President George W. Bush was right to “project calm” in that Florida classroom after it was whispered to him that “America is under attack.” Yet he failed at another part of the job in a national emergency. He was sparingly visible and didn’t look terribly in command when he did emerge. But he would find his footing.
Part of his low profile wasn’t his fault. Bush had been clamoring to return to Washington immediately. But according to an interview she did for a British documentary, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told Bush, “‘You cannot come back here. The United States of America is under attack, you have to go to safety. We don’t know what is going on here. You cannot come back here.’” And then she hung up the phone on him.
Bush spoke live to the nation from a Sarasota, Fla., elementary school not too long after the second plane hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. He would then speak via pre-recorded video from Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana. At Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska is when Bush reportedly said, “[H]e didn’t want any tinhorn terrorist keeping him out of Washington.”
That a tinhorn terrorist kept him out of Washington for as long as he did would prove beneficial to Rudy Giuliani, New York City’s beleaguered outgoing mayor. His reassuring press conferences when so much was not known throughout that day turned a man folks in the Big Apple disparaged on Sept. 10 into “America’s Mayor”the very next day.
But Bush would snatch back the aura of authority and mantle of leadership with two impressive speeches. One impromptu. The other scripted. One tapped into the anger of a nation attacked, while the other sought to comfort a nation reeling from the worst terrorist attack on its soil and to show the world its resolve. “This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others,” the president said at the National Cathedral. “It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing.”
If only he hadn’t gotten distracted by Iraq.