time to lead
By Bill Sammon
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
October 7, 2002
First of three parts
The United States launched its counterattack on
Osama bin Laden's terror network in Afghanistan one year
ago today. Bill Sammon, senior White House correspondent
for The Washington Times, tells the inside story of
President Bush's war on terror in his new book,
"Fighting Back" (Regnery).
"A second plane hit the second tower. America is
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card leaned over and
whispered these words into President Bush's right ear at
9:07 a.m. September 11.
"I looked at him, and that's all he said," Mr.
Bush recalled months later, in a series of extensive
interviews with The Washington Times in the Oval Office
and aboard Air Force One. "Then he left. There was
no time for discussion or anything."
The old phase of the Bush presidency 234 days of
sparring on tax cuts, stem-cell research, media recounts
of the Florida ballots was suddenly, irretrievably
Now there was this new phase, beginning incongruously
inside a classroom in Sarasota, Fla., as the president
watched a teacher put her second-graders through a
"And I can't remember anything the lady was saying
from that point on," Mr. Bush recalled. "I
might have been looking at her, but I wasn't hearing.
"And my mind was registering what it meant to hear
'America is under attack' and to be the commander in
chief of the country at that moment."
George W. Bush awoke that morning before dawn in a bed
whose last famous occupant had been Al Gore. Blinking
into consciousness, the president of the United States
was alone in a massive, luxury penthouse suite at the
Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on the island of
Longboat Key, Fla.
To his left was a wall of windows overlooking the Gulf of
Mexico, where a pair of heavily armed boats patrolled the
murky surf. To his right was Sarasota Bay and, beyond it,
the city of Sarasota, where he was scheduled to give an
unremarkable speech on education reform.
Swaddled in the finest Frette linens and matching duvet,
the president was stretched out on the same king-sized
bed where Mr. Gore had slept nearly five years earlier,
on the eve of his vice-presidential debate with Jack Kemp
in nearby St. Petersburg.
As was his custom, Mr. Bush had gone to bed early after
enjoying a relaxed Tex-Mex dinner with his brother,
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and a dozen other Republican
officeholders, party leaders and aides.
The president swung his 6-foot frame out of bed and soon
left the penthouse to begin a brisk, four and a half mile
run at the neighboring golf course at 6:32 a.m.
He called out for Bloomberg News Service reporter Dick
Keil, at the clubhouse in the press pool, to jog along
with him on his second loop in the dark humidity. The two
chatted about running, dogs, Little League baseball and
off the record Washington politics.
"The representative of the press acquitted himself
quite well," Mr. Bush announced as they returned.
"I was beggin' for mercy out there," Mr. Keil
told his colleagues.
The president briefly bantered with the reporters before
going back to his suite. He breakfasted on fresh berries
and fruit juices, showered and put on a pale blue shirt,
a crimson tie and a charcoal, two-button woolen suit.
He received his usual intelligence briefing, though not a
just-completed staff report on how to dismantle the al
Qaeda terrorist network headed by Saudi exile Osama bin
Aides also updated the president on overnight political
developments, including a thick sheaf of articles,
columns and editorials from The Washington Times and
other major newspapers.
The front page of The Washington Post hammered the White
House on three favorite Democratic themes: tax cuts,
arsenic levels in drinking water and a dearth of human
stem cells for medical research.
The New York Times chose the "darkening economic
outlook" as its top story for the fourth day in a
row. "Pressure mounted on President Bush to drop his
cautious approach to dealing with the weakening
economy," it intoned.
"There's beginning to become an undercurrent in
Washington that Bush was to blame, Bush's tax cuts were
to blame for the deficit," Mr. Bush recalled of the
time frame. "I was prepared to fully fight off
criticism based upon the sound economic theory that a tax
relief plan is good for actually restarting the
An accident report
But on this Tuesday the president wanted to make progress
on another top priority education reform. So after
posing for pictures with resort maintenance man Kenneth
Kufahl and local VIPs, he climbed into a Cadillac
limousine and set out at 8:39 a.m. on the nine-mile trip
to Emma E. Booker Elementary in Sarasota.
Soon the motorcade was on a causeway approaching the
city. Sailboats lined the bay, a brilliant blue sky arced
overhead and shimmering office towers rose in the
What could possibly go wrong on a day such as this? It
was 8:46 a.m.
Mr. Bush and his aides, including Mr. Card, arrived nine
minutes later at the elementary school on Martin Luther
King Jr. Way, which police considered the most
crime-infested street in the county.
"We're on time," the president remembered.
"I like to stay on time; I like to be crisp."
Personal assistant Blake Gottesman gave him some final
"'Here's what you're going to be doing; you're going
to meet so-and-so, such-and-such,'" Mr. Bush
recalled being told. "And Andy Card says, 'By the
way, an aircraft flew into the World Trade Center.'
"And my first reaction was as an old pilot
how could the guy have gotten so off course to hit
the towers? What a terrible accident that is. The first
report I heard was a light airplane, twin-engine
The president entered a holding room at the school and
picked up a secure telephone to speak with National
Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice at the White House. She
was sitting in her office, watching live coverage of the
stricken north tower as it belched black smoke into a
"There's one terrible pilot," Mr. Bush
Turning to Mr. Card, he speculated that the pilot must
have suffered a heart attack. Mr. Bush, who had yet to
see the TV images, drafted a statement pledging federal
He rejoined his hostess, Principal Gwendolyn Tose-Rigell.
A black woman and a Democrat, she had voted 10 months
earlier for Al Gore. Mrs. Tose-Rigell privately
considered Mr. Bush a "phony."
Still, she was honored by the presidential visit, so she
smiled, made introductions and led Mr. Bush into Sandra
Kay Daniels' second-grade classroom.
The president's entrance set off a flurry of snapping and
clicking from news photographers' cameras at the back:
Ksht, ksht, ksht, ksht.
No alarm bells
"Good to meet you all," Mr. Bush said to the
class after greeting Mrs. Daniels.
The president noticed a little girl over to his left, in
the front row, her face frozen with fear. He stopped,
cocked his head and drew back in a playful half-crouch.
"You OK?" he asked with a reassuring smile.
The petrified child nodded.
"That's good," Mr. Bush chuckled.
This seemed to break the ice and the entire room let out
a relieved laugh.
"It's really exciting for me to be here," the
president said. "I want to thank Ms. Daniels for
being a teacher."
He gave her an expectant look, as if to say, "Well,
take it away." He had been in the room for just
under a minute, but he had a schedule to keep.
"This morning we do have a lesson that we've been
preparing for you," Mrs. Daniels told the president.
"Good," Mr. Bush said, sounding pleased.
It was 9:03 a.m.
"Are you ready, my butterflies?" Mrs. Daniels
asked her second-graders.
In a rapid-fire voice, the teacher began to command her
pupils to sound out words "the fast way." The
children responded like grunts in boot camp, calling out
in clear, loud, unified voices.
As he watched, smiling, the president began to ponder the
statement he would need to make about the plane crash.
"I was concentrating on the program at this point,
thinking about what I was going to say," Mr. Bush
told The Times. "Obviously, I felt it was an
accident. I was concerned about it, but there were no
"Get ready to read all these words on this page
without making a mistake," Mrs. Daniels was saying.
"Look at the letter at the end and remember the
sound it makes. Get ready."
"Kite," the children said.
"Yes, kite," the teacher said. "Get ready
to read this word the fast way. Get ready."
Mr. Bush heard a noise behind him. It was the sound of a
door closing, the door through which he had entered.
Someone must have walked in, although he didn't bother
looking. His eyes were on the reading drill.
"Sound it out," the teacher repeated,
unsatisfied. "Get ready."
"Kit," the children said, still a little
"Kit!" they practically shouted.
Soon concluding the first half of the lesson, Mrs.
Daniels instructed: "Boys and girls, pick your
reader up from under your seat."
The children bent to retrieve their textbooks. In his
peripheral vision, Mr. Bush noticed someone taking
advantage of this pause to approach. He swiveled slightly
to the right in his chair and was surprised to discover
it was Mr. Card, who had not been in the room. His chief
of staff was walking right up to him in the middle of a
Didn't he realize the cameras of the national press corps
were capturing this breach of protocol? Sure enough, the
shutters came clattering to life: Ksht, ksht, ksht.
"Open your book up to lesson 60 on page 153,"
Mrs. Daniels went on, oblivious to the curious little
drama being played out in her classroom at 9:07 a.m.
Now Mr. Card was leaning over to whisper something. The
president cocked his head to listen. The shutters went
into spasms: Ksht, ksht, ksht, ksht.
The children flipped through their books for the correct
page. Mr. Bush's smile had vanished. Mr. Card's drew
closer, his mouth inches from the president's right ear.
The tops of their heads were practically touching. Ksht,
ksht, ksht, ksht, ksht.
Mr. Bush strained to hear. This had better be good.
Stanley Greenberg was in his element earlier that morning
in Washington. Armed with a fresh sheaf of polling data,
the Democratic pollster painted a gloomy picture indeed
for one George W. Bush.
"In this poll, 45 percent say he's in over his
head," Mr. Greenberg told the press corps at a
breakfast meeting in the basement of the St. Regis Hotel
on 16th Street NW. "There is a fundamental doubt
about his competence.
"But they also want him to succeed," the
pollster said with a trace of disappointment. "The
public is not looking for a failed president."
James Carville, former political strategist for Bill
Clinton and the media star among the three partners who
ran the partisan Democracy Corps, jumped in to critique
the new president's communication skills.
"Somethin' tells me that Bush ain't Clinton,"
Mr. Carville said with a laugh. "I mean, it's ... a
strong power forward against a weak guard, and they don't
"I feel so sorry for this poor guy, George
Bush," broke in moderator Godfrey "Budge"
Sperling, the 86-year-old columnist of the Christian
Science Monitor who had hosted these "Sperling
Breakfasts" for print reporters since 1966.
"I know," political consultant Bob Shrum,
Democracy Corps' third partner, said gleefully.
"He's in terrible shape here," Mr. Sperling
added with mild sarcasm.
"He's not formidable, politically," Mr.
"You know, I certainly hope he doesn't
succeed," Mr. Carville said. "I'm a partisan
Democrat. But the average person wants him to
Mr. Carville, who took delight in his nicknames
"Ragin' Cajun," "Corporal Cueball,"
"Serpenthead" insisted that the Bush
presidency already was an abject failure.
"They're not succeeding in the economy. They're
certainly not succeeding abroad," he said. "My
line is: We're busted at home and distrusted around the
And, Mr. Carville pointed out, there was the possibility
of some unforeseeable political calamity.
"What I learned during eight years with Clinton is:
You always think that somethin's gonna blow you up one
day," he said.
Mr. Carville didn't mean it literally, of course. But so
deep was his antipathy toward the new president that he
openly wished for something to blow up Mr. Bush
politically. Never mind that his own wife, Mary Matalin,
was a political aide to Vice President Richard B. Cheney.
"There's one thing Bush has never been able to
do," Mr. Carville said. "The real skilled
politicians are able to go take 10, 12 percent out of the
other guy's pocket. The Reagan Democrats. And Clinton got
the sort of suburban Republican women. I mean, they got
all of their party and their ability was to draw a little
bit from the other side.
"Bush has yet to instill any fear," Mr.
Carville concluded. "He's yet to get one vote other
than what he should be getting. And in fact some of those
are startin' to have doubts. If he starts losing any of
those voters, his political strength will be sapped
Mr. Shrum's cell phone rang as Mr. Sperling brought the
breakfast to a close. It was his assistant, who had
instructions not to call unless it was an emergency.
Mr. Shrum was so dumbfounded by the words he was hearing
that he repeated them aloud, for the benefit of everyone
else: "A plane has just crashed into the World Trade
The room froze.
"What kind of plane?" Mr. Shrum asked. "A
Other cell phones rang around the table. A reporter
headed for the exit, followed by another. But most
Mr. Greenberg's phone rang, then Mr. Shrum's again, with
the news that a second plane had hit the other tower. It
looked like a coordinated attack by terrorists.
Before anyone else could leave, Mr. Carville was on his
The cynical strategist, who had just described Washington
as "a city that operates on fear," suddenly
felt a stab of worry about his wife in the White
House this very moment and their two young
daughters across town.
"Disregard everything we just said," Corporal
Cueball commanded. "This changes everything."
The immediate job
"A second plane hit the second tower. America is
"At the count of three," Mrs. Daniels was
instructing her second-graders, blissfully unaware of
what Mr. Card had whispered in the president's ear.
"Everyone should be on page 163."
"The Pet Goat," the children
recited as their teacher thumped her pen on her book to
keep time with each syllable.
Mr. Bush absently picked up his copy of the reader from a
pink easel. He glanced at the cover: a cuddly dragon
surrounded by butterflies. Turning to the bookmarked
page, he tried to follow along.
"A girl got a pet
goat," the children recited.
"Go on," instructed Mrs. Daniels, thumping
As the children plowed through the story, the president
kept gazing up, lost in a tumult of urgent thoughts. So
the first plane crash had not been an accident after all.
The second crash had proven that much.
A second plane hit the second tower. But what kind of
plane? Another small, twin-engine job? Who were the
pilots? Why had they done it? How many Americans had they
"But the goat did some
things that made the
girl's dad mad."
"Let's clean that up," Mrs. Daniels said.
The president noticed someone moving at the back of the
room. It was White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer,
maneuvering to catch his attention without alerting the
press. Mr. Fleischer was holding up a legal pad.
Big block letters were scrawled on the cardboard backing:
DON'T SAY ANYTHING YET. The remarks drafted earlier would
be woefully inadequate.
"The goat ate things."
The president managed a wan smile at the teacher. He
redoubled his efforts to appear as though he were
concentrating. But it was no use.
Who could have perpetrated such a diabolical crime? No,
this was more than a crime. Someone had suddenly declared
war against the United States of America.
"Victory clicked into my mind," Mr. Bush told
The Times. "The one thing that became certain is
that we wouldn't let this stand. I mean, there was no
question in my mind that we'd respond.
"I wasn't sure who the attacker was. But if somebody
is going to attack America, I knew that my most immediate
job was to protect America by finding him and getting
A new convert
The children reached the last line: "More to
"What does that mean?" the president asked.
"'More to come?'"
Nearly all the children raised their hands. Mr. Bush
pointed to a girl with braided hair tied in a ribbon.
Something else was going to happen, she answered.
"That's exactly right," the president said,
hoping this was not some ominous prophecy.
Mr. Bush lingered until an aide ushered the press out. He
turned to the principal, Mrs. Tose-Rigell, and pulled her
aside for the first private conversation in this new
phase of his presidency.
"I'm so sorry," he said. "But a tragedy
Mr. Bush told her of the second plane crash and explained
that there would be no speech on education.
"I'm going to have to address some things," he
said. "I really wish it would have been a different
set of circumstances."
"I fully understand," Mrs. Tose-Rigell said.
The principal told the president how frantic she gets
when one of her students doesn't arrive home right after
school. She likened those in the World Trade Center to
students for whom the president was responsible.
Mrs. Tose-Rigell sensed a transformation. The man she had
viewed as a "phony" only minutes earlier was
calmly apologizing for having to scrap his planned
speech. She was astonished by Mr. Bush's sincerity,
especially since he hadn't had time to gather his wits in
"That's not something that you can fake," the
principal said later. "I'm telling you, I was very
impressed. I don't know what spurred him on. I don't know
if he tapped into his faith. I don't know if there were
people around the country praying for him.
"But at that moment in time, he was very, very
composed. All I can say is he looked very
Gwendolyn Tose-Rigell, inner-city principal and Gore
Democrat, became the first of many observers across
America and around the world to conclude that George W.
Bush somehow was changed profoundly by the terrible
events of September 11.
"From that point on," she said, "I was a
Finding the words
Returning to the holding room, where he first saw
television images from New York, the president talked by
phone with the vice president, who was in his White House
office with Miss Rice and Miss Matalin, wife of Mr.
"One thing for certain," Mr. Bush said later,
"I needed to get out of where I was."
But the president also realized he would have to make a
statement. Mr. Fleischer and Communications Director Dan
Bartlett hastily drafted one. Mr. Bush, taking a Sharpie
fine-point marker from the inside pocket of his jacket,
put it in his own words by scribbling on three sheets of
crinkly white paper.
In the school library, the press corps and his scheduled
audience waited. Some close to the podium were unaware of
what had happened.
The president emerged from behind a blue curtain just
before 9:30 a.m. He gestured for the applauding audience
to sit down. His expression was grave, tense, almost
"Thank you," Mr. Bush said, before the applause
subsided. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a
difficult moment for America."