I was with President George W. Bush in Sarasota, Fla., the morning of September 11, 2001, covering what was supposed to be a sleepy day of education policy for CNN as one of its White House correspondents. That seemingly routine assignment meant I was there at the dawn of a new history for America, a new normal that felt anything but.
My CNN team had serious doubts anything of consequence would happen during Bush’s tour later that morning of Emma T. Booker Elementary School. Our only chance to get a coveted slot on CNN air time: If the president said anything interesting when pool cameras caught him coming back from his early morning jog. Little did I know how ridiculous these routine news calculations would later feel.
It was a warm, thick morning so typical of Florida that time of year. Bush finished his jog and made some brief comments about the economy and taxes. Nothing earth-shattering.
What I have always remembered about that day in retrospect was that while Bush was jogging, the 9/11 plot was already in motion. One of the distinct feelings you get as a reporter covering the White House—any White House—is that it’s not only the apex of power in the world but the hub of all information.
Not that day.
Bush jogged while the 9/11 hijackers were either on their flights or about to be. And neither Bush nor anyone around him could see it coming. I’ve gone back and looked at the tape of Bush finishing his jog and he looks genuinely unconcerned—happy for a bit of exercise and willing to take a few questions on domestic policy, but otherwise untroubled and unaware of what was about to transform America, his presidency, and the world.
What was unique about every part of that morning, in retrospect, was the utter inability of the most powerful nation on earth, the nation in possession of the most advanced intelligence-gathering capability, to see what was coming. It’s one thing for most of America to be blind. It is quite another for the head of government and everyone around him to be blind as well.
On that morning of unknowing, there was less distance between every American and their president than at almost any other time in history. All of us were caught flat-footed, left to grope for a sense of coherence and response. When it comes to national security, we shouldn’t be that close to our leaders. But that morning, we were. It was the most eerie feeling I’ve ever known in my life.
As events played out on TV screens in the makeshift press room at Emma Booker Elementary, seasoned reporters blinked in disbelief. So did those traveling with Bush. While I did not see much of Bush’s inner circle—Chief of Staff Andy Card, senior adviser Karl Rove and Communications Director Dan Bartlett stayed close to the president—a general sense of a paralysis seemed to infect others on the Bush team in those desperate and painful moments after both planes hit the towers. All of us, reporters and Bush aides alike, so used to purposeful action, were left without anything we could do.
What is very hard to understand unless you were there is how incomprehensible everything seemed that morning. As I was preparing for a live shot on Bush’s remarks and phone conversations he had just had with his national security team, word came of a plane crashing into the Pentagon.
Then reports started flying that bombs were exploding near the Capitol, on the National Mall, at the State Department. It took awhile to separate rumor from fact, but in the unsettling in between, everything seemed horribly plausible.
And the White House team didn’t know what was next. Their tense, hollow looks have haunted me ever since—not because I believed then or believe now they should have known everything to do, but because I can’t imagine sitting atop the most powerful government on earth and feeling ignorant of what was happening and powerless to stop it.
All these thoughts came rushing back to me Sunday night as news surfaced of bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Special Operations forces. We have only now begun to learn about the stealth of the operation and the military precision with which it was executed.
This is one reporter’s perspective on what feels like a bookend. But we all know the story doesn’t end here. The war against Islamic extremism goes on and might intensify.
But we’ve been at this for 10 years and from the moment of incomprehension on the morning of 9/11 to Sunday night’s jubilation outside the White House, America saw its armed forces and intelligence networks approach this task seriously. It watched diplomacy work and go awry. It learned much about counter-terrorism’s strengths as a tactic and its limitations without hard, actionable intelligence.
America also learned a great deal about perseverance at a political level, at a policy level and at an operational level. Success takes time. Patience as well as courage are often required. Sometimes, the greatest form of courage is to be patient.
It appears America was both in the way information about bin Laden was obtained and sifted—and in the way in which the operation was carried out. It is worth noting and celebrating that George W. Bush and Barack Obama, two very different men from utterly different backgrounds and perspectives on American politics, pursued the same goal and achieved it on behalf of a grateful country. The death of bin Laden links them both.
On 9/11, we knew that was the goal. But in the chaos of that day and through years of dead-ends and failed operations, it wasn’t always clear America would find the world’s most wanted man. The prospect that this unfinished business would haunt America up to and beyond the 10th anniversary of those atrocities seemed not only real, but likely.
Until it wasn’t. Welcome to the new, new normal.
This article appears in the May 3, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.