The Washington Post

Bush on 9/11: He was right to ‘project calm’

Former President George W. Bush’s first reflections of the events on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 will be televised on the National Geographic channel tonight. Of all the searing images from that horrific day, none is more criticized than the sight of Bush sitting dumbfounded in a Florida classroom filled with school children after being told that another plane had hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. But not by me.

I have plenty of problems with the Bush presidency. Yet, after then-Chief of Staff Andy Card told him, “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack,” I thought Bush did the right thing then and I still think so today.

The clip doesn’t show Bush’s explanation for why he sat there. But television writers were shown excerpts of the interview that will air tonight late last month.

“My first reaction was anger. Who the hell would do that to America? Then I immediately focused on the children, and the contrast between the attack and the innocence of children,” Bush says in an excerpt of the interview shown to television writers in Los Angeles on Thursday.

Bush said he saw reporters at the back of the room getting the news on their cellphones “and it was like watching a silent movie.” He said he realized a lot of people beyond that classroom would be watching for his reaction.

“So I made the decision not to jump up immediately and leave the classroom. I didn’t want to rattle the kids. I wanted to project a sense of calm,” he said of deciding to remain seated and silent. “I had been in enough crises to know that the first thing a leader has to do is to project calm,” he added.

So what if Bush sat there reading “The Pet Goat” to the kids for almost 10 minutes? I’m asking that question rhetorically yet seriously. Bush projected calm in a classroom while pandemonium enveloped lower Manhattan and then the nation. That’s exactly what he needed to do. The eyes of those school children and the world were on him. A nation under attack with some of its most iconic buildings on fire need not see its leader with his hair on fire. In that instance, Bush did the right thing.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.


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