In 2001, I was a regional director for the Republican Party of Florida, responsible for grassroots activities in ten key Republican counties from Manatee down to Collier. A regular part of my job included attending presidential visits to my region and providing staff support by doing whatever was needed, from site prep to corralling guests, media, and bystanders into some kind of organized chaos.
Presidential visits were always exciting, and this was no exception. But working for this president was slightly different for me, because I had the opportunity to see the Bush family up close and personal on several occasions when working for his campaign. I had come to believe in George W. Bush — the man and his character. On election night, I saw the major networks prematurely call the election for Al Gore in Florida and I knew it was wrong. Key counties in my region hadn’t finished even 25% reporting, and if the Republican votes came in the way I’d predicted, Gore couldn’t win.
It turned out I was right, and the next day began a marathon of sleep-deprived weeks guzzling Diet Cokes and staring at hanging, dangling, and pregnant chads. The 2000 presidential election was an all-out battle to the very end, so every opportunity I had to work for this president was somehow bolstered by the feeling that I had played a tiny part in working for those 537 votes that ultimately made Bush president.
So on the week of September 11, 2001, when I learned the president would be visiting Booker Elementary School in Sarasota to promote his new reading initiative, I called my boss and asked if there was anything I could do. “They have it pretty well covered, but sure, if you want to go and help out, that would be fine,” he said. It was only a 45-minute drive from Fort Myers to Sarasota, and when I arrived at the school I took my place amongst the other security-cleared staff members and VIPs waiting out front to greet the president.
Events like these always had a slew of last-minute busy-work items: a politician with bad directions, people without name tags, and questions from the crowd about photo ops and such. As I focused on these tasks, the president arrived and the anticipated schedule was soon underway.
I found an unobtrusive spot in the back of Ms. Daniels’ second-grade class. Because of my job I recognized the local and state politicians and exchanged nods with a few as the president sat amongst the children, reading along to The Pet Goat as planned. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had learned that the first plane had crashed into the World Trade Center about ten minutes before he arrived. At that moment, however, there was no way to tell that it was anything other than a tragic accident that would be monitored accordingly.
I can still hear the cadence of the children’s voices as they read aloud, and Chief of Staff Andrew Card (watch a PJTV interview with Card here) silently walked over to the president in what would become the most famous picture in America, leaned down, and whispered in his ear. The second plane had just flown directly into Tower 2 and the nation was under attack.
We had been in the room no more than five minutes. Since that time President Bush has been criticized for his decision to remain seated and allow the children to finish their reading. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who was not present, tried to portray Bush as a man paralyzed by fear and ignorance, and perhaps for those who weren’t there it seemed true.
But this is my story as I experienced it first-hand. In that moment when Andrew Card stood back up, there was something palpable, but this was the president he was talking to, and it could have been anything in the world, literally. There was no panic. No fear. No confusion emanating from Bush the man. There was strength of resolve to lead. In the moment that he never knew would happen, George W. Bush demonstrated true leadership. He instinctively knew that these were young children, and that lasting impressions had impact. He remained calm and let them finish; a decision that delayed things by only five minutes.
Then, with much gratitude, he very efficiently thanked the class, looking at several children directly in the eye as he was so good about doing. He passed out signed boxes of M&M’s as promised and then promptly exited. The buzz immediately began amongst people, but that would have happened at any presidential event.
I learned later that he was on the phone being briefed by his advisors. After the reading, he was originally scheduled to read with some fifth graders and also address a crowd in a media room. Instead, at about 9:20 or so, he gave a five-minute statement that the nation was under attack. Even then, he was the epitome of what it means to be a leader.
Leadership is, in many ways, instinctive, and Bush had the instinct. He was concerned but decisive. He didn’t need polls or media hype to gauge what the public would want him to do. True leaders are elected precisely because they don’t have to question their instincts in these moments. They have within them the resources to see with clarity and determination. And that was George W. Bush.
As the president’s motorcade sped for Air Force One, I sped down I-75 towards home. As I turned down the smaller streets near the school, gaggles of protestors waved signs and a few made some lewd gestures as the motorcade drove by. In hindsight that was unfortunate, but who knew that in moments there would be a nation-wide no-fly zone and that the fabric of America would be changed forever.
By this time all the networks were showing live footage of the tragedy and the Pentagon had been hit, so most folks were glued to the nearest television somewhere while I was barreling down a desolate interstate at very illegal speeds knowing that I wouldn’t get a ticket. By the time I reached my house, everyone I knew had rallied in one way or another. It was that sense of panic and solidarity; of complete shock that almost deadens your ability to believe what’s happening.
As I watched the footage replayed throughout the day, the image of our president never left me. And as much concern and fear as I had for our nation’s safety, the strength and pride I felt came directly from the way he acted that day. In those few moments in Ms. Daniels’ class, I saw a man who demonstrated the character that it takes to lead a nation. Leadership like that is contagious, giving strength to those who witness it.
I’ve actually never written about it until today. For the last decade, it’s been something just for me; my experience of an historical moment that, no matter what I read, confirmed that I knew how it really was.
During the 2000 campaign, Bush was on one of his many Florida stops and I had the honor of standing by the plane stairs and shaking his hand as he left. At the time I was president of the Young Republicans club and I said, “Mr. Bush, we’re working real hard for you down here in Florida; I hope we make you proud.” And as he held my hand, he looked straight into my eyes and said, “Oh no, it’s my job to make you proud. And I promise you I’ll do my best.” On September 11, 2001, he made good on that promise.