President Bush on 9/11: project calm, fog of war & ‘living day to day’
Former President George W. Bush sat down with National Geographic to personally reflect on the events of September 11th. The tenth anniversary special aired this weekend and Bush offered insight as the events unfolded and how he approached his role as President afterwards.
At the very moment that President Bush was advised about attacks on the United States in Sept. 11, he was reading to a group of elementary school students in Florida. He famously continued reading the book, “The Pet Goat,” for several minutes afterward.
His first reaction was “anger, who the hell … would do that to America?” the 43rd president said he “made the decision not to jump up immediately … I didn’t want to rattle the kids. I wanted to project a sense of calm.”
“In the back of the room, reporters were on their cell phones. They were getting the same message I got. Which meant that a lot of people would be watching my reactions to these crises.”
Bush also opened up about his fears for his own family’s safety on that day, and the relief he felt when he learned his wife, Laura, and their two daughters were safe.
He was whisked away from the school and rushed onto Air Force One, where Secret Service told him he wouldn’t be going back to the nation’s capital, out of concerns for his safety. He protested.
“I was frustrated I wasn’t at the command center in Washington. I was frustrated that I was flying around the country. I was frustrated we had been attacked, and I was frustrated the communication system wasn’t working any good,” he said. “But, in a moment of crisis like this, it’s important not to be frustrated. It’s important to be focused on the task at hand, which was to gather information. And make decisions — in this case on how to protect the country and respond to the attacks.”
He told the Secret Service to take him back to Washington, D.C.
“September the 11th affected my presidency, and it caused … it caused me to make many decisions. Some of which were extremely controversial. All of which were designed to protect the homeland. I didn’t have a strategy. I was living day by day,” he said.
Bush also discussed his emotions when learned of the assassination of Osama bin Laden.
“I decided to take the call at the house. And President Obama called me, told me that Osama bin Laden had been killed. And my response was, I congratulated him, and the special operators that conducted a very dangerous mission.
“And so I was grateful,” he added. “I didn’t … feel any great sense of happiness. Or jubilation. I felt a sense of closure. And I felt a sense of gratitude that justice had been done.”
“Eventually September the 11th will be a date on the calendar, it’ll be like Pearl Harbor day. For those of us who lived through it, it’ll be a day that we’ll never forget.”