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Remembering Sept. 11
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PART 4: Sept. 14

A Pivotal Day of Grief and Anger

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By Dan Balz and Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Fourth in a series of eight articles.

The entire Cabinet, meeting at the White House for the first time since the terrorist attacks, stood and applauded when President Bush entered the room. Caught by surprise, Bush choked up for a moment, the second time in two days he had lost his composure in front of others.

The show of emotion worried Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. He knew that in a few hours, the president would be speaking at Washington National Cathedral, and he thought the country and the world needed to see a strong president. Powell, who by tradition as senior member of the Cabinet sits next to the president, jotted a note. Dear Mr. President, it said, what I do when I have to give a speech like this, I avoid those words I know will cause me to well up such as Mom and Pop. Then, with some trepidation, Powell slid the note along the table.

Bush picked up the piece of paper, read it, and smiled. "Let me tell you what the secretary of state told me," Bush said, holding up the note for the rest of the Cabinet to see. "Dear Mr. President, don't break down!"

The room erupted in laughter, shared by both Powell and the president.

"Don't worry, I've got it out of my system," Bush said. He recalled in an interview last month that he appreciated the suggestion. "It was a gentle moment on his part."

It was also one of the few moments of levity on a day that was to be the most gut-wrenching of Bush's presidency. Bush would have to find his public voice, with scripted and unscripted words. He would have to speak to and for the entire nation. And he would have to find a way to move everyone, including himself, through a day of sorrow and consolation -- to war.

The president likes to open every Cabinet meeting with a prayer, and asks a Cabinet member to prepare one ahead of time. On this morning it was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Among the things that Rumsfeld prayed for was the "patience to measure our lust for action."

Bush assured the meeting that he and the war cabinet were developing plans for a military response that would be effective, and then went around the table asking for updates.

Powell described the diplomatic offensive. Like Bush, Powell saw the attacks as an opportunity to reshape relationships throughout the world. But, he told the Cabinet, this was coalition-building in which the United States would have clear definitions of what it expected from its partners, including intelligence-sharing to help in freezing the terrorists' finances and assistance in the military campaign. "This is a long war," he said, "and it's a war we have to win. We are engaging with the world. We want to make this a long-standing coalition."

By that morning, he had already made 35 calls to world leaders, with another 12 ahead of him that day. "I have been so multilateral the last few days, I'm getting seasick," Powell joked.

Rumsfeld updated the group on the damage to the Pentagon and announced that the military alert status had been reduced one notch, to DefCon 4. On Sept. 11, the Pentagon had moved to DefCon 3 for the first time since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The highest possible alert status, DefCon 1, would be used in time of war.


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