George W Bush’s reaction – or lack thereof – upon learning that terrorists were attacking the United States is now infamous. But even though it was caught on video, most Americans didn’t see it until years later.
On that September morning, the relatively new president was at a photo-op with first-graders at a school in Florida, participating in a reading exercise called The Pet Goat (often erroneously referred to as “My Pet Goat”).
Before Mr Bush entered the classroom, he was told that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers – although at this point many believed it was an accident. As Mr Bush listened to the children read, an aide whispered in his ear that the second tower had been hit. It was now clear that the country was under attack.
Mr Bush did not, at this point, leap up and take command of the situation. Instead, he stayed in his seat and finished the reading exercise, sitting there for seven minutes. Then he spent some time complimenting the children on their reading skills and took some photos with them and their teachers. When a reporter asked if he’d heard about the attacks, he replied, “I’ll talk about it later”.
Three years later, this muted reaction became a liability for Mr Bush when Michael Moore included it in his 2004 documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. After years of being presented to the public as a strong, decisive leader, the footage of Mr Bush sitting inertly with schoolchildren as Americans were being massacred was a major embarrassment.
“Not knowing what to do, with no one telling him what to do, and no Secret Service rushing in to take him to safety, Mr Bush just sat there,” Mr Moore said in his withering narration.
Even after his presidency, the former president and his team have tried to dispel this narrative. Mr Bush himself has said he stayed with the children to show strength.
“I didn’t want to rattle the kids,” he said. “I wanted to project a sense of calm.”
The White House press secretary at the time, Ari Fleischer, insisted in 2016 that after leaving the school, away from the cameras, Mr Bush was full of resolve and bravado. In allegedly contemporaneous notes that Mr Fleischer says he hid in a bank vault, Mr Bush was recorded saying things like “We’re going to get the b******s” and “Somebody’s going to pay”.
One person who did take command of the situation, meanwhile, was then-vice president Dick Cheney. In recent years, research has shown that Mr Cheney spent the day of the attacks in a bunker below the White House, making calls and telling other officials what to do.
The Atlantic has reported that one of his first calls was to Mr Bush, who he told not to return to Washington (in order to avoid leaving both leaders vulnerable to the same attack). He also, astonishingly, ordered the Air Force to shoot down a suspicious passenger plane headed toward DC. (Mr Cheney has said he cleared this order with Mr Bush first, but according to The Atlantic, evidence shows the order came before the permission.) That order, fortunately, never made its way to any fighter pilots.
Three days later, with more time to prepare, Mr Bush famously spoke through a bullhorn atop the rubble of the World Trade Center. Standing in plainclothes among firefighters and first responders, the president projected the kind of take-charge machismo he had lacked on the day of the attacks.
“I can hear you!” he told the crowd, which couldn’t hear him through the bullhorn. “The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
For years, that was the image that many Americans had of Mr Bush after 9/11 – decisive, resolute, brave. Pundits spoke ad nauseam about his “resolve”. Even though video footage of it existed, almost no one saw Mr Bush’s in-the-moment reaction to the terrorist attacks.
Then Fahrenheit 9/11 came along. In the years since then, despite all the efforts at historical revision, the image of this commander-in-chief that sticks out in many American minds is of him sitting in that Florida classroom, reading with children about a goat.
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