September 11 is often said to be the defining moment in the Bush presidency, even of modern history. How strange, therefore, that Bush's behavior that morning--along with that of his Administration--is almost never examined in any detail. This is all the more incredible when one considers the fact that 9/11 is among the most exhaustively chronicled days in human history and Bush among its most heavily covered individuals. No less odd has been the media's willingness to let the many inconsistencies in White House stories pass unexamined. They seem content instead to let Showtime tell the story, Leni Riefenstahl-style.
That fateful morning, Bush was visiting the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota. The moment he learned of the attacks is a matter of deep dispute. CIA chief George Tenet was informed of the first crash almost immediately and is reported to have remarked to his breakfast companion, former Senator David Boren, "You know, this has bin Laden's fingerprints all over it." But the President's aides maintain that he was not told about the attack for more than fifteen minutes, well after viewers saw the first building engulfed in smoke on CNN, and even after he interrupted his schedule to take a call from Condoleezza Rice upon leaving his limousine, after the first crash took place.
The various accounts offered by the White House are almost all inconsistent with one another. On December 4, 2001, Bush was asked, "How did you feel when you heard about the terrorist attack?" Bush replied, "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 used to fly myself, and I said, well, there's one terrible pilot. I said, it must have been a horrible accident. But I was whisked off there. I didn't have much time to think about it." Bush repeated the same story on January 5, 2002, stating, "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. And you know, I thought it was pilot error, and I was amazed that anybody could make such a terrible mistake...."
This is false. Nobody saw the jetliner crash into the first tower on television until a videotape surfaced a day later. What's more, Bush's memory not only contradicts every media report of that morning, it also contradicts what he said on the day of the attack. In his speech to the nation that evening, Bush said, "Immediately following the first attack, I implemented our government's emergency response plans." Again, this statement has never been satisfactorily explained. No one besides Bush has ever spoken of these "emergency plans," and the mere idea of their implementation is contradicted by Bush's claim that at the time, he believed the crash to have been a case of pilot error.
Other contradictions abound. Bush told an interviewer that Chief of Staff Andrew Card had been the first person to let him know of the crash. Card was saying, Bush explained, "'Here's what you're going to be doing: You're going to meet so-and-so, such-and-such.' Then Andy Card said, 'By the way, an aircraft flew into the World Trade Center.'" Ari Fleischer repeated this story, claiming that Card had told Bush about the crash "as the President finished shaking hands in a hallway of school officials." But other sources, including Bob Woodward's allegedly authoritative account, have Karl Rove telling Bush the news.
What we do know is that Bush continued to read to the children and pose for the cameras long after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon, the White House, the Secret Service and Canada's Strategic Command were all aware that three jetliners had been hijacked. The President's entourage hung around a full fifty minutes after CNN broadcast the news of the first crash. Half an hour after the first plane hit, Bush told the children, "Hoo! These are great readers. Very impressive! Thank you all so very much for showing me your reading skills. I bet they practice, too. Don't you? Reading more than they watch TV? Anybody do that? Read more than you watch TV? [Hands go up] Oh that's great! Very good. Very important to practice! Thanks for having me. I'm very impressed."
White House staff members claimed that Bush remained with the children so as not to "upset" or "alarm" them. This is a truly bewildering excuse. If the country was under attack, Bush might be forgiven for upsetting a few schoolkids. If the President's life was in danger, then so was the life of every little child in that room. At the time, fighter jets had been dispatched to defend New York City. But according to one of the fighter pilots, it would have done no good to catch up to one of the hijacked planes before it landed in a murderous explosion at the next population center. The only person with the authority to order the plane to be shot down, noted the pilot, was the President, who was still reading to schoolchildren.
The panic motif runs through the rest of the President's actions that day. While the presidential motorcade did finally head for the airport, Bush is alleged to have spoken on the phone to Cheney and ordered all flights nationwide grounded. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has also tried to take credit for the order, but according to Slate, this too is false, though "FAA officials had begged [the reporter] to maintain the fiction." In fact, according to USA Today, it was FAA administrator Ben Sliney who issued the order. Amazingly, Air Force One took off with no military protection. It remained unprotected in the sky for more than an hour, though Florida is filled with Air Force bases just minutes away with planes that are supposed to be on twenty-four-hour alert.
Bush's aides later offered, and retracted, the excuse that he spent the day flying around the country because of threats to Air Force One believed to have been received at the White House. What nobody has ever explained is this: If you think Air Force One is to be attacked, why go up in Air Force One?
I don't have the answers to these questions. But why is no one asking them?
Eric Alterman currently writes the "Stop the Presses" media column for The Nation and the "Altercation" web log for MSNBC.com.
Copyright © 2003 The Nation