Limited transportation was obviously a factor in the decisions made by these presidents, but their presence at the scene was also not viewed as being imperative. That, obviously, has changed.
“There is an expectation that the president will be there,” says Adam Frankel, a former speechwriter in the Obama White House who worked with the president on the speech he gave after the 2010 West Virginia mine accident that claimed 29 lives. “And I think for [Obama], he sees the heartache and the destruction and he wants to be there. Obviously to make sure the resources of the government are there for them, but also if there’s something he and the first lady can do personally to lift spirits, he wants to do that.”
Indeed, lifting the spirits of a community, and by extension the nation, has become a much more important requirement of the modern president.
Although he didn’t travel to the site of the Challenger explosion in Florida in 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s empathetic speech to the nation that evening is widely admired as one of the great presidential addresses. Penned by Peggy Noonan, the speech reflected the nation’s sorrow while offering solace and encouragement, particularly for the schoolchildren who had watched the explosion live on television. Similarly, President Bill Clinton’s visit to Oklahoma City after the bombing of a federal building in 1995 marked a remarkable moment of national unity and purpose.
And George W. Bush was never more popular as a president than after his visit to the rubble of the World Trade Center on the Friday after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to meet with rescuers and express America’s solidarity.
“We knew the president needed to go and be at the site,” Hughes remembers. “We had not planned for him to speak because we had had a national prayer service in Washington that morning and those were his remarks for the day.”
But as the president walked through Ground Zero, it became clear that the workers wanted to hear from him, Hughes remembers. “And so someone came over to me and said, ‘Should he say something?’ and I looked around and realized, ‘Yes, he should absolutely say something.’ ”
As the president began talking, workers started shouting, “We can’t hear you!” And the president responded, “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.”