When you are a candidate in an election that is so close and so contested that it takes more than a month for the victor to be declared, then you understand how pressure feels. As a new President, George W. Bush was expecting his presidency to be domestic-policy based with a strong emphasis on education. In fact, up until 8:48am on September 11, 2001, the education of the nation’s children was the centerpiece of his focus. Reading to Florida school children and discussing education policy was the agenda for the day. However, when Chief of Staff Andy Card whispered in President Bush’s ear, “A second plane hit the second tower…America is under attack,” the President knew that he would be a wartime President.
These days, President Bush’s detractors seem to outnumber his supporters, but few can deny the humble and heroic manner in which he led our country through some of the darkest days in modern history. Soon after Card’s fateful words, President Bush briefly addressed the nation and then was rushed to the relative safety of Air Force One. Surrounded by the greatest protection detail in the world, flying on the safest aircraft in the world, the President was whisked from base to base across the country until he finally insisted on being returned to the White House. The next few hours would consist of addressing the nation from the Oval Office, meeting numerous times with National Security advisors, and being whisked out of his bed in the middle of the night when yet another of the day’s false alarms forced his protection detail to rush the President and First Lady Laura Bush into the secure bunker beneath the White House. While these details were widely reported, few knew of the numerous times that the President paused on Air Force One and in the White House to ask the Lord’s protection, comfort, and wisdom for himself and this nation. On a day when the new President carried great burdens such as ordering the downing of any civilian plane that refused to land, George W. Bush understood that he had been thrust into a role greater than himself—a role that would require a balance of wisdom, determination, compassion, and hope.
In his dual role as Commander-in-Chief and Comforter-in-Chief, President Bush performed many tasks over the next several days that reminded our country that things would be all right as-well-as reminding our enemies that soon nothing would be all right. In his book, “Decision Points,” the President speaks of how encouraged he was during his tour of the Pentagon as workers unfurled the flag from the roof, and he expresses how humbled he was as he met with the morgue team—thanking them for the dignity that they brought to the victims. Even as late as October 31, President Bush was still working to rally and encourage the American people—even while under the threat of a credible attack warning against the American people. Having been invited to throw out the opening pitch at Yankee Stadium for Game 3 of the World Series, the President knew that the men and women attending this game (and those viewing it on television) needed to see their President proving that it was OK to enjoy a celebrative moment while still experiencing incredible heartache. Bound tightly in a bullet-proof vest, the President stepped onto the mound 60.5 feet from home plate. Having been warned to not bounce the pitch, the President delivered a perfect strike and the crowd went crazy as they chanted, “U.S.A! U.S.A!” A simple act had become an exceptional moment.
His moments at the Pentagon and Yankee Stadium were inspiring, but no moment inspired a rally cry greater than that on September 14, 2001. After the President spoke words of comfort at the National Day of Remembrance in D.C., he boarded Air Force One and traveled to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Greeted by N.Y. Governor Pataki and N.Y.C. Mayor Guiliani, the President began the solemn chopper ride to the 16 acres of destruction where the World Trade Center towers once stood. Shocked by the sheer devastation, the President was led through the crowd of workers—stopping often to share words of comfort and thanks with them. Undaunted by the presence of the World’s top elected official, the rough-around-the-edges New Yorkers were quick to share their mandate for the President. Mixed in with the “God Bless Yous” and “Thank Yous,” were the words of one particularly bold worker, “George, find the bastards who did this and kill them.” Unfazed by the familiarity, the President understood the rage and resolve. The Secret Service detail had not been big fans of this quickly-planned trip to Ground Zero, but they became increasingly nervous as the President waded into the crowd of workers—all of whom were balancing atop acres of fires still burning below ground. One misstep or structural shift could result in the death of many, but the President made his way onto the top of a destroyed fire truck and placed his arm around the shoulder of retired Firefighter Bob Beckwith. Using a bullhorn, President Bush began to remind the crowd of workers that America was praying for them. Interrupted by a worker yelling, “We can’t hear you,” the President seized the moment to rally the crowd. “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” Instantly, the crowd began to chant, “USA, USA, USA!”
As the President traveled from Ground Zero to a building where he would meet with families of 9/11 victims, he was amazed and humbled at the site of hundreds of New Yorkers lining the road waving the American Flag and cheering—a moment made even more special as Mayor Guiliani laughingly reminded the President that not one of the people lining the road had voted for him. Indeed, the days immediately following the attacks of 9/11 saw the country unified behind a President determined to avenge the attacks and strengthen the defenses of our country. Though he warned the public that the War on Terror would be a lengthy, tiring, and costly (but worthwhile) effort, years later the country grew war-weary and frustrated when the President’s predictions came true. As he exited public service, President Bush acknowledged that his policies would bring harsh criticism by the pundits (and, ultimately, his replacement), but he also noted that President George Washington is still being critiqued over 200 years after his presidency, so Bush 43 would let history—not the media or his detractors--determine the quality of his administration. For those who worked to provide rescue and recovery after 9/11, and for the soldiers who fought and served to avenge said attacks, President George W. Bush is held in high regard as a man of integrity, boldness, compassion, and faithfulness of service to the country that he loves so dearly.
(Decision Points by George W. Bush is available through Crown Publishers)
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