A Newsletter With An Eye On Political Media from The American Prospect
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On 9/11, Was W. AWOL?
The mysterious case of the president’s dysfunctionality on the day the U.S. was attacked
The attacks of 9/11 have turned out to be the most consequential event in world history since the assassination of President Kennedy. This is due not to the attacks themselves, but to America’s wildly counterproductive overreaction to them. These are likely the most heavily covered events of the past half-century. (I know I have written more about them during the past two decades than about anything else.) Twenty years later, one could focus on literally hundreds of aspects of the phenomena that the attacks led to. I want to look at just one rather small question: What the heck was happening with George W. Bush?

I choose this because with all that attention to that fateful day, nobody seems to know the answer to that particular query. Even after 20 years, we have no credible and consistent account of why Bush and his entourage took the actions they did that day. No less disturbing was the mainstream media’s eagerness to allow all the various inconsistencies in the stories Americans were told to go unexamined, as if it would have been somehow unprofessional to ask too many uncomfortable questions. Personally, I have always believed that Bush may have had a breakdown of some sort that day, but that journalists were so nervous about the fearful implications of accurately reporting this possibility, they all simply ignored it. Recall that when the congressionally appointed 9/11 Commission—chaired by the Republican ex–New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean—took testimony from Bush, he would only agree to appear together with Dick Cheney, and no recordings or transcripts were allowed. What were they trying to hide? We still don’t know.

Recall that on August 6, when Bush was handed an intelligence briefing entitled “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.,” he allegedly replied, “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now,” and went back to “clearing brush” on his mini-ranch. This reaction is of a piece with the widespread impression that he was totally unprepared to be president, having been little more than a professional greeter for the Texas Rangers and a largely figurehead governor of that state. At the time, historian Fred Greenstein noted that “there was a widespread view in the political community that Bush was out of his depth in the presidency.” Not once before the attack had America’s president addressed the nation from the Oval Office, nor had Bush convened a single full-fledged, prime-time press conference. His approval rating was already down 17 points since his inauguration and some aides, including speechwriter David Frum, had already decided to jump ship. Now, the dialectic of history had put its proverbial hand on his shoulder, and his first reaction was to crumble before it. As I wrote in The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (co-authored with Mark Green and published originally in 2004, where one can find footnoted sources for the information below), there were, and remain, massive inconsistencies between what the public was told about Bush’s reactions and what could possibly have happened.

Bush had been visiting the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, on the morning of September 11. On December 4, he was asked: “How did you feel when you heard about the terrorist attack?” He replied, “I was sitting outside the classroom waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower—the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly, myself, and I said, well, there’s one terrible pilot. I said, it must have been a horrible accident. But I was whisked off there, I didn’t have much time to think about it.” Bush repeated the same story the following January 5, stating, “First of all, when we walked into the classroom, I had seen this plane fly into the first building. There was a TV set on. And you know, I thought it was pilot error and I was amazed that anybody could make such a terrible mistake.”

But Bush was lying. No one watching television saw the first plane crash into the tower until the following day when a videotape turned up. Other versions abound of these same events circulated by both Bush himself and by top members of his staff, whose accounts also contradicted Bush’s. Bush told an interviewer that Chief of Staff Andrew Card had been the first person to let him know of the crash, explaining: “‘Here’s what you’re going to be doing; you’re going to meet so-and-so, such-and-such.’ Then Andy Card said, ‘By the way, an aircraft flew into the World Trade Center.’” Press Secretary Ari Fleischer repeated this same story, claiming that Card had told Bush about the crash “as the President finished shaking hands in a hallway of school officials.” But other sources, including Bob Woodward’s allegedly authoritative account, have Karl Rove telling Bush the news. All we can say for certain is that whatever he knew, Bush continued to read to the children and pose for the cameras long after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the National Military Command Center (NMCC), the Pentagon, the White House, the Secret Service, and Canada’s Strategic Command were all aware that three commercial jetliners had been hijacked. Today, Bush tells the Andrew Card version of the story, with Rove telling him of the initial crash before he entered the school, which he assumed was a pilot error, and Card informing him of the second one while reading to the children. (Here is a photo.) White House staff members would claim that Bush remained with the children as long as he did so as not to “upset” or “alarm” them. This is a bewildering rationale, for if the country was under attack, its president, of all people, might be forgiven for upsetting a few schoolkids. If Bush was in danger, then so, obviously, were those children. Fighter jets had already been dispatched to defend New York City, for goodness’ sake.

A panic motif runs through the president’s actions for the remainder of the day. When Bush’s motorcade did finally head for the airport, the White House claimed that he spoke to Dick Cheney and ordered all flights nationwide to be grounded. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has also tried to take credit for the order. In fact, according to USA Today, it was FAA administrator Ben Sliney who issued this order. As he boarded Air Force One, nearly 90 minutes into the crisis, Bush had done nothing at all to take charge of the situation. Four planes had been hijacked. The Twin Towers and the Pentagon were on fire. And George W. Bush was, in his own words, “trying to get out of harm’s way.” Amazingly, Air Force One took off without any military protection and remained unprotected in the sky for more than an hour, though Florida had many nearby Air Force bases with planes that are supposed to be on 24-hour alert. If the president and his entourage were primarily concerned about Bush’s own safety and ability to conduct operations, they could hardly have devised a less effective way of ensuring it.

A minor controversy quickly arose as to why the president felt it necessary to fly around the country instead of returning to Washington to reassure a frightened nation. Bush’s initial response to the attack, an extremely brief, almost contentless explanation of what had happened delivered from the school itself, did little to calm the nation’s nerves. The president then spent the rest of the day on Air Force One, which initially landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana for fuel, before flying to the Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and, finally, back to Washington, where Bush pulled himself together sufficiently to give a coherent (for him) speech from the Oval Office that evening.

White House officials tried to explain Bush’s AWOL performance by insisting they were reacting to “hard evidence” that he was a target of the terrorists who carried out the attacks. Karl Rove told reporters, “We are talking about specific and credible intelligence, not vague suspicions.” Ari Fleischer added at a September 13 briefing that a threat “using code words” had been phoned in against Air Force One. He quoted the alleged caller, who was even said to know the proper code words, warning, “Air Force One is a target.” But here again, the official account was nonsensical. If the White House had received a “credible” threat to Air Force One, why would the president and his men return to the target and take off unprotected? Asked about his claim of “credible evidence” four days after the event, Fleischer replied, “We exhausted that topic about two days ago,” and continued to stick to this silly story. Eventually, the White House admitted that Rove and Fleischer were lying. All that had really taken place was that White House telephone operators had “apparently misunderstood comments made by their security detail.” There were, in fact, no code words, no “credible intelligence,” and no threat to Air Force One.

All of the above is just a minor example of all of the lies and dissimulations that characterized the Bush administration’s reaction to 9/11; lies that began, literally, the very moment of the attack and which, we now see, resulted in two disastrously failed wars, the loss of civil liberties, hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, and trillions of dollars wasted, among too many other catastrophes to enumerate here. It would have been nice if reporters had bothered to get to the truth when it mattered politically. It would be nice to know it even 20 years later.
See you next week.
Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, an award-winning journalist, and the author of 11 books, most recently Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse (Basic, 2020). Previously, he wrote The Nation’s “Liberal Media” column for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @eric_alterman
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