It was to be a day for presidential leadership. On education, that is. That was the schedule. That was the message of the day.
He wasn’t supposed to end the day with an address denouncing the “evil, despicable acts of terror,” acknowledging the nation’s “quiet, unyielding anger,” promising that the U.S. “will make no distinction” between those behind Tuesday’s horror “and those who harbor them.” No, he was supposed to talk about testing and teachers and local control, not paraphrasing Psalm 23′s reminder that “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.”
But on his way from the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort to Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., Tuesday morning, President George W. Bush was told that when he arrived someone would be on the phone for him.
There was. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. She had some news. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
But Bush’s day continued as scheduled. Initial reports speculated that the crash had been an accident. In Mrs. Sandra Kay Daniels’ classroom, the president — seeming happy to see the 16 or so assembled children — shook some hands, introduced Education Secretary Rod Paige to everyone. They sat down and Bush listened to some reading exercises.
At around 9:05 a.m. EDT, White House chief of staff Andrew Card came in and whispered in Bush’s ear. The president’s mood changed. He left the room. At around 9:30 a.m. he came out and gave a statement.
“Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country,” Bush said. He had spoken with Vice President Dick Cheney, New York Gov. George Pataki and FBI Director Robert Mueller, he said. He had “ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to help the victims and their families, and to conduct a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.”
“I, unfortunately, will be going back to Washington after my remarks,” Bush said.
But he didn’t. Air Force One took off at around 9:55 a.m., but back in D.C., the White House was being evacuated; law enforcement was concerned that there were still attacks to come and perhaps even other planes on kamikazi missions. So upon the advice of the Secret Service, Air Force One was to land elsewhere. Though Bush’s political advisors wanted him back at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to project reassurance and command to the American people, they were overruled.
In the noon hour on CNN, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah — a member of both the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees — said that he had just been “briefed by the highest levels of the FBI and of the intelligence community.”
“They’ve come to the conclusion that this looks like the signature of Osama bin Laden, and that he may be the one behind this,” Hatch said — more than six hours before administration officials told reporters that they were “confident” bin Laden was probably behind the attacks. This wouldn’t be the work of Iran, Iraq or Libya, Hatch said, since those nations’ leaders “know of the massive response that we’d have to bring down on them.” Hatch then called for assistance to anti-terrorism forces in Afghanistan, where bin Laden is said to be in hiding.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., joined CNN, too. Cautioning that “it will take some time to determine” who launched the attacks, McCain said that “unwarranted, unprovoked attacks against innocent American citizens is clearly an act of war, and one that requires that kind of national response and international response.”
What kind of response? Hatch had a suggestion. “We’re going to find out who did this, and then we’re going after the bastards,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
Other politicians soon took to the airwaves. A flurry of politicians with comments and opinions. From Arizona, former Vice President Dan Quayle repeated to MSNBC that “this was an act of war against the United States.” Declared by whom, he did not know. Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., decried the failure of the American intelligence community to anticipate these attacks. He told CNN’s Kate Snow that he had been evacuated from the Capitol earlier in the day by policemen who told him that they feared a plane was headed toward the Capitol.
Reporters on Air Force One, meanwhile, had no idea where they were headed. The plane had taken off at 9:55 a.m. but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Glued to a TV on which they watched the horrific images come in one after another — live footage of the second World Trade Center tower collapsing, reports that a plane crashed into the Pentagon — the reporters assumed that Air Force One was circling around the same spot since the signal stayed so strong. Just before 11 a.m., the plane started increasing its elevation significantly. It was heading west.
At 11:45 a.m., the plane landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Reporters were cautioned to refrain from even turning their cellphones on, much less from using them, because the signals from them might allow someone to identify Air Force One’s location. Reporters were allowed to say that Bush had landed at “an unidentified location in the United States.” Soon enough, Air Force personnel informed the White House staff that the local media had already reported that Air Force One had landed there; reporters were told they could report their location.
Bush walked into Building 245, where the sign said “Headquarters — Eighth Air Force.” A more telling sign was written in large black type on an 8 1/2-by-11-inch piece of paper, affixed to the glass window on the door to the building. “Def Con Delta,” the sign said — the highest state of military alert.
Just after 12:30 p.m. EDT, Bush delivered some brief remarks that were taped and later given to the networks. “Make no mistake: The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts,” Bush said. The number of staffers, reporters and Secret Service agents were pared down for the next trip. Bush staffers that made the cut were Card, senior advisor Karl Rove and communications staffers Dan Bartlett, Ari Fleischer and Gordon Johndroe.
At 1:31 p.m., Air Force One took off again, this time for a destination once again unknown. Bush remained in consultation with the military community, with intelligence, New York City officials, congressional leaders, his Cabinet.
Americans huddled by their televisions for explanations, information, answers. Perhaps some were hoping for a reassuring word from the president. Perhaps some found some reassurance instead in the words of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who appeared on TV and at press conferences, answering reporters’ questions with an impressive combination of command and emotion. The city’s primary election to replace him had been canceled because of the attacks; some supporters in New York may have hoped they would just cancel it for good.
The tape of Bush from Louisiana hit cable news channels at around 1:20 p.m., but it got garbled on each one and had to be rewound and fixed.
“This is the second Pearl Harbor,” Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., was quoted by reporters. On CNN, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., added: “We stand completely and totally behind our president.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres appeared on TV declaring that “today each of us feels like an American, with all the seriousness, all the pains, and all the determination.”
Shortly after 2 p.m., Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, the Pentagon spokesman, held a press conference. He said he didn’t know how deep the plane penetrated into the building, how many rings of the building had been hit.
At 2:50 p.m. Air Force One landed at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb. About 10 minutes after landing Bush emerged from the plane, which was guarded by soldiers clad in fatigues and gripping machine guns. At 3:06, his motorcade passed through the security gate outside the United States Strategic Command. Instead of walking into the command building, however, Bush entered a short, square building that looked like it sheltered the top of an elevator shaft. He went “down the bunny hole,” ABC News’ Anne Compton told Peter Jennings. There he had a national security briefing.
How could this ever happen? “I think our intelligence people have to be asked those hard questions,” ex-Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CNN’s Judy Woodruff. “We have had efforts against America for the last 20, 25 years, some of them almost to this magnitude in terms of the planning, and they have been warded off by law enforcement and intelligence.”
At least someone was answering questions. At FBI headquarters in downtown Washington, presidential counselor Karen Hughes reassured Americans that “while some federal buildings have been evacuated for security reasons and to protect our workers, your federal government continues to function effectively.” Hughes said that “immediately after the first attack in New York this morning” the federal emergency response plan was implemented. Where’s the president? Hughes was asked. Is he coming back to D.C.? She didn’t take any questions, turning on her heel, and didn’t even look at the reporters as she walked out of the room.
NBC’s Washington bureau chief Tim Russert made some pointed remarks about the nation needing the leadership of its president, whose whereabouts were suddenly unknown. He’d never known Air Force One to take off without knowing where it was going, he said. But then again, today was unfortunately unlike any other day.
Soon enough came news that Bush was headed back to Washington. He issued a written statement, a comment he is to have made to his national security advisors. “We will find these people and they will suffer the consequences of taking on this nation,” he said. Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base at 6:34 p.m. and Bush took the Marine One helicopter back to the White House.
At 7:16 p.m., Attorney General John Ashcroft said that “we will not tolerate such acts. We will find the people responsible for these cowardly acts and justice will be done.”
Hundreds of members of the House and Senate assembled on the Capitol steps at around 7:20 p.m. “We stand together, senators and House members, Democrats and Republicans,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “We’re not sure yet” who’s responsible, he said, but when they are, “we will act. And we will stand with the president.” They then all sang “God Bless America.”
Bush was scheduled to give remarks to the nation at 8:30 p.m. EST. Aboard Air Force One, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that the president’s address “will be a message of resolve and reassurance. It will be a reassuring message that our nation has been tested before, our nation has always prevailed.”
His four-minute address, delivered from the Oval Office almost 12 hours after the original attack, indeed attempted to be a “message of resolve and reassurance.” But was it even possible for Bush to deliver an address that was equal to the day’s events?
“Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America,” Bush said. “These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.” His well-delivered address last month, in which he explained his decision on stem cell research, indicated that there were times when the somewhat communication-challenged president could be a convincing and effective speaker. This wasn’t one of them. But in this case that may not be entirely his fault. I mean, after Tuesday, could anyone reassure us of anything?