On the morning of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was listening to children read in a Florida school when White House Chief of Staff Andy Card notified him that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center.
“America is under attack,” Card told the president in that exchange.
Bush’s initial reaction upon hearing the news was captured on camera. The footage shows him tensely remaining in his seat for roughly seven minutes while the students continued to read.
The president would later receive a good amount of criticism for the way he handled himself in those few minutes. Some have speculated that he was paralyzed with fear, and unable to react to an unfolding crisis in a way that Americans might expect from their president: immediately standing up, leaving the classroom, and coordinating actions with advisors.
Bush’s explanation of his conduct, however, can be found in his autobiography, Decision Points:
“I saw reporters at the back of the room, learning the news on their cell phones and pagers. Instinct kicked in. I knew my reaction would be recorded and beamed throughout the world. The nation would be in shock; the president could not be. If I stormed out hastily, it would scare the children and send ripples of panic throughout the country.”
Personally, I’ve never had any trouble accepting the authenticity of Bush’s stated mindset on this issue, especially being a father. My own instincts, in times of distress, have long been to put on a calm, composed face for my children and those who count on me. It’s not paralysis. It’s paternal impulse.
Good people can differ on whether or not Bush’s rationale justified seven minutes of stoicism, but I believe what we saw was a reflection of his humanity and his inherent devotion to those he’d been elected to represent. I believe Bush was a man who put the welfare of the American public before his own — especially when it came to the terrorism threat and his overall handling of the War on Terror.
Again, good people can take issue with his decisions and policies, and be rightfully angry with some of the results. But I always admired the way Bush was more than willing to set himself up as a punching-bag for critics and political opponents, as long he thought it meant a safer America for people to raise their families in.
That’s a trait I’ve missed in American leadership over the past eight years, and unfortunately, I don’t expect to see it again for quite some time.
President Obama certainly doesn’t have it. He has spent almost eight years in the Oval Office downplaying and scandalously neglecting the Islamic terror threat. He has done so because its inconvenient realities just aren’t compatible with his naive, social-justice sensibilities. He came into office with the view that radical Islam is the byproduct of years of American imperialism and greed, and that if our country repented for its sins and retreated from the Middle East, terrorists would have less reason to hate us and strike out.
It was a dangerously foolish belief, but Obama wanted his historical legacy to be one of a man who ended wars. He saw no importance in actually winning those wars. All that mattered was the political victory — his political victory.
Thus, against his military advisors’ impassioned warnings and America’s security interests, he prematurely pulled our troops out of Iraq. He liquidated our victory there, and in doing so, quite predictably destabilized the country and created a vacuum that was filled by ISIS — a move that ushered in the terrorist group’s rapid spread across the region.
In the end, this wasn’t simply a strategic miscalculation. It was the advertised cost of one man’s ego.
In 2012, in the wake of the Benghazi terrorist attack, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certainly weren’t interested in the welfare of Americans when they blamed the incident on an anti-Muhammad YouTube video. They were concerned with protecting themselves politically, even going as far as lying to the faces of the four murdered patriots’ families about how their children died.
The rise of the Islamic terrorist threat, despite the best efforts of the Obama administration to de-emphasize it, is already playing a big part in the 2016 president election. Voters are thinking about who they can best trust to deal with it in the years to come. They’re deciding which individual they want answering that 3am phone call, and whether or not that person will put the nation’s well-being before their own.
Hillary Clinton certainly has foreign policy experience, but the Benghazi and email-server debacles have demonstrated that her instincts, when it comes to national security, are to look out for herself — not her country.
Despite talking tough on terrorism, Donald Trump has no experience in foreign policy, and hasn’t yet demonstrated much interest in learning about it. As a president, we have no idea how he’d react to a terrorist attack. As a presidential candidate, however, we’ve seen that his instincts following such horrific events are to praise himself.
Most recently, Trump responded to the Orlando nightclub mass-shooting by tweeting: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”
I’m not sure what’s more disturbing: a presidential candidate appreciating “congrats” for a terrorist attack, or the idea that people were actually congratulating him in the first place; I’m hoping he made that up.
A day later, when it was revealed that the Orlando terrorist had cheered on the 9/11 attacks as a teenager in high school, Trump tweeted: “I thought people weren’t celebrating? They were cheering all over, even this savage from Orlando. I was right.”
That particular tweet was in reference to Trump’s outrageous claim from last year that he’d witnessed “thousands of Muslims” celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11. That, of course, didn’t actually happen, but Trump apparently felt this separate occurrence in Florida somehow erased his lie and proved him right…about something.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but as someone whose entire worldview changed after 9/11, the notion that our 2016 presumptive nominees have a habit of making terrorist attacks about themselves, and not about the American public, is beyond disturbing.
It makes me long for the days when seven minutes of inaction in a Florida classroom were what made us question a leader’s capacity in a crisis.