“America is under attack.”
These were the words spoken by White House chief of staff Andrew Card to President George W. Bush as he sat in a Florida classroom just after 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. Bush had been listening as the students read a story called The Pet Goat.
The moment was immortalized for comedic effect in Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 911. Bush looked stunned and confused: like he had no idea what to do. After a few agonizing seconds, he reached for the book and began following along. He sat there for approximately eight minutes reading while all hell was breaking loose in the skies.
But to focus on how incompetent he looked is to risk missing the real point. He may have been in over his head, but there are more serious implications of his behaviour than just incompetence.
Let’s look at Bush’s reaction in context: by the time he received the news from Card, it was known to his top advisors that two hijacked airliners had been flown into the two towers of the World Trade Center. They also knew that a third plane was off course, out of contact, and presumed to be hijacked. It could have been heading to the White House, the Capital Building, or even to Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida where Bush and the kids were reading.
Bush’s schedule had been public for several days, so there was no way to know whether terrorists intended to target him at the school. His life could have been in danger, to say nothing of the lives of the children.
Did he then move swiftly to a waiting car so that he could take charge of the response to this catastrophic attack? No, he remained at the school for another 20 minutes, making a brief scheduled speech before leaving the school. The time now was 9:30 a.m.
Incredibly, he seemed to feel no need to respond to the crisis. And neither did his staff. When Card informed Bush that the second tower had been hit, he didn’t wait for a response or for instructions. He didn’t suggest the president leave immediately. He moved away.
Did the Secret Service leap into action to get him to safety without delay? No, they let him continue listening to The Pet Goat.
The real question is whether his reaction – or non reaction – to news of the unfolding terrorist attacks meant that he knew what was going to happen before it did. He didn’t have to rush out of the school because he knew there was no further danger.
Let’s look at the most curious thing Bush has said about that morning. When asked by a young person at a town hall meeting in December 2001 how he felt when he heard the towers had been hit, he responded this way:
“…actually I was in a classroom talking about a reading program that works. And I was sitting outside the classroom waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower – the TV was obviously on, and I use to fly myself, and I said, “There’s one terrible pilot.” And I said, “It must have been a horrible accident.”
Bush could not have seen the first plane hit because the first plane hitting the tower was not broadcast on TV until later that day.
Was he lying or just mistaken? I find the “the TV was obviously on” comment to sound like the kind of thing you’d say when you were lying and trying to sound casual, but that’s just a personal impression.
Also, Bush says: “I was whisked off there – I didn’t have much time to think…”
We know this isn’t true. He stayed in the school for another half hour. At no time was he in a hurry to leave. There were numerous accounts that later supported the story that he left immediately, including those of Andrew Card and the teacher in the classroom. But we know he didn’t.
What’s even more odd is that Bush repeated his claim to have seen the first crash a month later in another town hall meeting.
“…well, first of all, when we walked into the classroom, I had seen this plane fly into the first building. There was a TV set on.”
It might be possible to get confused about the order that things happened, or who told you what, but to say TWICE that you saw the first impact on TV is incredible. It suggests one of two things: he lied about seeing the impact on the TV, or he did see a private feed of the impact. This of course could only have happened if he and his handlers knew it would happen in advance.
Could he have been referring to seeing the second impact? No, because he was already with the children when that happened at 9:03. We know that because it was the second crash that Card leaned over to tell him about.
There are several other versions of how Bush found out about the first plane hitting the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. Some have him getting word in the limousine as he approached Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida; he would have been in the car when it happened. Other reports indicate that he didn’t find out until he arrived at the school just before 9 a.m.
Can you imagine being mistaken about seeing the first plane hit? It’s not the kind of thing you forget or imagine.
What can explain Bush’s bizarre behaviour? Why didn’t his handlers get him out of a potentially very dangerous situation – for him and everyone else in the school? And why has no journalist held him to account for his actions that morning?