There was a sense of reunion among the dignitaries who gathered early Sunday morning in a fenced-off section of West Street in Lower Manhattan, as they prepared to help mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the opening to victims' families of the national 9/11 Memorial.

The event brought thousands to the heavily fortified streets around the site of the World Trade Center, including President Barack Obama and his predecessor, former President George W. Bush. But the commemoration of the attack that forever marked a generation and an historical epoch for the nation also reunited many of those who were in power when it occurred, and who now find themselves out of the limelight. Down in the corridor between the white VIP tent and the metal barricades, the New York governor who greeted the early arrivals was a former one, Republican George Pataki, who was in office in September 2001. Arriving later, drawing as many quick-turned heads and flashbulbs as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was Bloomberg's predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani. The current U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, enjoyed the sort of welcome from fellow politicians and from family members on the memorial grounds that she once had as the handily re-elected junior senator from New York, the one who had only just embarked on her public career's latest act when the terrorists attacked.

George Pataki (Getty Images)

They were joined by their fellow bold-face names, current and former office-holders, and celebrities of other stripes. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York shook hands across the shoulders of shorter neighbors, stopping at one point to deliver his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, a kiss on the cheek. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy watched the speeches and the readings from a spot near the side of the stage, as did members of Congress from New York and its neighboring states. Attorney General Eric Holder stood a few steps from the stairs leading to the dais. Behind dark glasses, representing no political constituency: Billy Crystal.

For a crowd with so many politicians in it, there was, for once, no sense that anyone was worrying about being upstaged. The examples of sacrifice were too close for that. Members of Congress and local officials hesitantly approached to make the acquaintance of Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, the Army Ranger who this summer became the second living serviceman to be awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petry greeted his visitors with a handshake, delivered with the prosthetic hand that replaced the one he lost, throwing away a grenade that could have killed his fellow soldiers.

Then there was the memorial itself. Most of the general public will wait a while before seeing the memorial's sunken stone fountains, its list of the dead from the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Some dignitaries were allowed a sneak-peek before the ceremony began, including Giuliani, who strode in with his wife and a phalanx of staff through the black wire gates to view the fountains and the tree-lined plaza around them. Others entered the memorial during the ceremony and afterward. But even the outsized were dwarfed on Sunday, not by the grandness of the space, but by the enormity of small, anonymous gestures that happened all around them.

A slender woman in a white dress turned away from the wall of names, shaking in a sob. The man with her rubbed his hand gently up and down between her shoulder blades, saying nothing. A family unfurled flowered leis with which to adorn the name of a loved one. One politician, striding across the plaza as the names kept pealing out from speakers pointed out, to the west, toward cameras and the rest of the world, and stopped abruptly. He repeated the last name aloud. "I knew him," he said, with a look that suggested no finality whatsoever. Then he kept walking.