In watching various 9/11 retrospectives in the weeks leading up to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I keep coming back to one thought: Thank God George W. Bush was president, and not the enfeebled Joe Biden or the mendacious Barack Obama. It’s hard to even imagine how much worse those awful days following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would have been without the steady hand of Bush, who was at the time just seven months into his presidency.
One documentary I watched last week has Bush recounting that terrible day, moment by moment, beginning with his routine morning jog. He described his feelings upon being told by chief of staff Andy Card that America was under attack as he sat listening to children reading in a Sarasota, Fla., school. “I’m sitting in the midst of a classroom with little kids, listening to a children’s story and I realize I’m the commander in chief and the country has just come under attack,” he later recalled. For just a moment, his face betrayed shock, but Bush quickly regained his composure, allowing storytime to continue for another eight or nine minutes so as not to frighten the children with an abrupt departure. One can only imagine the emotions that were running through his mind at that moment: fear, anger, uncertainty, disbelief—the same ones the rest of us were feeling, but with the addition of the great weight of his responsibility.
He faced that moment like a man, standing before the children and teachers at the school, appearing cool and composed, and speaking directly to the American people:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America. I, unfortunately, will be going back to Washington after my remarks. Secretary (of education) Rod Paige and the lieutenant governor will take the podium and discuss education. I do want to thank the folks here at Booker Elementary School for their hospitality.
Today, we have had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country. I have spoken to the vice president, to the governor of New York and to the director of the FBI, and I’ve ordered the full resources of the federal government to help the victims and their families and to find those folks who committed this act.
Terrorism against our nation will not stand. And now, if you’ll join me in a moment of silence.
As we all know now, he was first ushered into an adjacent classroom, where he was briefed, and then spoke with Vice President Dick Cheney and Sec. of State Condi Rice by phone. The president was then hustled onto Air Force one, where he no doubt had a few minutes to absorb the enormity of what had happened and to contemplate what his role would be in the coming weeks and months. The plane circled for 40 minutes, and then took the president first to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, Louisiana, and later to Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska. Bush was told that it wasn’t safe to return to Washington, but by 4 p.m. he had had enough of hopscotching around the country in search of a safe haven. He insisted that the president of the United States needed to be in Washington, D.C.—the American people needed to see and hear from their president. By 7 p.m., he was back in the White House, against the advice of his advisors and military officials.
At 8:30 p.m., Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office, projecting a delicate balance of confidence, rage, compassion, and strength.
“Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts,” he began.
“Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America,” he declared. “These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”
“This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world,” he concluded.
How would Joe Biden have handled his presidential duties on such a harrowing day? We can only guess, but if his response to the attacks on the Kabul airport and the botched evacuation are any indication, the answer is: poorly. Would he have had the guts to return to the White House that night? Or would have allowed his handlers to lead him from bunker to bunker, leaving others to figure out how to deal with the fallout from the horrific terrorist attack? Would Biden have been mentally coherent enough to issue a shoot-down order for planes after U.S. airspace was shut down? Would he have been able to stay awake past 8 p.m. or would there have been a dinner-time lid so he could get to his warm milk and blankie?
And how about Barack Obama? Would he have vowed to hunt down the terrorists who attacked our country, causing untold pain and suffering, or would he have blamed us, the American people, for the evil deeds of the terrorists, giving them cover while Americans suffered?
While there’s much to criticize in Bush’s actions during the War on Terror and his post-presidential years, I am convinced that he was the right man to lead us through those awful days. He was sober, vigilant, compassionate, and driven to help the country heal. He managed to bring together a nation that just seven months before was roiled by partisan bickering over the 2000 election. For that, I’ll forever be grateful.