Shock, confusion, fear, anger, grief, and defiance. On Sept. 11, 2001, and for the three days following the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, President George W. Bush led with raw emotion that reflected the public’s whipsawing stages of acceptance.
Say what you want to say about the rest of his presidency, including his tone-deaf response to Katrina and a war waged in Iraq on false pretenses, Bush connected with Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 because he looked as frail and unforgiving as we felt. A timeline of Bush’s emoting:
Tuesday, Sept. 11: The president is told about the attacks while reading to second graders at Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. As chief of staff Andy Card whispers in his ear, television cameras capture the shock on Bush’s face. Not wanting to scare the children, Bush continues with the event and tells reporters a few minutes later, “Two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”
Bush boards Air Force One en route to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and later the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Fearing an attack on the plane, the Air Force pilot shuts down communications. In Washington, senior White House adviser Karen Hughes puts an Associated Press reporter on hold to clear a statement with Bush in which the president assures the country that the U.S. government is functioning.
“Oh my God,” Hughes tells the reporter, “I can’t get through to Air Force One.”
Confusion rules until a videotape of Bush at Barksdale is released. “I want to reassure the American people that the full resources of the federal government are working to assist local authorities to save lives and to help the victims of these attacks,” the president says. Chalk it up to the hustle of events and poor video quality, but the president looks scared and a bit over his head. He is hardly reassuring.
That night, Bush gathers himself for a nationally televised address from the White House. Anger is rising in the president and in the public. “These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat,” he says. “But they have failed.”
Wednesday, Sept. 12: Reporters are ushered into the Cabinet Room to hear from Bush after a meeting with his lieutenants. He declares war. “The deliberate and deadly attacks, which were carried out yesterday against our country, were more than acts of terror. They were acts of war.”
Thursday, Sept. 13: Bush takes questions from a small group of reporters in the Oval Office. One reporter presses Bush about threats against Air Force One on 9/11. “I will not discuss the intelligence our country is gathering,” Bush responds. A second reporter asks Bush how he has been bolstered since 9/11 by his faith. The seemingly softball question strikes a nerve. “I don’t think about myself right now. I think about the families, the children. I’m a loving guy and I’m also someone, however, who’s got a job to do and I intend to do it.”
Bush is visibly fighting back tears and his voice cracks as he continues: “This is a terrible moment. But this country will not relent.”
Friday, Sept. 14: Bush will long be remembered for the famous bullhorn moment, and rightly so because this is the day the country and its president united in defiance. “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you!” Bush told a rescue worker from atop a crumpled fire truck at Ground Zero. “And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” It was one of the most genuine displays of emotion you’ll ever see from a president.