Follow the Leader

The outcry over the first series of political commercials for President George W. Bush was swift and heartfelt. Using images of victims of the 9/11 attacks and firefighters responding to the emergency at the World Trade Center, the ads trumpeted President Bush's "steady" leadership. Families of the victims and representatives of the firefighters charged that the White House is using 9/11 to advance a political agenda. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to deflect this criticism by emphasizing that Bush's leadership has been steady. But the commercials themselves beg the question: What did President Bush do on 9/11? Giuliani himself framed the Bush question this way: "His leadership on that day is central to his record."

Over the weekend that followed initial broadcast of the Bush campaign commercials, both sides took positions on the appropriateness of their content. Democrats protested the imagery. President Bush, who in January 2002, when seeking an extra budget appropriation for his war on terrorism, had told congressional leaders, "I have no ambition whatsoever to use this as a political issue," backed away from that undertaking. From his Crawford, Texas, ranch on March 6 Bush declared, "I will continue to speak about the effects of 9/11 on our country and my presidency." Echoing Rudy Giuliani, Bush added, "How this administration handled that day, as well as the war on terror, is worthy of discussion."

A leader marches to the sound of the guns. George Washington, Robert E. Lee or Napoleon would have done that. Rudy Giuliani did do that. After the first plane struck the Twin Towers, he went immediately to the World Trade Center and helped supervise emergency efforts there. But what exactly did George W. Bush do?

On that crystalline day in September, President Bush was at the Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. Bush was to participate in a conference and some reading demonstrations in support of his "No Child Left Behind" education program. Learning of the terrorist attacks, President Bush made a brief televised statement in which he said he had spoken to Vice President Dick Cheney, FBI director Robert Mueller and New York Governor George Pataki. He called the terrorists "folks" and promised a full investigation. Then he left for the airport.

Air Force One was wheels up from Sarasota at 9:57 a.m., a little over 20 minutes after Bush's first statement. At that point, the president, the commander-in-chief, had three choices. Bush could have returned to Washington, where the Pentagon had also been hit by one of the terrorist planes, and where the president had told the nation he was headed. Bush could have gone to New York City, which had sustained the most grievous blows in the 9/11 attacks. What he chose -- the third option -- was to flee somewhere else to refuel, then remain in the air. The president's plane flew to Barksdale Air Force Base outside Shreveport, La. By choosing to fly to a remote location far away from the site of the attacks, Bush acquiesced to the demands of his security people. At the moment of the initial decision, there was still some reason for the moving out of danger, because one of the terrorist aircrafts, Flight 77, was still airborne, but it crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:10 a.m., only a few minutes into Bush's flight.

Did Bush march to the sound of the guns? Did he go to New York where his presence would have been the symbol of a nation unbowed? No. Instead, at about 10:40 a.m., when Air Force One picked up a fighter escort near Jacksonville, Bush accepted Cheney's advice not to return immediately to Washington.

Because every aircraft over the United States except official planes got orders to land, air traffic controllers and military air defense commanders could verify within a few hours that the airborne terrorist threat had ended. Certainly the situation had been clarified by 12:36, when Bush spoke again to the nation from Barksdale, looking flustered on television but promising the United States would track down the perpetrators. An hour later Air Force One was back in the air -- the real situation clearer yet -- but Bush flew to Offutt Air Force Base at Omaha, headquarters of the Air Combat Command, not to either Washington or New York. Offutt had a secure command post where Bush could teleconference with his top national security people, but he could have done that even more easily in Washington. Only late in the day did the president return to the East coast. He stepped onto White House grounds at about 7:00 that evening.

Three days after the attacks, President Bush finally went to New York. This sorry record is not one of steady leadership, nor does it show a decisive president willing to override poor advice.

The official record of Presidents of the United States, the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, which would have to have recorded Bush's statements of the morning and afternoon of 9/11, never appeared for the week of September 11, 2001. The remarks appeared only much later on the White House website. President Bush also went to extraordinary lengths to shield from public scrutiny his inaction on the terrorist threat before 9/11, including denial of documents to congressional investigators and a public commission, the use of secrecy rules to suppress embarrassing information and the manipulation of the scope of inquiry and its deadline to ensure investigators had minimal time in which to review the key issue of Bush's leadership on terrorism.

In contrast to this disturbing performance, George Bush went on to take every opportunity to harness 9/11 in service of his political agenda, contrary to his own promises of 2002. A carefully orchestrated World Trade Center speech on the first anniversary of the attacks, the use of the Statue of Liberty as backdrop for a 9/11 commemoration a year later, now the Bush political ads. This is leadership of a different kind.

John Prados is an analyst with the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, and author, most recently, of 'The White House Tapes; Eavesdropping on the President.'

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