Five years later:
"His face just started to turn red," said Tyler, now 13 and in seventh grade. "I thought, personally, he had to go to the bathroom."To be fair, the children are quite kind to Bush and his reaction to the news. What that picture exemplifies for me, though, is Bush's mad dash around the country, anywhere he thought would take him away from danger. That is, I must say, consistent with Bush's later actions and statements. But apparently even my recollection leads down a rabbit hole:
For a puzzling seven minutes, the youngsters read aloud from the story "The Pet Goat" while the shaken president followed along in front of the class, trying to come to grips with what he had been told _ that a second plane had just hit the World Trade Center and the nation was under terrorist attack.
"He looked like he was going to cry," said Natalia Jones-Pinkney, now 12.
Culling hundreds of reports from newspapers, magazines, and the internet has only made finding the “truth” of what happened and when it happened more confusing. In the changed political climate after 9/11, few have dared raise challenging questions about Bush’s actions. A journalist who said Bush was “flying around the country like a scared child, seeking refuge in his mother’s bed after having a nightmare” and another who said Bush “skedaddled” were fired. [Washington Post, 9/29/01 (B)] We should have a concise record of where President Bush was throughout the day the US was attacked, but we do not.According to the 9/11 Commission report (p.56), Air Force One left the ground in Florida "without any fixed destination." Bush said he wanted to go to Washington, but the Secret Service, Andy Card, and finally Cheney, persuaded him not to do so. Bush made this sound like it was over his vigorous objections. However:
When Bush was asked in May 2002 why he had flown to two Air Force bases [one in Louisiana, one in Nebraska] before returning to Washington, Bush said, “I was trying to get out of harm’s way.” [White House, 5/21/02]The 9/11 Commission Report doesn't seem to say any more about where the President went, or what he did that day, a curious lacunae, especially as the report after that focusses on what the Vice-President did in Washington. Perhaps, 5 years later, we should be remembering that, too. We should certainly consider this:
This is an anniversary so cheerless that any straw is worth clutching at. Here's a straw: in the most recent polls, the number of Americans who believe that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11 plot, which stood at 80 per cent in 2002, and 64 per cent early in 2005, has now slipped to the high twenties - roughly the same numbers, give or take a percentage point, as those of the conspiracy theorists who believe that the Bush administration planned the atrocities, or at least allowed them to happen, in order to further its imperial ambitions in the Middle East. Bush's presidential rhetoric has never been so widely disbelieved. The fiction that in Iraq we're fighting terrorists abroad to stop them attacking us at home is increasingly being recognised for what it is. The administration's renewed efforts to conflate every militant Islamic organisation across the globe into a single homogeneous force, the terrifying equal of Nazism, fascism, and Soviet Communism, is at last beginning to ring hollow in the ears of a distinct majority of Americans. The President's approval-ratings (between 36 per cent and 38 per cent last week) suggest that he is now very nearly down to his unshakeably faithful core base.Frank Rich
Were the Democrats to gain control of the House of Representatives and/or the Senate in the November mid-term elections (not very likely but certainly possible)**, that would at least restore the separation of powers, allowing a Democratic legislative branch to check and balance the Republican executive. Unless and until that happens, the Bush administration is likely to go on using the images and memories of September 11 to reinforce and justify the enormous boost of power it received on September 18. What further discord this turbocharged presidency may engineer here and in the larger world between now and January 2009 is the stuff of international bad dreams.
But even as we celebrate this resilience, it too comes at a price. The companion American trait to resilience is forgetfulness. What we’ve forgotten too quickly is the outpouring of affection and unity that swelled against all odds in the wake of Al Qaeda’s act of mass murder. If you were in New York then, you saw it in the streets, and not just at ground zero, where countless thousands of good Samaritans joined the official responders and caregivers to help, at the cost of their own health. You saw it as New Yorkers of every kind gathered around the spontaneous shrines to the fallen and the missing at police and fire stations, at churches and in parks, to lend solace or a hand. This good feeling quickly spread to Capitol Hill, to red states where New York had once been Sodom incarnate and to the world, the third world included, where America was a nearly uniform object of sympathy and grief..
At the National Cathedral prayer service on Sept. 14, 2001, President Bush found just the apt phrase to describe this phenomenon: “Today we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called ‘the warm courage of national unity.’ This is the unity of every faith and every background. It has joined together political parties in both houses of Congress.” What’s more, he added, “this unity against terror is now extending across the world.”
The destruction of that unity, both in this nation and in the world, is as much a cause for mourning on the fifth anniversary as the attack itself. As we can’t forget the dead of 9/11, we can’t forget how the only good thing that came out of that horror, that unity, was smothered in its cradle.
When F.D.R. used the phrase “the warm courage of national unity,” it was at his first inaugural, in 1933, as the country reeled from the Great Depression. It is deeply moving to read that speech today. In its most famous line, Roosevelt asserted his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Another passage is worth recalling, too: “We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective.”
What followed under Roosevelt’s leadership is one of history’s most salutary stories. Americans responded to his twin entreaties — to renounce fear and to sacrifice for the common good — with a force that turned back economic calamity and ultimately an axis of brutal enemies abroad. What followed Mr. Bush’s speech at the National Cathedral, we know all too well, is another story.
On the very next day after that convocation, Mr. Bush was asked at a press conference “how much of a sacrifice” ordinary Americans would “be expected to make in their daily lives, in their daily routines.” His answer: “Our hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifice whatsoever.” He, too, wanted to move on — to “see life return to normal in America,” as he put it — but toward partisan goals stealthily tailored to his political allies rather than the nearly 90 percent of the country that, according to polls, was rallying around him.
This selfish agenda was there from the very start. As we now know from many firsthand accounts, a cadre from Mr. Bush’s war cabinet was already busily hyping nonexistent links between Iraq and the Qaeda attacks. The presidential press secretary, Ari Fleischer, condemned Bill Maher’s irreverent comic response to 9/11 by reminding “all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do.” Fear itself — the fear that “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” as F.D.R. had it — was already being wielded as a weapon against Americans by their own government.
Less than a month after 9/11, the president was making good on his promise of “no sacrifice whatsoever.” Speaking in Washington about how it was “the time to be wise” and “the time to act,” he declared, “We need for there to be more tax cuts.” Before long the G.O.P. would be selling 9/11 photos of the president on Air Force One to campaign donors and the White House would be featuring flag-draped remains of the 9/11 dead in political ads.
And so here we are five years later. Fearmongering remains unceasing. So do tax cuts. So does the war against a country that did not attack us on 9/11. We have moved on, but no one can argue that we have moved ahead
*Yes, a sad reminder of what we had, and what we have squandered.
**Not likely at all.