Ten Years After 9/11, George W. Bush Is Still Wrong

Almost ten years ago, President George W. Bush was reading to school children when an aide whispered into his ear that America was under attack. He didn’t move. For seven minutes, he continued reading My Pet Goat to the kids.

In an interview set to air on the National Geographic Channel later this month, Mr. Bush offers his lengthiest explanation yet for his delayed reaction:

“I immediately focused on the children…I made the decision not to jump up immediately and leave the classroom. I didn’t want to rattle the kids. I wanted to project a sense of calm. I had been in enough crises to know that the first thing a leader has to do is to project calm.”

President Bush was wrong then, and he’s wrong now.

Chief of Staff Andy Card enters the frame, informs President Bush that “America is under attack” at the 5:03 mark in the video.

For evidence, one need only look to the contrast offered by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose instinctual reaction was to demonstrate a sense of control by donning a gas mask and walking the charred streets of Manhattan. That is what the public expects from leaders in crisis – not an artificial sense of calm for calmness sake. Mr. Giuliani did not appear “calm” that day, but the public rewarded his heroic performance nonetheless.

President Bush also ignored the fact that the image of him reading a children’s book to school children would be shown in a television split screen – so as the left side of the screen showed the World Trade Center ablaze, the right side of the screen showed a seemingly disengaged and oblivious American leader.

Mr. Bush’s rationale offers a false choice: remain seated so as not to scare children, or stand up and scare the hell out of ‘em. An easier solution would have been to calmly stand up and say:

“Children, I’m sorry, but I’ve just been told I need to deal with some Presidential business. It’s been wonderful meeting you, and thank you listening so nicely.”

Had he done so, he would have been briefed a full six minutes and 50 seconds earlier about the stunning (and ongoing) terrorist attack.

Mr. Bush is right that few crises benefit from having a panicked leader. But he should have prioritized projecting an indelible image of a leadership, not a false image of calmness.

What do you think? Do you agree with my perspective, or have I gotten it all wrong? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

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