“This is what war was like in the 21st century.” As George W. Bush describes his thinking on September 11, it’s hard not to wonder, well, what he was thinking. It’s a mystery that remains unanswered in George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview, premiering on National Geographic Channel on 28 August.
The program kicks off the deluge of 9/11 anniversary programming from many networks, from NC to Fox to History to Discovery. Speaking with unseen producer/director Peter Schnall, the president mostly says what you already know, that this “monumental day” seemed so “normal” before the attacks, or that attacks changed him from a president focused on domestic issues into a “wartime president.” He says more than once that he “was experiencing the fog of war.”
President Bush’s tendency to use catch phrases or to reduce complex concepts to familiar phrasing is also well known. As you listen to him do so again, you may be struck by the contrast between his descriptions and the images. His normal day began, he says, with a run, illustrated by footage where he and his Secret Service attendants make their way over a golf course in Sarasota: he waves at the camera. Then he headed to the school. On his way into the classroom, he was told a plane had hit the first tower. “First I thought it was a light aircraft,” he recalls, “Man, either the weather was bad or something extraordinary happened to the pilot.” It was bad, in other words, but not overwhelming.
Once he was inside the room, listening to the students read, the president says he felt a presence near him before he know it was Andy Card, leaning to his ear to report the second had hit. Here the footage is unforgettable: Bush’s face twists, he bites his lip, his eyes begin to shift. The program cuts to a shot of the second plane hitting the second tower. The images here speak loudly, almost drowning out what the president has to say: he was angry, he says, and also acutely aware of the contrast between the “notion of the attack and the innocence of the children.” He looked at the back of the classroom, where — more footage confirms — he saw reporters on their cell phones, receiving the same information he was. “It was like watching a silent movie,” he says, “A lot of people would be watching my reactions to this crisis.”
And so they would be. The program continues to illustrate his memories with stills and news footage of the president on Air Force One (“The Secret Service was anxious to get me on the move”), at the Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport LA, and Offutt AFB in Bellevue, NE. “The first thing a leader of an organization or a state or a country has to do is project calm,” he says, as he recalls wanting to return to DC, so he could work with his advisers, including Dick Cheney and Condi Rice, assembled in the bunker beneath the White House. He was further frustrated, he says, because his information was scant: the TV images aboard Air Force One “flickered back and forth.” When he was not being observed by hundreds of reporters, he remembers, “The most powerless I ever felt was when I was watching people jump to their death on TV. And there was nothing I could do about it.”
Someone did do something about that, as we now know, at least with regard to showing those particular images on TV. Most public visual records don’t include shots of people jumping from the towers. Instead, most of what you’ll be seeing over this 10th anniversary will be the planes, the fearful crowds in Manhattan, and the intrepid rescue workers. As American families mourned and worried, Bush says he was also concerned for his wife and daughters. When, on the night of 9/11, word came that the White House was under attack, “I grabbed Laura and Barney the Scottish terrier, and Spot the Springer spaniel follows us and off we go.” The program doesn’t have a picture for this, so you have to imagine: “Agents in front of us, an agent behind us. And Laura and me. People armed with automatic weapons. We’re hustling along and finally get back to the bunker.” And then they find out, the alarm is a mistake. The aircraft that’s been spotted is “one of ours.”
The story offers a brief glimpse into George Bush’s thinking without the talking points, as he remembers an event that wasn’t recorded on camera. But it’s not long before he’s back on topic. On 9/14, Bush recalls, “We headed down into the site itself.” A photo shows him looking out his helicopter’s window, Andy Card behind him. “From the air it looked like a giant scar,” Bush says now. “But when you actually got to the site, it was like walking into hell.”
The fuller dimensions of this hell are well known now by workers suffering from effects of breathing the plume. Then, Bush sensed a “palpable blood lust” among his listeners when he appeared with his arm around the shoulders of retired FDNY firefighter Bob Beckwith, urging the weary workers to rally: “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Plans for that revenge were already in motion on the 14th. Bush says only that he was reluctant to “start the finger-pointing” regarding how U.S. intelligence agencies missed signs of the attacks. And again, “I came to the conclusion that we were at war.” And that meant, in speaking to the nation, “I needed to strike the right balance between comforting and grieving and going on the offense.” Dramatic music supports his version of events: he was determined, if confused. When he notes that some people — “maybe even some of ’em in my own household” — criticized his use of the “infamous phrase, ‘Osama bin Laden, dead or alive,’ he does so to indicate his decision to “send a message, to the enemy, to our allies, and to our own country, that the United States would be relentless in our pursuit of justice.”
Justice is a key concept in the president’s recollections of 9/11. Repeatedly, he notes his desire to “bring ’em to justice,” and when asked about his reaction to bin Laden’s death, he says, “I felt a sense of closure and a sense of gratitude that justice had been done.” The interview never wonders what “justice” might mean, what it came to mean, or whose purposes it served. On 9/11 and the days that followed, Bush says wanted to know who did it. “I didn’t have a strategy,” he says. “I was living day by day. I realized on September 11th I was a wartime president. On September the 12th, I acted in my duties as a wartime president.” And his actions continue to shape the world today.