It is the seminal moment of his presidency: the moment when chief of staff Andy Card leaned over to whisper in his ear “America is under attack.” There have been so many accounts of that morning in the classroom in Sarasota, Fla., it is hard to believe there could be a new version of those minutes after the second plane hit the World Trade Center.
Yet new details emerged this week from President Bush himself in a little-noticed interview with the German newspaper Bild. When asked what was the most awful moment of his presidency, Bush started talking about 9/11 and the instant he heard from Card. “On a situation like that, it takes a period to understand exactly what was going on,” Bush said. “When somebody says ‘America is under attack’—you’ve got to fully understand what that meant. And the information coming was haphazard at best for a while. We weren’t sure if the State Department got hit. I’d heard the White House had got attacked. Of course, I was worried [about] that—my family was here.”
According to two authoritative versions of events, and Bush’s earlier media interviews, the president’s first thoughts sounded very different. One version, as told to Bob Woodward in his book “Bush at War,” is a tale of resolve and immediate decision-making. “A photo of that moment is etched for history,” Woodward writes of Card whispering to the president. “Bush remembers exactly what he was thinking: ‘They had declared war on us and I made up my mind at that moment that we were going to war’.”
Another version, as recounted by the 9/11 Commission, cites the president as saying “his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis.” The first reference to his concern for his family comes when he boards Air Force One, after leaving the school 40 minutes later. “He boarded the aircraft, asked the Secret Service about the safety of his family, and called the Vice President,” the 9/11 Commission reported.
The last time Bush spoke at length about that morning was in the middle of the 2004 election, after Michael Moore’s flame-throwing movie “Fahrenheit 9/11” and John Kerry’s criticism of the president’s attack-day hesitation. When Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly asked what he was thinking in the classroom, Bush answered “I was thinking America was under attack. I was collecting my thoughts, and I wasn’t about to panic a bunch of kids.”