9/11 Presents Historic Challenge for President Bush

Untested no more, the new president faces a historic challenge.


After ordering U.S. military forces to the highest level of alert status, Bush first made a two-hour flight to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where he gave another public statement. He walked briskly from a holding room on the base to a podium facing the television cameras, buttoned his suit jacket, formed his lips into a grim line, and declared, "Make no mistake. The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts... We will show the world that we will pass this test."

Rallying calls. He then flew secretly to the Strategic Air Command center near Omaha, where he held a teleconference with aides in Washington, including Cheney and Rice, as they tried to sort out exactly what was going on. No one could be sure if the terrorist attacks would continue. But security officials were by then relieved that all commercial aircraft across the country had either landed or were far away from Air Force One. Bush also spoke with his wife, Laura, who was on Capitol Hill for a meeting, and was told his two daughters were safe at their respective colleges, Yale and the University of Texas-Austin. He then talked with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki to coordinate emergency responses, and at one point he discussed the crisis with his father, the former president.

After he landed in Omaha, Bush's low visibility became glaringly clear. During the early afternoon, ABC anchor Peter Jennings wondered on the air when the president would emerge from seclusion and take charge in public. That sentiment seemed to be building. Finally, an impatient Bush concluded that he would address the nation that night from the Oval Office. "I want to go back to Washington as soon as possible—now," he snapped to aides. "I don't want any tinhorn dictator terrorist holding me outside Washington. The American people want to see their president, and they want to see him in Washington." That ended the debate, according to aides who were traveling with him.

On the trip home, Air Force One was escorted—very visibly—by two F-16 jet fighters, one at each wing. He stepped off Marine One onto the South Lawn at 6:58 p.m. At 8:30 p.m., Bush spoke to the nation for five minutes from the Oval Office, his hands waving somewhat awkwardly in front of him as he sat in front of an American flag. "Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror," the president said, for the first time establishing how high the number of casualties would go. "... These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve." He promised to use every resource to bring the offenders to justice and added, "The functions of our government continue without interruption."

His remarks were generally well received, but Bush could find no presidential act or memorable phrase to offer inspiration. His prime-time speech was far from the ringing moment that some of his predecessors used to reassure the nation or mobilize support for action. Roosevelt's reference to Dec. 7, 1941, as a day that will "live in infamy" is still remembered as an elegant call to arms after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, he told his wife, "Honey, I forgot to duck"—a line that heartened Americans about their president's calm under pressure. Reagan's soothing presence after the Challenger space shuttle tragedy made him the nation's father figure for at least a while. Bill Clinton also had one of his finest moments in uplifting the nation after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

For Bush, the testing has just begun. The afternoon before the attacks, a senior White House adviser was speculating about how history would judge his boss. It takes a crisis to prove that a president has the right stuff, the aide told a visitor, and none was in sight as far as anyone could tell. "Abraham Lincoln would have been judged a hayseed if not for the Civil War," he said. "Franklin Roosevelt would have been just another politician from New York without the Depression and World War II."