Nine years ago yesterday, George W. Bush stood amongst the rubble of ground zero and gave hope and encouragement to those who were there and to those who were not.
Keith Hennessy brings us Karl Rove’s remembrances of that day:
We tumbled out of the vehicles into an ocean of noise. The president’s arrival set the crowd off. Standing on rescue equipment and piles of debris, these huge and powerful ironworkers, steelworkers, and rescue personnel were screaming “U.S.A! U.S.A!” The president made his way around a horseshoe of chanting workers to shake hands and thank them. …
Bush was hearing and seeing the rescue workers up close. They were not shy about sharing their feelings. These men were working on adrenaline and passion and, after three days and increasingly less frequent good news about survivors, they were nearly spent. Pataki was right; the presidential visit was energizing for many of the people we met. …
I watched this from a short distance off. Behind me a few yards to the east were about twenty religious leaders, led by Cardinal Edward Egan. They too had joined in the chanting, many waving small American flags. Most were weeping. I could not glance at them for more than an instant: I felt I too would succumb if I looked too closely or too long at them.
There was a tug on my sleeve. It was Nina Bishop, a White House advance woman working the event. She pointed to the chanting workers and said, “They want to hear from their president.” No one had prepared remarks, but she was exactly right. …
… I asked her if there was a microphone available. She shook her head no. Could she get a bullhorn? She scurried of to grab one from some of the workers milling around. I looked for a place the president could speak from. The SUVs in the motorcade had wide running boards, but if he stood one one, he would still not be seen by all the people who had clambered up on piles of rubble and vehicles all around us.
Right next to me was a giant wrecked fire truck. The pumper had been smashed by falling debris. Its crumpled door read 76 ENGINE COMPANY. Its tires had blown out, and its body was crushed, but three men were standing on top o fit and the entire crowd could see the president if he joined them. I looked up at the workers, and as I did one jumped off the truck. I got the attention of the remaining two and asked them if it was safe. The younger of the two replied it was, while the older man, wearing a fireman’s hat from New York Fire Department Company 154, nodded in agreement. I was unconvinced, so I asked them to jump up and down. They looked quizzically at the strange guy in a suit and tie, and I repeated my request. They hesitatedly jumped up and down; the truck looked steady enough for Bush to clamber up. I told the two men, “Stay there — someone might need your help to get up.” Before going to look for Andy, I reached for a piece of paving block that had jiggled when the rescue workers jumped up and down. A policeman grabbed my wrist and stopped me, saying there might be a body part underneath. I felt sick.
I found Andy Card and shared Nina’s suggestion; he immediate agreed that it was a good idea and asked where the president could speak. I pointed at the battered fire truck. Andy made a beeline to the president. Nina had commandeered a bullhorn from a man who worked for Con Ed and met me at the fire truck with it. The bullhorn’s batteries weren’t that good, but it was all we had. Nina gave it to Logan Walters. As she turned away, I grabbed a small American flag sticking out of Nina’s courier bag and handed it up to the thin, older rescue worker who was now the last man standing on the truck. His companion had disappeared off the back of the pumper and out of history.
The president took the bullhorn and reached his hand up to the rescue worker, a retired sixty-nine-year-old New York firefighter named Bob Beckwith. Beckwith looked down into the scrum below him, saw the outstretched hand, grasped, and pulled. In an instant, Bush was sharing the top of the truck with Beckwith, who suddenly realized he’d helped up the president of the United States. Beckwith tried to crawl down but the president asked, “Where are you going?” Bob said he was getting down. Bush said, “No, no, you stay right here.”
The cheers and chanting subsided and the president started to speak into the bullhorn. With the National Cathedral prayer service still fresh on his mind, Bush began by saying, “I want you all to know that America today is on bended knee in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn. This 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.” Someone yelled, “Go get ’em, George!” Someone else yelled, “George, we can’t hear you!” and others echoed this complaint. Bush paused and then responded in a voice now fully magnified by the bullhorn, “I can hear you.” The crowd went nuts-and he knew what to do from there. “The rest of the world hears you,” he went on, “and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The crowd broke into defiant, even bitter, chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Bush handed the bullhorn off and he climbed down.
In an iconic moment, George W. Bush was very much alone with an enormous responsibility. The nation wanted reassurance; it wanted to know it had a leader who understood the mission America now faced. No speechwriters, no aides, no advisors were involved in Bush’s response. It was an authentic moment that connected with the public in a strong, deep way. Without assistance and in an instant, George W. Bush gave voice to America’s desires.
Seeing President Bush hop up on that busted truck and stand shoulder to shoulder with a weary firefighter is a sight forever etched in my mind, and for many it remains one of the most inspiring scenes from the terrible events of 9/11. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley’s assessment of Bush’s visit to Ground Zero was prophetic: “We can’t judge him as President Bush anymore, but we’re soon to be judging him as commander in chief.”
I truly miss that man.
Jay Tea adds: I don’t normally intrude into others’ articles, but Rick’s piece really needs the video that goes with this story.