As Marine One choppered west from Andrews Air Force Base toward the White House, racing across the grand panorama of official Washington, President Bush gazed out the left window and saw smoke billowing from the Pentagon. Grimacing, he sadly shook his head and told aides: "You're seeing the face of war in the 21st century."
The world had been transformed in an instant, and it was George W. Bush's job to cope with it. Not since Harry Truman took over for a fallen Franklin Roosevelt during World War II has a president faced such public doubt about his ability to fill the role of commander in chief. And rarely since Truman's time have the potential stakes been so grave. But Bush and his aides say that, like Truman, he will prevail over his doubters. "This is clearly a defining moment not only for America and the world but for George W. Bush," says Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan.
Though his start in handling this crisis was hardly seamless or commanding, Bush moved quickly in an Oval Office, prime-time address, and on Wednesday in additional public comment, to reassure a nation about American resolve in a time of chaos. Condemning the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as "acts of war," the freshman president declared, "This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail."
Center stage. If his first response in the hours immediately following the attacks seemed tepid and strangely low key, friends say no one should have expected inspiration or eloquence. That's not Bush's way. At heart, he's a behind-the-scenes deal maker, not a public motivator. So it was no surprise that in the first hours his posture was essentially a private one, organizing the federal response rather than taking a more dramatic role.
His advisers realize that he must change that style and be more out front in the face of a world that is waiting to see how the United States will respond to the worst act of terrorism in its history. Though Bush strongly prefers a linear management style that sets an agenda and sticks to it, the events of this week dramatically reinforced that he also needs to be highly adaptive, politically nimble, and ever flexible.
He had prided himself on a scrupulous adherence to the policy agenda that carried him through the campaign—which includes cutting taxes and reforming education and Medicare. None of that seemed to matter much near week's end.
The new commander in chief learned of the unfolding disaster as he was shaking hands with teachers and administrators at an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla. White House Chief of Staff Andy Card took him aside in a corridor with news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, as Bush sat waiting to speak at the school, Card whispered that there had been a second crash at the same site. Bush's face tensed, he bit his lip, and he nodded slowly.
After his brief remarks, he talked by phone to Vice President Dick Cheney and FBI officials in Washington, and his mood turned extremely sober. "We're at war," he told the traveling staff after hanging up the phone.
He cut short his scheduled two-day visit to Florida, where he was promoting education reform, and told aides he wanted to return immediately to the White House. But Secret Service officials pointed out that there was at least one credible, specific threat against the president himself and Air Force One, U.S. News has learned. Federal officials argued that many commercial flights were still in the air and that no one could rule out the possibility that one of them might be on a suicide course for the White House. Bush agreed to delay his return trip until the security threats against him could be clarified.
In determining his first responses, U.S. News has learned, Bush relied heavily on the advice of Cheney, who had moved with other U.S. officials, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, to a bunker under the White House. Cheney, a former defense secretary, suggested that the commander in chief fly to a secure military base rather than risk returning to Washington. Bush reluctantly agreed.
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."
Those comments seemed eerie and prescient less than 24 hours later.