October 7, 2002
Suddenly, a time to lead
By Bill Sammon
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
First of three parts
The United States launched its counterattack on Osama bin Laden's terror network in Afghanistan one year ago today. Bill Sammon, senior White House correspondent for The Washington Times, tells the inside story of President Bush's war on terror in his new book, "Fighting Back" (Regnery).
"A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack."
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card leaned over and whispered these words into President Bush's right ear at 9:07 a.m. September 11.
"I looked at him, and that's all he said," Mr. Bush recalled months later, in a series of extensive interviews with The Washington Times in the Oval Office and aboard Air Force One. "Then he left. There was no time for discussion or anything."
The old phase of the Bush presidency — 234 days of sparring on tax cuts, stem-cell research, media recounts of the Florida ballots — was suddenly, irretrievably over.
Now there was this new phase, beginning incongruously inside a classroom in Sarasota, Fla., as the president watched a teacher put her second-graders through a reading drill.
"And I can't remember anything the lady was saying from that point on," Mr. Bush recalled. "I might have been looking at her, but I wasn't hearing.
"And my mind was registering what it meant to hear 'America is under attack' and to be the commander in chief of the country at that moment."
• • •
George W. Bush awoke that morning before dawn in a bed whose last famous occupant had been Al Gore. Blinking into consciousness, the president of the United States was alone in a massive, luxury penthouse suite at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on the island of Longboat Key, Fla.
To his left was a wall of windows overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, where a pair of heavily armed boats patrolled the murky surf. To his right was Sarasota Bay and, beyond it, the city of Sarasota, where he was scheduled to give an unremarkable speech on education reform.
Swaddled in the finest Frette linens and matching duvet, the president was stretched out on the same king-sized bed where Mr. Gore had slept nearly five years earlier, on the eve of his vice-presidential debate with Jack Kemp in nearby St. Petersburg.
As was his custom, Mr. Bush had gone to bed early after enjoying a relaxed Tex-Mex dinner with his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and a dozen other Republican officeholders, party leaders and aides.
The president swung his 6-foot frame out of bed and soon left the penthouse to begin a brisk, four and a half mile run at the neighboring golf course at 6:32 a.m.
He called out for Bloomberg News Service reporter Dick Keil, at the clubhouse in the press pool, to jog along with him on his second loop in the dark humidity. The two chatted about running, dogs, Little League baseball and — off the record — Washington politics.
"The representative of the press acquitted himself quite well," Mr. Bush announced as they returned.
"I was beggin' for mercy out there," Mr. Keil told his colleagues.
The president briefly bantered with the reporters before going back to his suite. He breakfasted on fresh berries and fruit juices, showered and put on a pale blue shirt, a crimson tie and a charcoal, two-button woolen suit.
He received his usual intelligence briefing, though not a just-completed staff report on how to dismantle the al Qaeda terrorist network headed by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden.
Aides also updated the president on overnight political developments, including a thick sheaf of articles, columns and editorials from The Washington Times and other major newspapers.
The front page of The Washington Post hammered the White House on three favorite Democratic themes: tax cuts, arsenic levels in drinking water and a dearth of human stem cells for medical research.
The New York Times chose the "darkening economic outlook" as its top story for the fourth day in a row. "Pressure mounted on President Bush to drop his cautious approach to dealing with the weakening economy," it intoned.
"There's beginning to become an undercurrent in Washington that Bush was to blame, Bush's tax cuts were to blame for the deficit," Mr. Bush recalled of the time frame. "I was prepared to fully fight off criticism based upon the sound economic theory that a tax relief plan is good for actually restarting the economy."
An accident report
But on this Tuesday the president wanted to make progress on another top priority — education reform. So after posing for pictures with resort maintenance man Kenneth Kufahl and local VIPs, he climbed into a Cadillac limousine and set out at 8:39 a.m. on the nine-mile trip to Emma E. Booker Elementary in Sarasota.
Soon the motorcade was on a causeway approaching the city. Sailboats lined the bay, a brilliant blue sky arced overhead and shimmering office towers rose in the distance.
What could possibly go wrong on a day such as this? It was 8:46 a.m.
Mr. Bush and his aides, including Mr. Card, arrived nine minutes later at the elementary school on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, which police considered the most crime-infested street in the county.
"We're on time," the president remembered. "I like to stay on time; I like to be crisp."
Personal assistant Blake Gottesman gave him some final stage directions.
"'Here's what you're going to be doing; you're going to meet so-and-so, such-and-such,'" Mr. Bush recalled being told. "And Andy Card says, 'By the way, an aircraft flew into the World Trade Center.'
"And my first reaction was — as an old pilot — how could the guy have gotten so off course to hit the towers? What a terrible accident that is. The first report I heard was a light airplane, twin-engine airplane."
The president entered a holding room at the school and picked up a secure telephone to speak with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice at the White House. She was sitting in her office, watching live coverage of the stricken north tower as it belched black smoke into a cloudless sky.
"There's one terrible pilot," Mr. Bush muttered.
Turning to Mr. Card, he speculated that the pilot must have suffered a heart attack. Mr. Bush, who had yet to see the TV images, drafted a statement pledging federal assistance.
He rejoined his hostess, Principal Gwendolyn Tose-Rigell. A black woman and a Democrat, she had voted 10 months earlier for Al Gore. Mrs. Tose-Rigell privately considered Mr. Bush a "phony."
Still, she was honored by the presidential visit, so she smiled, made introductions and led Mr. Bush into Sandra Kay Daniels' second-grade classroom.
The president's entrance set off a flurry of snapping and clicking from news photographers' cameras at the back: Ksht, ksht, ksht, ksht.
No alarm bells
"Good to meet you all," Mr. Bush said to the class after greeting Mrs. Daniels.
The president noticed a little girl over to his left, in the front row, her face frozen with fear. He stopped, cocked his head and drew back in a playful half-crouch.
"You OK?" he asked with a reassuring smile.
The petrified child nodded.
"That's good," Mr. Bush chuckled.
This seemed to break the ice and the entire room let out a relieved laugh.
"It's really exciting for me to be here," the president said. "I want to thank Ms. Daniels for being a teacher."
He gave her an expectant look, as if to say, "Well, take it away." He had been in the room for just under a minute, but he had a schedule to keep.
"This morning we do have a lesson that we've been preparing for you," Mrs. Daniels told the president.
"Good," Mr. Bush said, sounding pleased.
It was 9:03 a.m.
"Are you ready, my butterflies?" Mrs. Daniels asked her second-graders.
In a rapid-fire voice, the teacher began to command her pupils to sound out words "the fast way." The children responded like grunts in boot camp, calling out in clear, loud, unified voices.
As he watched, smiling, the president began to ponder the statement he would need to make about the plane crash.
"I was concentrating on the program at this point, thinking about what I was going to say," Mr. Bush told The Times. "Obviously, I felt it was an accident. I was concerned about it, but there were no alarm bells."
"Get ready to read all these words on this page without making a mistake," Mrs. Daniels was saying. "Look at the letter at the end and remember the sound it makes. Get ready."
"Kite," the children said.
"Yes, kite," the teacher said. "Get ready to read this word the fast way. Get ready."
Mr. Bush heard a noise behind him. It was the sound of a door closing, the door through which he had entered. Someone must have walked in, although he didn't bother looking. His eyes were on the reading drill.
"Sound it out," the teacher repeated, unsatisfied. "Get ready."
"Kit," the children said, still a little weakly.
"Kit!" they practically shouted.
Soon concluding the first half of the lesson, Mrs. Daniels instructed: "Boys and girls, pick your reader up from under your seat."
The children bent to retrieve their textbooks. In his peripheral vision, Mr. Bush noticed someone taking advantage of this pause to approach. He swiveled slightly to the right in his chair and was surprised to discover it was Mr. Card, who had not been in the room. His chief of staff was walking right up to him in the middle of a public event.
Didn't he realize the cameras of the national press corps were capturing this breach of protocol? Sure enough, the shutters came clattering to life: Ksht, ksht, ksht.
"Open your book up to lesson 60 on page 153," Mrs. Daniels went on, oblivious to the curious little drama being played out in her classroom at 9:07 a.m.
Now Mr. Card was leaning over to whisper something. The president cocked his head to listen. The shutters went into spasms: Ksht, ksht, ksht, ksht.
The children flipped through their books for the correct page. Mr. Bush's smile had vanished. Mr. Card's drew closer, his mouth inches from the president's right ear.
The tops of their heads were practically touching. Ksht, ksht, ksht, ksht, ksht.
Mr. Bush strained to hear. This had better be good.
Stanley Greenberg was in his element earlier that morning in Washington. Armed with a fresh sheaf of polling data, the Democratic pollster painted a gloomy picture indeed for one George W. Bush.
"In this poll, 45 percent say he's in over his head," Mr. Greenberg told the press corps at a breakfast meeting in the basement of the St. Regis Hotel on 16th Street NW. "There is a fundamental doubt about his competence.
"But they also want him to succeed," the pollster said with a trace of disappointment. "The public is not looking for a failed president."
James Carville, former political strategist for Bill Clinton and the media star among the three partners who ran the partisan Democracy Corps, jumped in to critique the new president's communication skills.
"Somethin' tells me that Bush ain't Clinton," Mr. Carville said with a laugh. "I mean, it's ... a strong power forward against a weak guard, and they don't match up."
"I feel so sorry for this poor guy, George Bush," broke in moderator Godfrey "Budge" Sperling, the 86-year-old columnist of the Christian Science Monitor who had hosted these "Sperling Breakfasts" for print reporters since 1966.
"I know," political consultant Bob Shrum, Democracy Corps' third partner, said gleefully.
"He's in terrible shape here," Mr. Sperling added with mild sarcasm.
"He's not formidable, politically," Mr. Greenberg said.
"You know, I certainly hope he doesn't succeed," Mr. Carville said. "I'm a partisan Democrat. But the average person wants him to succeed."
Mr. Carville, who took delight in his nicknames — "Ragin' Cajun," "Corporal Cueball," "Serpenthead" — insisted that the Bush presidency already was an abject failure.
"They're not succeeding in the economy. They're certainly not succeeding abroad," he said. "My line is: We're busted at home and distrusted around the world."
And, Mr. Carville pointed out, there was the possibility of some unforeseeable political calamity.
"What I learned during eight years with Clinton is: You always think that somethin's gonna blow you up one day," he said.
Mr. Carville didn't mean it literally, of course. But so deep was his antipathy toward the new president that he openly wished for something to blow up Mr. Bush politically. Never mind that his own wife, Mary Matalin, was a political aide to Vice President Richard B. Cheney.
"There's one thing Bush has never been able to do," Mr. Carville said. "The real skilled politicians are able to go take 10, 12 percent out of the other guy's pocket. The Reagan Democrats. And Clinton got the sort of suburban Republican women. I mean, they got all of their party and their ability was to draw a little bit from the other side.
"Bush has yet to instill any fear," Mr. Carville concluded. "He's yet to get one vote other than what he should be getting. And in fact some of those are startin' to have doubts. If he starts losing any of those voters, his political strength will be sapped bad."
Mr. Shrum's cell phone rang as Mr. Sperling brought the breakfast to a close. It was his assistant, who had instructions not to call unless it was an emergency.
Mr. Shrum was so dumbfounded by the words he was hearing that he repeated them aloud, for the benefit of everyone else: "A plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center."
The room froze.
"What kind of plane?" Mr. Shrum asked. "A 737!"
Other cell phones rang around the table. A reporter headed for the exit, followed by another. But most remained.
Mr. Greenberg's phone rang, then Mr. Shrum's again, with the news that a second plane had hit the other tower. It looked like a coordinated attack by terrorists.
Before anyone else could leave, Mr. Carville was on his feet.
The cynical strategist, who had just described Washington as "a city that operates on fear," suddenly felt a stab of worry about his wife — in the White House this very moment — and their two young daughters across town.
"Disregard everything we just said," Corporal Cueball commanded. "This changes everything."
The immediate job
"A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack."
"At the count of three," Mrs. Daniels was instructing her second-graders, blissfully unaware of what Mr. Card had whispered in the president's ear. "Everyone should be on page 163."
"The — Pet — Goat," the children recited as their teacher thumped her pen on her book to keep time with each syllable.
Mr. Bush absently picked up his copy of the reader from a pink easel. He glanced at the cover: a cuddly dragon surrounded by butterflies. Turning to the bookmarked page, he tried to follow along.
"A — girl — got — a — pet — goat," the children recited.
"Go on," instructed Mrs. Daniels, thumping away.
As the children plowed through the story, the president kept gazing up, lost in a tumult of urgent thoughts. So the first plane crash had not been an accident after all. The second crash had proven that much.
A second plane hit the second tower. But what kind of plane? Another small, twin-engine job? Who were the pilots? Why had they done it? How many Americans had they killed?
"But — the — goat — did — some — things — that — made — the — girl's — dad — mad."
"Let's clean that up," Mrs. Daniels said.
The president noticed someone moving at the back of the room. It was White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, maneuvering to catch his attention without alerting the press. Mr. Fleischer was holding up a legal pad.
Big block letters were scrawled on the cardboard backing: DON'T SAY ANYTHING YET. The remarks drafted earlier would be woefully inadequate.
"The — goat — ate — things."
The president managed a wan smile at the teacher. He redoubled his efforts to appear as though he were concentrating. But it was no use.
Who could have perpetrated such a diabolical crime? No, this was more than a crime. Someone had suddenly declared war against the United States of America.
"Victory clicked into my mind," Mr. Bush told The Times. "The one thing that became certain is that we wouldn't let this stand. I mean, there was no question in my mind that we'd respond.
"I wasn't sure who the attacker was. But if somebody is going to attack America, I knew that my most immediate job was to protect America by finding him and getting them."
A new convert
The children reached the last line: "More — to — come."
"What does that mean?" the president asked. "'More to come?'"
Nearly all the children raised their hands. Mr. Bush pointed to a girl with braided hair tied in a ribbon. Something else was going to happen, she answered.
"That's exactly right," the president said, hoping this was not some ominous prophecy.
Mr. Bush lingered until an aide ushered the press out. He turned to the principal, Mrs. Tose-Rigell, and pulled her aside for the first private conversation in this new phase of his presidency.
"I'm so sorry," he said. "But a tragedy has occurred."
Mr. Bush told her of the second plane crash and explained that there would be no speech on education.
"I'm going to have to address some things," he said. "I really wish it would have been a different set of circumstances."
"I fully understand," Mrs. Tose-Rigell said.
The principal told the president how frantic she gets when one of her students doesn't arrive home right after school. She likened those in the World Trade Center to students for whom the president was responsible.
Mrs. Tose-Rigell sensed a transformation. The man she had viewed as a "phony" only minutes earlier was calmly apologizing for having to scrap his planned speech. She was astonished by Mr. Bush's sincerity, especially since he hadn't had time to gather his wits in private.
"That's not something that you can fake," the principal said later. "I'm telling you, I was very impressed. I don't know what spurred him on. I don't know if he tapped into his faith. I don't know if there were people around the country praying for him.
"But at that moment in time, he was very, very composed. All I can say is he looked very presidential."
Gwendolyn Tose-Rigell, inner-city principal and Gore Democrat, became the first of many observers across America and around the world to conclude that George W. Bush somehow was changed profoundly by the terrible events of September 11.
"From that point on," she said, "I was a convert."
Finding the words
Returning to the holding room, where he first saw television images from New York, the president talked by phone with the vice president, who was in his White House office with Miss Rice and Miss Matalin, wife of Mr. Carville.
"One thing for certain," Mr. Bush said later, "I needed to get out of where I was."
But the president also realized he would have to make a statement. Mr. Fleischer and Communications Director Dan Bartlett hastily drafted one. Mr. Bush, taking a Sharpie fine-point marker from the inside pocket of his jacket, put it in his own words by scribbling on three sheets of crinkly white paper.
In the school library, the press corps and his scheduled audience waited. Some close to the podium were unaware of what had happened.
The president emerged from behind a blue curtain just before 9:30 a.m. He gestured for the applauding audience to sit down. His expression was grave, tense, almost pained.
"Thank you," Mr. Bush said, before the applause subsided. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a — difficult moment for America."
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