A Pivotal Day of Grief and Anger
Bush Visits Ground Zero and Helps Move the Country From Sorrow to War

By Dan Balz and Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 30, 2002; A01

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.

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said the Justice Department later that day would identify the 19 hijackers aboard the four crashed airplanes, and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta described the status of the nation's air travel system. Mineta reported that flights were beginning to resume that day, but at just 16 percent of normal.

Bush concluded with a reminder that while the focus of the administration now was the war on terrorism, they should not ignore domestic priorities. He said he still hoped to be able to sign by year's end an education bill, a patients' bill of rights and legislation giving him greater authority to negotiate trade agreements.

"This should not stop us from getting our agenda through," he said. In light of the unity expressed at his meeting two days before with congressional leaders, he added, there was a renewed opportunity for progress. "We need a nice spirit of cooperation," he said.

Powell had taken the lead in contacting foreign leaders, but that morning, Bush made two calls of his own.

The first was to Tony Blair in London, his second call to the British prime minister in three days. Bush thanked Blair for the outpouring of support from his country and for sending along a five-page memorandum on Sept. 12 outlining the prime minister's thoughts on how the campaign against terrorism should be shaped and executed. The memo mirrored the president's views.

Shaping world opinion was crucial in Blair's estimation. He argued for presenting evidence linking Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network to the Sept. 11 attacks, and also recommended focusing on the terrorist camps in Afghanistan as a way to draw attention to the role of the Taliban regime in nurturing the terrorist network. In the memo, he proposed giving the Taliban an ultimatum. He focused on the need for an alliance with Pakistan and said it would be important to try to improve relations with Iran, which was on Afghanistan's western border and was a nation that had actively supported terrorists.

Blair also urged stepping up support for the Northern Alliance, the amalgam of opposition forces fighting the Taliban, and to make those forces part of the military campaign. And he reiterated that Bush could continue to count on unswerving support and solidarity from the British.

Intelligence continued to point directly at bin Laden and al Qaeda, and Blair said the immediate task should be to concentrate on the terrorist leader and on Afghanistan. But he and Bush agreed that al Qaeda would have to be pursued far beyond Afghanistan.

The president then outlined his thinking about how the action would unfold. It was a variation of what he had told his war cabinet on the night of Sept. 11, but this time Bush used a new metaphor. He described the campaign as a series of circles emanating from a pebble dropped in the water.

"We focus on the first circle," Bush told Blair, "then expand to the next circle and the next circle."

The discussion turned to the Taliban regime. Should we issue them an ultimatum -- and if so, what should be the terms, Bush asked.

Blair said he believed an ultimatum was essential and that it would have to be put together carefully. The Taliban should be given no opportunity to wiggle out of the terms: give up bin Laden and his key lieutenants, shut down the training camps and allow international monitors into Afghanistan for verification.

The two men also discussed the effort to build an international coalition against terrorism, the role of Pakistan, Russia and moderate Arab nations, and shared with one another their conversations with other leaders. Bush said the United States expected full cooperation from Pakistan, and that it would be needed long after bin Laden was captured or killed.

In his memo to Bush, Blair had emphasized the importance of making a concerted effort to restart the peace process in the Middle East as a way to solidify support in the Arab world for the war on terrorism. Now Bush said that he had had a good talk with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and that he would be talking to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon later in the morning. Bush said he hoped to use the call to Sharon to impress on the Israeli leader the importance of seizing the moment in the Middle East.

Blair had one other piece of advice, growing out of his own experience during the war in Kosovo. You've got to decide what you're going to do and then you've got to focus very single-mindedly on it, Blair told Bush.

The president said he agreed 100 percent.

Bush then called Sharon in an effort to prod the Israeli leader to take steps to try to reduce the violence that threatened to destroy any hopes of peace in the Middle East. Bush believed that Israel ultimately could be one of the principal beneficiaries of a global war on terrorism and wanted Sharon to see that as well. It was not clear that Sharon understood Bush's message.

Around lunchtime, the presidential motorcade left the White House in a driving rain for a ride of about 12 minutes north to the cathedral. Bush had practiced the speech early that morning and made a few last-minute changes. But he was generally happy with the draft he had received the night before.

Chief speechwriter Michael Gerson had assimilated Bush's advice from their meeting on Thursday. From his own reading of history, Gerson had concluded that a presidential speech about war was a delicate balancing act in which it was crucial to offer people confidence and resolution without seeming arrogant. The speech that he had prepared along with White House counselor Karen P. Hughes and others in the speechwriting office attempted to do that.

Almost from the start of the crisis, Bush had described the conflict in the starkest possible terms, as one of good versus evil, light versus darkness. It was Gerson's belief, gained from the experience of working with Bush for more than two years, that the president's language and confidence were rooted in his religious faith and his belief that all things happened for a reason. Gerson believed they had found the proper way to include an affirmation of that faith in the speech.

An extraordinary group awaited Bush at the cathedral for the service, which had been planned largely by first lady Laura Bush and Hughes. The speakers included a Protestant minister, a rabbi, a Catholic cardinal, a Muslim cleric and the Rev. Billy Graham. Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were there, as was former vice president Al Gore. The audience included the Cabinet, much of the Senate, many members of the House, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and many other top officials. Seated next to Bush and his wife in a tableau that linked both generations and the presidency were Bush's mother and father.

"We are here in the middle hour of our grief," Bush began. He said Americans would read the names of the dead and "linger over them and learn their stories" and weep. But he assured the audience that the grief, tragedy and hatred were "only for a time." Already, he added, the nation had learned what a poet once said, "Adversity introduces us to ourselves." He quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt's phrase, "the warm courage of national unity," which produces "a kinship of grief and a steadfast resolve to prevail against our enemies."

There was much in the speech meant to comfort, but the most memorable line -- which originated with his team of speechwriters and was quickly adopted by the president -- came when Bush spoke confidently about what was to come. "This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others," he said. "It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing."

A war speech in a cathedral was perhaps risky, even jarring, but it delivered the message Bush wanted. When he finished and returned to his seat in the front row, his father reached across Laura Bush and squeezed his son's hand.

At the end of the service, the congregation stood and sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." National security adviser Condoleezza Rice believed she could almost feel the whole church stiffen with determination. She later realized the service had helped her make a transition from abject sadness about what had happened on Sept. 11 to a feeling of defiance toward the terrorists.

Gerson was in tears during the final hymn, and when the congregation boomed out the words "terrible swift sword," he felt that the country already was at war. When the service ended and the presidential party walked out of the cathedral, the grayness and rain of the morning had lifted and they were greeted by brilliant sunshine and blue skies.

A number of the president's advisers later called the cathedral speech the pivot toward war. In an interview last month, Bush said that he saw the speech in less far-reaching terms. "I saw it as a moment to make sure that I helped comfort and helped get through the mourning process," he said. "I also really looked at it from a spiritual perspective, that it was important for the nation to pray."

Bush agreed that some of the language was "very tough," and said it "reflected my mood." But he added, "To me, the moment was more, it really was a prayer. I didn't view it as an opportunity to set the stage for a future speech. I believed that the nation needed to be in prayer. . . ."

That morning, a mid-level officer at the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon war room, had called the White House to confirm that the president did not want a fighter escort accompanying Air Force One when he flew to New York that afternoon. Rice and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. agreed it was Rumsfeld's decision.

One of Rice's deputies called the Pentagon and the question was relayed to Rumsfeld. He was furious to find out someone from the Pentagon had called the White House without his knowledge or permission. "I will not have that!" he said.

A search was immediately launched to identify the officer who had called the White House.

For Rumsfeld it was an issue of chain of command. Information regularly flows between the Pentagon and the White House, he said in an interview, but the decision to take action is his alone by law. "The national command authority is the president to me," he said. "And to the extent you get people down below sending instructions into the building that people then act off of, then the president can't be sure that, that the actions are going to be consonant with what he's wanted me to do.

"And to the extent people talk to other people and someone then says, 'Oh, let's send up an escort or let's send up a CAP [Combat Air Patrol] or let's not,' it may very well be completely opposite of what the president wants or of what I want. . . . This is something you do not want to mess around with."

About 15 minutes before Air Force One left, the secretary gave his order. There would be an escort.

"Do you smell something?" Hughes asked as a helicopter carrying White House staff members approached New York on the final leg of the trip from Washington. They were still 20 or 25 miles from Lower Manhattan.

The others nodded. Press secretary Ari Fleischer thought it must be from the helicopter. But looking out their windows to one side, they saw a giant plume of smoke. What they smelled was the burning rubble of the World Trade Center.

The helicopters put down at the Wall Street heliport, and an enormous motorcade -- 55 vehicles in all, the largest motorcade that anybody on the presidential advance team had ever seen -- was formed. The president drove past cheering, flag-waving crowds to ground zero.

Bush had wanted to visit the site sooner but had waited so as not to get in the way of rescue teams searching for survivors. The night before, a White House advance team had surveyed the site and concluded it was risky to bring the president too close to the worst of the damage. That morning they had reassessed and, despite overnight rains that had left the area slick and muddy, decided he could go to the center of the destruction.

For Bush, the sight of an enormous, dark wasteland of wreckage left an indelible impression, one that he later would recall as "very, very, very eerie."

He had been talked to Joe M. Allbaugh, his chief of staff in Texas and now the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and with others about the devastation, but he still was not prepared for what he found. He thought it was "a nightmare, a living nightmare." Along with destruction far worse than anything he had seen on television or heard about from his advisers, he encountered a crowd of rescue workers brimming with patriotism and hungry for revenge.

They were an "unbelievably emotional" crowd demanding justice, he recalled in the interview. As he walked through the area, the president faced a wild scene. "I cannot describe to you how emotional" the workers were, he said. "Whatever it takes," they shouted. One pointed to him as he walked by and yelled out: "Don't let me down."

The rescue workers began chanting "USA. USA. USA." Joining them, senior adviser Karl Rove remembers, were Cardinal Edward Egan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, and other members of the clergy.

"They want to hear him," Nina Bishop, a member of the advance team, shouted at Rove as the president was working his way through the crowd. "They want to hear their president!"

There was no plan for Bush to address the group and therefore no sound system. Could she find a bullhorn, Rove asked.

Nearby, Bob Beckwith, a 69-year-old retired New York firefighter, stood on a charred fire truck that had been pulled from the rubble. A Bush aide asked him if the president could use it as a platform and if Beckwith, a gas mask dangling around his neck, could bounce up and down on it a few times to make certain it was stable.

At the base of the fire truck was a large slab of paving or concrete. Some in the advance team thought they should move it, until rescue workers told them there might be human remains underneath.

Someone handed Bush a white bullhorn and helped him up on the wreckage, Beckwith by his side. Another round of chants began: "USA, USA, USA."

"Thank you all," Bush began. "I want you all to know -- " and the gigantic canyon of rubble and humanity seemed to swallow up the words from his tinny bullhorn.

"Can't hear you," a rescue worker shouted.

Bush started again. "I can't go any louder," he said with a laugh. "America today is on bended knee in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here. . . ." Another voice erupted from the crowd: "I can't hear you."

Bush paused for an instant, then with his arm around Beckwith's shoulder, shouted back: "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!"

After stopping to allow the president to thank the teams of workers dispatched to New York by FEMA, Bush's motorcade rolled up the West Side Highway to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, which was being used as a staging ground for rescue workers.

Bush's schedule called for him to spend 30 to 45 minutes with families of the World Trade Center victims. It was to be private -- no press, no photographers, not even members of the congressional delegation that accompanied Bush. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) was there when the entourage arrived at the Javits Center. As a former first lady, she understood the president's desire to speak to the families alone. It should be the president's time, she told a member of Bush's advance team.

The organizers had used pipe and drape and carpeting to turn a cavernous room into a more private area, and Bush's aides set up a human wall to give the group even more privacy. There were maybe 250 people in the room when the president arrived, many carrying photographs of their missing relatives. Little boys and girls, now without a parent, clutched teddy bears and other mementos.

As ground zero had brought home to Bush the physical destruction of the Sept. 11 attacks, the scene he now surveyed brought home to him the personal pain and damage inflicted by the terrorists.

The families gave him a round of applause when he came into the area. Then suddenly it was so silent that only the ventilating system could be heard, whirring in the background. It was a potentially awkward moment for Bush, who wasn't sure how to approach people. The families didn't know what to do either.

Finally, Bush waded into the crowd. "Tell me about yourself," he said to one person, and then another and another. Each time he heard the same story. Every one of them, he would say later, "believed that their loved one was still alive."

They wanted autographs and Bush began to sign his name to photos or pieces of paper or treasured items. As he later recalled, he would say to the families, "I'm going to tell you something, 'I'm going to sign this, and when you see Jim, or you see Bill, you tell them this is truly my autograph, that you didn't make this up.' And that's the only way I knew how to help, just use that moment to be able to say, 'I share your hope, too, and we pray Jim comes out.' "

Many in the room were crying. The president was teary-eyed as he made his way from one family to the next. One man, cradling a child in his arms, was carrying a picture of his brother, a firefighter who had been killed. The child pointed at the photograph and said simply, "My uncle."

An hour or so into the session, Bush seemed to regain some of his buoyancy. There were bursts of laughter from some of the relatives of the missing as he continued, for two hours, to move among them. Bush spoke with every family.

Toward the end of his visit, Bush met Arlene Howard, the mother of George Howard, an off-duty Port Authority policeman who was killed at the World Trade Center while attempting to save others. She was carrying her son's police shield and she offered it to the president, asking him to take it in her son's honor.

On the way back to the heliport, Bush's motorcade drove through Times Square, which was filled with people holding candles and American flags and applauding as the cars passed by. Back at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, Bush said his good-byes to the staff, most of whom were returning to Washington. He looked tired and spent.

Instead of boarding Air Force One, Bush climbed aboard a C-20 aircraft small enough to land in Hagerstown, Md. From there he would head for Camp David.

The president had asked his most senior national security advisers -- Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney -- to go to Camp David ahead of him to prepare for the next day's meeting. They gathered in the vice president's cabin to eat a dinner of buffalo. The dinner gave Bush's advisers the chance to compare notes in a more relaxed setting, to update each other and tee up the issues for the meetings the next day.

They talked about the continuing pressure for speedy action, about the length of the struggle ahead and the differences between the coming conflict and the Persian Gulf War, when there was a long buildup and a relatively short military campaign -- 38 days of massive bombing and a four-day ground war. This would be the opposite, they thought, and the more they talked, the more they realized how much harder this war would be and how enormous the consequences would be if they got it wrong.

Some of the president's advisers saw the upcoming meeting as an opportunity to help make Bush more comfortable with the decisions he was about to make.

Powell expected the dinner would be a "what are we going to tell the president tomorrow" meeting. Instead it was a pleasant discussion. They joked that the buffalo was better than the buffalo they had had when the Mexican president visited Washington. Powell concluded that it was more a like a rehearsal dinner the night before a wedding.

Bush arrived later that night. When he got to his cabin, he checked in with Rice, who reported that there were no significant new developments. After a day in the public spotlight as mourner-in-chief, Bush was about to begin the most critical discussions he would have with his war cabinet. In his own mind, he had already come to a series of conclusions, which he described in the interview last month.

"What was decided was that this is the primary focus of this administration," he said. "What was decided is, it doesn't matter to me how long it takes, we're going to rout out terror wherever it may exist. What was decided was, the doctrine is, if you harbor them, feed them, house them, you're just as guilty, and you will be held to account. What was decided was that . . . this war will be fought on many fronts, including the intelligence side, the financial side, the diplomatic side, as well as the military side. What was decided is, is that we're going to hit them with all we've got in a smart way."

Bush continued: "What wasn't decided was, was the team stitched up to the same strategy, did the team sign off on it? Because one of the things I know that can happen is, if everybody is not on the same page, then you're going to have people peeling off and second-guessing and the process will not, will really not unfold the way it should, there won't be honest discussion."

But far more than that had yet to be decided. The entire set of issues -- from legislation to covert action to military strikes -- needed to be discussed again. There would be times the next day when some of Bush's advisers wondered if they would ever find a way to end the talking and reach the operational decisions required for war.

Staff researcher Jeff Himmelman also contributed to this report.

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