clooney had the idea of having them answer phones to take pledges in the background throughout the event. But getting enough phone lines to support the event almost didn’t happen. In his book After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era, journalist Steven Brill described how, with just five minutes before air, only Whoopi Goldberg’s phone was receiving calls. A panicked Clooney told the rest of the actors to fake answering the phones until the situation was resolved.
“Fake it? How can I do that?” asked actor Kurt Russell. “You’re an [expletive] actor,” Clooney replied. “Figure it out.” The phones were soon fixed.
As President George W. Bush got ready to throw out the first pitch ahead of Game 3 of the 2001 World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees at Yankees Stadium, superstar shortstop Derek Jeter stopped the President to ask a question: Was he planning to throw from the mound or from just in front of it? Jeter strongly suggested he throw from the mound, noting that the crowd would boo if he didn’t.
Clad in an FDNY jacket (with bulletproof gear underneath), Bush decided to follow that advice—and ended up throwing a strike to catcher Todd Greene, to cheers from the crowd. “I had never had such an adrenaline rush as when I finally made it to the mound,” Bush, who was invited by the Yankees to attend the first game of the series in New York, would later tell MLB.com. “I was saying to the crowd, ‘I’m with you, the country’s with you.’”
Rocker Paul McCartney was on the tarmac at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport when the World Trade Center collapsed; he was quickly ushered off the plane while a flight attendant informed him of what was happening. The former Beatle, knowing his stay in New York had been extended indefinitely, began wondering how he could use his star power to assist the city as he began an impromptu stay at a hotel on nearby Long Island.
“While I was out there [on Long Island] twiddling my thumbs,” he said, “I began to think, is there something we can do?” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2011. He began reaching out to old friends and compatriots like David Bowie, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Elton John and Billy Joel to plan what would become The Concert For New York City, a fundraiser that resembled his old bandmate George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh, which occurred 30 years earlier.
The show took place on October 20, 2001 inside Madison Square Garden before a crowd of firefighters, police officers, their family members and survivors of those lost. While most acts picked solemn songs, one of the most memorable sets came when The Who performed—and Daltrey and Townshend led the crowd through the band’s anthems “Who Are You?” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” among their other hits. As the crowd roared its approval, Daltrey simply said, “We could never follow what you did,” as a thank you.
The Americans’ controversial defeat—their first in Olympic basketball competition—led to a hit movie in Russia and even CIA interest.
On September 10, 1972, five days after the infamous Munich Massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, the Soviet Union defeated the United States in the gold-medal basketball game at the Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany. The 51-50 loss was the first defeat in 64 games in Olympic competition for the American men, whose team was composed of college players.
The Soviets won the gold-medal contest after confusion over timeouts and the game clock led to the final three seconds being replayed twice. From the United States missing its best player to CIA interest in the result, here is what you may not know about the historic upset:
1. Some Push for Delay of ‘Fun and Games’
In an editorial following the Munich Massacre, the New York Times advocated for delaying Olympic competition, writing, “Munich threatens to become a symbol of callousness that is utterly repugnant to the Olympic ideal. For millions all over the world, this indecent haste on the part of the International Olympic Committee to go back to fun and games is unacceptable.”
But competition resumed after only a 34-hour suspension.
Years later, U.S. captain Kenny Davis told the Louisville Courier Journal, “If they had asked us, ‘Do you want to go home now and forget this whole thing?’ I think everybody on our team would’ve said, ‘Yes, let’s go. But looking back on it, I think they did the right thing.”
2. How The Final Seconds Play Out
With three seconds left, Doug Collins hit two free throws to give the U.S. a 50-49 lead. As the Soviets inbounded the ball, assistant coach Sergei Bashkin rushed to the scorer’s table, insisting his team had called timeout. The Soviets were allowed to inbound again, though no officials noticed the game clock had not been reset to three seconds. The Soviets’ pass went astray, and the Americans celebrated their apparent victory. But because of the clock error, officials ordered another restart. This time, the pass successfully reached Alexander Belov as two Americans fell, and he made the winning layup. (Belov died in 1978.)
A jury of appeals for FIBA, the governing body of the sport, rejected the Americans’ appeal of the defeat. In a statement some interpreted as anti-American bias, Great Britain’s R. William Jones, FIBA’s secretary general, told the media: “The Americans have to learn how to lose, even if they think they are right.”
3. U.S. Misses Its Best Player, Bill Walton
UCLA’s Bill Walton, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, clearly was America’s best college player, having led the Bruins to a 30-0 record and the 1972 NCAA title. But Walton had several reasons for not wanting to represent the United States at the Games. For one, Walton strongly opposed the ongoing Vietnam War—he was arrested in an anti-war protest in May 1972.
Plus, Walton had a bad experience at the 1970 world championships, telling ESPN in 2004, “For the first time in my life, I was exposed to negative coaching and the berating of players and the foul language and the threatening of people who didn’t perform.” Also, Walton didn’t think he should have to try out for the team.
“When (the Soviets) saw who was and wasn’t on the U.S. team,” Russian sports historian Robert Edelman told ESPN, “that’s when they started feeling like they’d actually have a chance.”
4. Soviet Union Much More Experienced
The U.S.S.R. team, led by 28-year-old Sergei Belov, was a group of experienced players from Soviet club teams, ranging from 20 to 33 years old, while the U.S. team was composed of college players, all under 23. In 1992, Sergei Belov became the first international player inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 2004, Johnny Bach, an assistant on the 1972 American team, told ESPN: “Their team, it was reported, played almost 400 games together. 400 games. We had played 12 exhibition games and the trials.”
5. The CIA Looks Into Result
In a declassified memo, the CIA looked into the controversy surrounding the end of the game and suggested that the FIBA jury of appeals’ decision in favor of the U.S.S.R. was a Soviet plot. “It was rumored that the vote was three (Communist) to two (West),” the memo read.
Sounding like something written by complaining fans, the CIA report included mention of uncalled fouls on the Soviets: “Belov was guilty of fouling two Americans on his drive for the [winning] basket.”
In 2017, the Russian film Going Vertical told the story of the 1972 team, culminating in the dramatic final play in the gold-medal game, including the winning assist from Ivan Edeshko. In Russia, it’s known as “The Golden Pass.”
The film was wildly popular, becoming the highest-grossing Russian film of the post-Soviet era. It also won six “Golden Eagle” awards, the Russian version of the Golden Globe.
7. United States Runs Out of Big Men
Late in the game, Team USA lost its starting center and leading scorer Dwight Jones when Russian reserve Mishako Korkia tangled with him on the court, and both were ejected. The Americans claimed it was a deliberate attempt to get Jones thrown out; the Soviet coach blamed Korkia’s “hot Asian character” for the fight.
On the ensuing jump ball, 6-foot-9 American Jim Brewer was knocked out of the game by a hard foul. Tom Burleson, the Americans’ 7-foot-2 center, was healthy, but he had been benched for the gold-medal game for letting his fiancee visit him at the Olympic Village.
On the game’s final play, the Americans’ tallest player was 6-foot-11 forward Tom McMillen, a future U.S. congressman, who backed off Alexander Belov before the pass. Because of the language barrier, McMillen misunderstood the Bulgarian referee’s hand signal, thinking he would be called for a technical foul if he crowded Alexander Belov, thus creating a lane for the “golden pass.”
8. Even Referee Protests Outcome
After the game, referee Renato Righeppo of Brazil refused to sign the box score certifying the Soviets’ victory. A second official, Artenik Arababjan of Bulgaria, signed it, saying, “I’m only a referee. It’s not my business to file a protest.”
9. Team USA Still Refuses to Accept Silver Medals.
The United States voted unanimously to refuse the silver medals—Davis and another American player, Tom Henderson, even have provisions in their wills that their children can’t accept the medals either. The Americans’ 1972 men’s basketball team is the only Olympic team, in any sport, to refuse its medals.
After the gold-medal game, Davis told the media: “If we had lost honorably, we would have stood in that second spot on the platform and received our silver medals honorably.”
10. No Olympic Meeting Again Until 1988
At the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea in 1988, in the countries’ first Olympics meeting since 1972, the Soviets defeated the United States, 82-76. The game, played without controversy, was dominated by Soviet center Arvydas Sabonis, a Lithuanian and one of the greatest players of all time.
“I’m very disappointed and the kids are disappointed, but there will be life afterwards,” U.S. coach John Thompson told the Washington Post.
A Soviet Union-U.S. matchup would never happen again. By the next Summer Games, in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, the Soviet Union was dissolved and the U.S. had turned to NBA stars to play in the Olympics. In Spain, the Americans’ “Dream Team,” led by Michael Jordan, easily won the gold medal.
Amid a resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic, and after almost a year of questioning medical advice and flaunting rules about mask-wearing, President Donald Trump announces that he and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19 in an early-morning tweet on October 2, 2020. Coming a week after a White House gathering celebrating his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and just 48 hours after his first debate against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Trump’s announcement precipitates several days of uncertainty in Washington and around the country.
“You don’t have to do it,” Trump told the nation on April 3, the first time he addressed the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation that Americans wear masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus. “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.” Trump never fully embraced masks or social distancing, and reportedly chastised aides who wore masks in his presence even as case numbers began to climb for a second time in the fall of 2020. Masks were few and far between at the September 26 ceremony announcing Barrett’s nomination, an event that became infamous over the next week as a number of high-profile attendees later tested positive for COVID.
When news broke that Hope Hicks, one of Trump’s advisors, had tested positive, speculation swirled that Trump and the First Family could have contracted the virus. Around 1 a.m. on October 2, Trump confirmed his diagnosis, tweeting “Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!”
Although those close to him kept the seriousness of his condition secret even from others in the West Wing, the president’s fever became debilitating and he was placed on oxygen. The FDA hurriedly approved an experimental treatment of monoclonal antibodies, and doctors warned that someone in his condition—74 and medically obese, Trump was considered to be at high very high risk—should be taken to the hospital. Reluctantly, Trump went to the hospital later in the day on October 2, a Friday, and remained there over the weekend.
Although doctors warned that his departure from Walter Reed was premature, Trump returned to the White House on Monday and made a full recovery. Trump claimed he had “learned a lot” about COVID from his experience, but he and his supporters continued to question the effectiveness of masks, vaccines and other CDC recommendations. Trump’s bout with COVID was probably the most highly-publicized in the world, and it was impossible to ignore the irony of the president being laid low just hours after holding a rally at which he claimed that “the end of the pandemic is in sight.” COVID cases in the United States continued to climb following Trump’s recovery, and his prediction proved entirely unfounded. By the time he left office in January of 2021, some 400,000 Americans had died of COVID.
More than 15 years after it was first established, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens on the National Mall on September 24, 2016. Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president, leads the ceremony and officially opens the museum by ringing the Freedom Bell, a bell from an African American Baptist church founded in 1776.
As far back as 1915, there had been proposals for a museum recognizing the achievements of African Americans. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover approved a commission to create such an institution, but it never received funding. Various attempts were made to pass legislation establishing a museum through Congress, including multiple bills introduced by Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, but even after the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution joined the effort in the 1990s it still took more than a decade.
Finally, in 2003, Congress approved and President George W. Bush signed legislation allocating $17 million to plan the museum and choose a site. Eventually, it was decided that the museum would sit on the National Mall, the newest addition to what is literally a long line of museums stretching from the Washington Monument to the Capitol. The final design, however, was like nothing else in the area: an inverted step pyramid, encased in a bronze screen that references historic iron grilles from African American communities in Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana. In the words of David Adjaye, a British architect of Ghanaian descent who was part of the design team, the building was meant to provide a “punch” at the end of the “row of palaces” that was the rest of the Mall. The building rises five stories into the air and reaches equally deep underground.
The museum was completed with just months left in Obama’s second term. At the opening ceremony, the president shed tears as he talked about watching the museum’s construction and imagining how he would one day tour it with his grandchildren. In addition to two former presidents, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and entertainers like Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey, Obama was joined by four generations of an African American family, the Bonners. 99-year-old Ruth Bonner, whose father was born into slavery, helped him ring the Freedom Bell along with her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter. The NMAAHC drew 2.4 million visitors in its first full year of operation and is the world’s largest museum dedicated to African American history and culture.
A stunningly large and diverse crowd descends upon New York City’s Central Park on June 12, 1982, demanding nuclear disarmament and an end to the Cold War arms race. By the end of the day, estimates place the number of attendees at over a million, making it the largest disarmament rally in American history.
The United States and the Soviet Union had been in an arms race since World War II, and the Cold War felt particularly hot in the early 1980s. Taking office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan was a staunch proponent of building up America’s nuclear arsenal and vehemently opposed the idea of disarmament treaties. His rhetoric gave new life to the anti-war movement, which had been relatively quiet since its heyday in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when protestors fought against the Vietnam War and accompanying draft. Fearing that Reagan would prefer nuclear war to nuclear disarmament, organizers got to work on a mass demonstration in Midtown Manhattan to coincide with the United Nations Second Special Session on Disarmament.
The rally in Central Park brought together activists from all over the world and all corners of the antiwar movement. Delegations arrived from across North America and and as far afield as Bangladesh and Zambia. Groups of Roman Catholic priests rubbed elbows with rabbis and members of the Communist Party, and protestors’ signs illustrated the range of their political demands: the New York Times recorded posters reading “U.S. Out of El Salvador,” “Houses Not Bomb Shelters,” “A Feminist World Is a Nuclear-Free Zone,'” and, more to the point, “I Hate Nuclear War.” Many called for an immediate end to all nuclear arms programs, but others were less radical, calling simply for the resumption of disarmament negotiations. Activists pointed out the contrast between Reagan’s profligate defense spending and his stingy approach to social programs, and drew connections between the administration’s belligerent attitude toward Russia and its actions in El Salvador, where the CIA was engaged in funding, supplying and coordinating a terror campaign waged by the right-wing Contra rebels. In keeping with its message, the rally was entirely peaceful, and many attendees camped overnight in the park after the crowd began to disperse around 6 p.m.
The 1982 rally and UN special session did not immediately lead to new disarmament treaties, but five years later the U.S. and U.S.S.R. signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the first time in history that the superpowers had agreed to shrink their nuclear stockpiles.