How would Abraham Lincoln have recalled April 12, 1861, the day the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, igniting the Civil War? Or, what would Franklin Roosevelt have said about his experience on December 7, 1941, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor? As the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11 nears, the National Geographic Channel’s George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview, offers the 43rd president’s personal reflections on what he aptly calls a “monumental day,” and the immediate days afterward. While Bush covered much of the same ground in his 2010 memoir, Decision Points, the interview provides a rare chance to hear a former president’s comprehensive oral history on his defining moment—and a turning point in American life.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, as he took a predawn jog around the golf course of the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort outside Sarasota, Florida, President Bush almost certainly would have been contented with going down in history as the “education president.” He had, after all, held out the prospect in the heated presidential campaign of 2000, touting the education “miracle” he had helped realize during his six-year tenure as governor of Texas. An appearance later that morning before a second grade class at Sarasota’s Emma A. Booker Elementary School was meant to align Bush with the issue of education and serve as a backdrop for his reform plans.
But it was not to be. When Bush left the school anxiously soon after learning that New York’s Twin Towers had each been struck by terrorists using commercial aircraft as guided missiles, he knew instinctively that he had instead become a “wartime president,” something he “never anticipated” and “never wanted.” Like that of almost all Americans, George W. Bush’s life had changed in an instant. So had his presidency.
Being able to hear the former president in his own words words is important for another reason, too. The raw emotions Bush felt that day are palpable in his telling a decade after the fact, and as we listen to him and see once again the images that are rolled up in the collective consciousness of nearly all of those older than their mid-teens, we will likely recall feeling those same emotions. Bush, we hear in the interview, felt like almost any American on 9/11: shocked, angry and overcome with feelings of helplessness, a fierce will for justice and a desire to hear the voices of those he loved.
We will just as easily be stirred by memories of the pride we felt in the immediate days after the attack. The interview winds down as Bush talks of his visit to lower Manhattan on September 14, which he described as “like walking into hell.” There, among the smoking ruins and heroic firefighters who stood ghostly gray from ash and numb with exhaustion, Bush began hitting his leadership stride. In his most memorable unscripted moment as president, he stepped up to the role of comforter-in-chief with bullhorn in hand, rallying the crowd—and the nation—on a metaphorical mound of rubble that had been a gleaming fire engine just three days before.
The interview steers clear of the disunity that came in time as Bush’s “War on Terror” took on dimensions that will be left to history’s judgment. But as divisive as the out years may have become, few Americans would take issue with the thoughts Bush shares in the interview’s last minutes: “The terrorists never won. They may have thought they won; they inflicted terrible damage on people’s lives and our economy. But they were never going to defeat America.”
— Mark K. Updegrove
Director, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. Author, Baptism by Fire: Eight Presidents in Times of Crisis, and the forthcoming Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency.
Tune in to George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview this Sunday at 10P et/pt.