George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview

Justice is a key concept in President George W. Bush's recollections of 9/11.

George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview

Airtime: Sunday, 10pm ET
Cast: George W. Bush
Network: National Geographic Channel
Air date: 2011-08-28

"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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.