You're at a photo op, reading a book with schoolchildren and an aide suddenly whispers that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center. "America is under attack."
You're the president of the United States. What do you do?
There have been other moments like this in American history, when the chief executive was suddenly plunged into a crisis, but they weren't caught on videotape. George W. Bush was on camera in an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla. He could see the pagers of reporters and photographers going off, one by one. He was on the spot like few people have ever been.
From two different angles, Americans have new glimpses of that historic moment. One comes from rabble-rousing Michael Moore, whose Bush-eviscerating film "Fahrenheit 9/11" premieres next week, and includes an uninterrupted seven-minute segment showing Bush's reaction after hearing the news of the attack. He doesn't move.
Instead he continues to sit in the classroom, listening to children read aloud. Moore lets the tape roll as the minutes pass painfully by.
And now from a second angle: The staff of the 9/11 Commission this week released a report that summarizes Bush's closed-door testimony about his thoughts as he sat there.
"The President told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis . . . The President felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening."
This moment will surely be used by the president's political opponents, and with equal fervor defended by his supporters. However it is interpreted, it points out a basic truth about any president: He's both an executive and a symbolic figure. He's the spiritual leader of the nation as well as the head of state. He's monarch and prime minister.
Sometimes he has to decide what role to take.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek of Boston University thinks Bush focused too much on appearances, rather than leaping into action.
"It speaks volumes about the preoccupation these politicians have about manipulating image," Dallek said yesterday. Bush should have immediately excused himself and started figuring out what was happening and what he could do. "The way to project calm and strength is to take care of business."
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at the University of New Orleans, concurs: "I don't understand how one sits there. I just don't. Minutes are an eternity in that sort of situation. . . . A quick presidential decision may save lives."
Brinkley credits Bush with dusting himself off after a rough first day and regaining his composure. And he acknowledges that few presidents have had to endure such a Candid Camera moment. But Brinkley adds, "Character is not defined in good times, when you've been properly briefed, it's defined when you're in a desperate crisis situation."
Presidential scholar Fred Greenstein, a professor emeritus at Princeton, defends Bush's response in the initial minutes.
"It's made a little more complex by being in the presence of little kids," Greenstein said. "It certainly wouldn't present the right message if he turned white, rushed out, and kids started crying."
The commission report this week is not the first glimpse into Bush's thought processes in the critical minutes after the first planes crashed. Bush has previously told Bob Woodward, "They had declared war on us, and I made up my mind at that moment that we were going to war."
Eventually, at the suggestion of an aide, Bush got up and went to a holding room. He spoke briefly to the vice president, his national security adviser, the governor of New York and the head of the FBI, according to the commission report. Then, the report states, Bush spent roughly 15 minutes working on what he'd say to the cameras at the elementary school. He was acting as Communicator in Chief, in a sense. With his senior aides, he worked on his lines.
"As far as we know, no one was in contact with the Pentagon. The focus was on the President's statement to the nation. No decisions were made at this time, other than the decision to return to Washington," the report states. The president was persuaded to fly to Louisiana and then Nebraska before finally returning to the capital.
Presidents of an earlier era did not have to contend with so many cameras and microphones and the endless appetite for material to put on 24-hour cable news channels. Greenstein said that there are anecdotal reports that, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR held his head in his hands and despaired of the future of his presidency. But that is not the image Americans retain of Roosevelt's reaction.
Instead we think of his powerful address to Congress the next day -- his "date which will live in infamy" speech.
Nor do we have tape of John F. Kennedy learning that the Soviets had placed missiles in Cuba. Sally Bedell Smith, author of a new book on the Kennedy White House, says that his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, didn't even pass the portentous news to Kennedy for about 12 hours. Kennedy had returned from an exhausting campaign trip. Bundy decided that "a quiet evening and a night of sleep were the best preparation" for the critical days ahead. As the crisis unfolded, Kennedy slept.
Americans did not see Lyndon Johnson's immediate reaction to the assassination of JFK. But Johnson, who had been in the same motorcade, made a quick image-conscious decision: Although he automatically became president upon Kennedy's death, he arranged to be sworn in on Air Force One with Jackie Kennedy at his side. The photograph of that moment became iconic, not so much because of the somber Johnson as for the shocked widow with blood on her dress.
"He wanted this as a symbol of his authority," Dallek said. "Jackie is at his side and she's giving legitimacy to his presidency."
Bush was conscious on Sept. 11 of the need, for symbolic reasons, to return to Washington, but was persuaded by the Secret Service, Cheney and other aides that the situation was too risky. Some critics, Dallek among them, say Bush should have overruled his aides. The commission report states that all participants agree that Bush argued forcefully for returning.
The commission report portrays a discombobulated government that can't even keep track of the hijacked planes. Fighter planes fly in the wrong direction, pilots have no idea why they're in the air (maybe a cruise missile attack?), orders don't get passed along the chain of command. Everyone's flying blind. The president borrows a cell phone to try to get through to the White House.
Symbolically and substantively, the ship of state was foundering.
But even the harshest critics concede that the nation's spiritual leader rallied in the days thereafter. His bullhorn performance on the rubble of the World Trade Center is considered a bravura moment. He made compelling appearances at the National Cathedral, before Congress, and in a news conference in the East Room of the White House. When professional baseball resumed play, he courageously walked to the mound in a crowded stadium and threw out the first pitch.
Some of these images will reappear in the months ahead as the election nears and the commercials begin to saturate the airwaves. The president has surely had some excellent moments.
And seven excruciating minutes.