George W. Bush's 'Bullhorn' Moment

Three days after 9/11, Bush stood atop the rubble in New York and found his presidency's cause.

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It was George W. Bush's "bullhorn moment," one of the most riveting and important points in his presidency, illustrating the personal qualities he was most proud of: a pride in making decisions from the gut, an overwhelming trust in his instincts, a certain brio in how he conducted himself during a crisis.

I bring this up because Bush is dedicating his presidential library and museum in Dallas Thursday, an event that is triggering a new debate on the pros and cons of his presidency. He is being criticized in many ways, but this was one incident, three days after 9/11, in which he performed admirably and demonstrated inspirational leadership, and it shouldn't be forgotten.

[READ: George W. Bush: 'I'm Comfortable With What I Did']

On Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the horrendous terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Bush seemed off balance and more than a bit unclear about how he should respond. This was understandable. No one knew what to expect, and there were all kinds of rumors on that first day of the crisis, many of them credible: that Air Force One would be attacked next, that the State Department was in flames, that Camp David was in the cross hairs.

But by September 14, Bush had righted himself and realized that he now had a mission for his presidency – a fight against what he called the "evil doers" in a global "war on terror."

In this Sept. 14, 2001, file photo, President George W. Bush puts his arm around firefighter Bob Beckwith while standing in front of the World Trade Center in New York during a tour of the devastation.
In this Sept. 14, 2001, file photo, President George W. Bush puts his arm around firefighter Bob Beckwith while standing in front of the World Trade Center in New York during a tour of the devastation.

The president flew to New York, and stood at Ground Zero where the twin towers of the World Trade Center were still smoldering. As he conducted his tour, Bush suddenly climbed on top of some rubble and put his arm around an elderly fire fighter.

I was standing a few feet away, a member of the media "pool" of reporters and photographers that accompanied him. I still have the shoes I wore that day, covered in gray ash that won't easily wash off, and I've kept them for all these years as a reminder of that crucial point in our history.

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The president, who had been in office less than eight months, grabbed a bullhorn and started thanking the fire fighters and other first responders at the scene, telling them that they were in the country's prayers. Someone in the crowd shouted that he couldn't hear the president, and Bush replied with the words that made history.

"I can hear you!" he declared. "The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." The crowd reacted with loud, prolonged chants of "USA! USA!"

In this electric moment, Bush captured the mood of the country, delivering just what the American people wanted a combination of gratitude for the rescue workers' bravery and diligence, defiance toward the terrorists, and resolve to bring the evil doers to justice.

Bush's spontaneity and his instinctive way of making decisions didn't look so appealing as the war on terror escalated, especially after he ordered the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, with tens of thousands of military and civilian casualties and at enormous financial cost.

But on Sept. 14, 2001, Bush found his voice as a leader during a crucial and dangerous time.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com, and followed on Facebook and Twitter.