Eyewitness to History: Recalling Bush's Leadership on 9/11

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.