PART 7: Sept. 18-20

A Presidency Defined in One Speech

By Dan Balz and Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 1, 2002

Seventh in a series of eight articles.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney marked the seventh day since the terrorist attacks with a moment of silence on the White House lawn, then met with the National Security Council. After the president began the meeting, CIA Director George J. Tenet told the group that the agency was sending an eight-man team to Afghanistan to work with the Northern Alliance. "We are launching our plan," he said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reported that military planning was proceeding, now that Bush had signed off on an option that included cruise missiles, manned bombers and U.S. forces on the ground.

Keeping options open is important but not the primary focus, Bush told Rumsfeld. "The top priority is shaking [Osama] bin Laden's tree."

With preparations underway to go to war, Bush had begun to think of how he would explain -- both to the country and the world -- what he planned to do. He wanted to announce his plans before a joint session of Congress. But before he set a date for his appearance, he wanted to feel comfortable with the tone and the language of what he was going to say -- no presidential speech in recent history would be more important to national morale or more scrutinized than this one.

Planning for the speech had begun Sunday afternoon when Bush returned from Camp David. Meeting with members of his communications team, Bush told them his initial thoughts, and White House counselor Karen P. Hughes wrote them out on a pad: "America is united and strong. . . . Praise Congress. . . . By uniting in capital [Washington], we've helped unite nation. . . . Single out, we're Americans now, not Republicans or Democrats. . . . Here's what we need to do. . . . The world has rallied."

There had been some striking images since Sept. 11 -- groups of citizens in silent vigils, carrying candles and mourning the victims of the terrorist attacks, for example -- and Hughes said the speech should evoke them. The speech should describe what the threat was, and why. Other themes she noted included: "Call to action, we will rout them out. . . . Define mission. . . . War is not against one person or one group, it's against terrorism."

It was obvious that Sunday that the president had decided to launch military strikes, but he made no mention of them to his communications team. Hughes asked what they should say about military action.

"If we've done something, describe what we've done," Bush replied. "If not, our message to the military: Be prepared." He also said the speech should set expectations for the American people about the war on terrorism -- that it would be "lengthy."

The next day, Monday, Bush was more urgent, telling Hughes he wanted to see a draft of the speech by that night. She knew how the speechwriters liked to operate, and said it would be difficult if not impossible to produce such an important speech that quickly.

"I want it by 7," Bush said.

Hughes relayed the president's instructions to chief speechwriter Michael Gerson. His reaction was the same: difficult if not impossible. "I already tried that," Hughes said.

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