No matter what any candidate for high office says, the minute he or she takes the oath, all bets are off. Events roll in, and whatever agenda was presented on the campaign trail often turns from a checklist to a wish list. One of the most stark examples of that happened with the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001.
There’s an old saying that if you tell God your plans, He laughs. But trust me, the Devil has a snicker of his own. Looking backward, events often seem obvious or inevitable, but that’s never how they appear in real time — and real time is all we ever have. So when you pass judgment on history, be kind. Know that we, despite feeling as if we live in a more enlightened age, will face the same judgment in the future. We will fall short, and it will feel unfair — and it will be.
Back in 2011, I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times‘ Top of the Ticket blog, about a National Geographic Channel special called George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview. Here’s a taste:
Regarding flying into New York to survey and then visit the World Trade Center site, Bush says, “From the air, it looked like a giant scar, but when we actually got to the site, it was like walking into hell.”
Many of the firsthand recollections of the day in the documentary will be familiar to those who read the 2010 autobiographies “Courage and Consequence,” by Bush adviser Karl Rove, or “Decision Points,” by the former president himself.
While it doesn’t introduce new information about 9/11 — or pass political judgment on any decisions made then or in its aftermath — the intense and emotional interview, conducted over two days by executive producer and director Peter Schnall, does point out the difficulty in figuring out a forward strategy in a world that had just undergone a seismic shift.
“It became apparent,” Bush says, “we were facing a new kind of enemy. This is what war was like in the 21st century.”
At the end, the film leaps ahead in time to May 1, 2011, when President Obama announced Navy SEALs had killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Bush recalls getting the call from his successor and says, “I didn’t feel any great sense of happiness or jubilation; I felt a sense of closure, and I felt gratitude that justice had been done.”
In the time since, the whole documentary was posted online. Take a look:
And, what was it like on that bright September morning? Here’s six hours of NBC’s coverage of Sept. 11, 2001, in real time …
As to the photo at top, I took it at the annual Waves of Flags display at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Started in 2008 by the College Republicans, it features one full-size flag for each of the almost 3,000 lives lost on 9/11 — American flags for U.S. citizens and international flags for non-Americans who also perished in the attacks — planted in serried rows along the sloping lawn overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean beyond.
It’s up again this year. Click here for more information.
Images: Kate O’Hare
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