A good man led a wounded nation.
Much was written and said Wednesday as we marked the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that took down the twin towers of the World Trade Center, destroyed a large section of the Pentagon and snuffed out nearly three thousand innocent lives. The networks and cable news channels remembered the selfless heroism of New York City police officers and firefighters – who ran in to the very mouth of Hell even as thousands were running out. Such remembrance is well deserved.
The words and actions of another individual should also be remembered. His name is George W. Bush.
President Bush did not leave office in triumph. By the end of his presidency, the psychological and political toll of what we now recognize as the ill-advised Iraq War, together with his stubborn refusal to stand up to his critics, had reduced President Bush’s approval numbers to the low 30s and worse.
But on September 11, 2001, and in the days that followed, George W. Bush was the very exemplar of the United States presidency. He was by turns as the unfolding moments required, tough, resolute, angry, sad and authentically compassionate. His command of a dynamic situation, his carefully chosen and well-delivered words and his resolute stance against the forces of evil that had at last revealed themselves in a way that could not be misinterpreted, all served to bring the nation together.
The president’s first public statement following the attacks came shortly after noon in a quickly-arranged recorded statement made at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. He set the tone early by saying,
Freedom itself was attacked this morning, by a faceless coward. And freedom will be defended.”
Three days later President Bush visited what came to be called “ground zero” at the site of the collapsed twin towers. While he was standing on top of a wrecked fire engine, he began speaking to the firefighters and workers who were sifting the rubble, still hoping to find survivors. Someone handed the president a bullhorn and in one of the most memorable moments of his presidency he said,
The nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut. As we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens…” (voice in crowd: “We can’t hear you!”) “I can hear you!” (cheers) “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. (cheers) And the people…and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear allof us soon.”
From that riveting moment right through a pitch-perfect address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, President Bush was the kind of leader we expect our presidents to be.
Following 9/11, the motto quickly became, “Never Forget.” For whatever verdict we and history ultimately pronounce as to the totality of George W. Bush’s presidency, let us never forget that in the dark days when a nation stood wounded, a good and decent man stood tall.