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

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.