On September 11, 2001, US President George W. Bush went to Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Florida to meet students and staff and to bring attention to his plans for education reform. It looked like another regular day.
That all changed after 8:46 a.m. when hijackers crashed American Airlines flight 11 from Boston and crashed it into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. The first report Bush received about that crash came just before the president walked into a second-grade class and was initially said to have been a small propeller plane.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card was informed right after the President went into the classroom that it was a commercial jetliner though; they still thought it was an accident until the second plane hit the other plane. Then everyone knew it wasn’t, there was no way that was a coincidence, this was clearly an attack.
This is how Andrew Card, Chief of Staff and pictured in this photograph recalled the episode (according to an interview in NBC News): “You know, one of the tough jobs for the chief of staff is to try to decide what to tell the president needs to know. This was relatively easy — yes, the president needs to know. But what do I tell him?
I made the decision that I would pass on two facts, make one editorial comment and do nothing to invite a question or start a dialogue.
I walked up to the president and leaned over and whispered into his right ear: “A second plane” — I was very very succinct, very purposeful with my diction — “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”
When he did not get up, I walked back to the door. In my left peripheral vision, I saw the principal of the school and the secretary of education, Rod Paige. To my right, I saw Ari Fleischer, the press secretary, huddled with reporters. And right in front of me, I saw those very innocent second-graders. The president was kind of just staring ahead.
Afterward, the children continued to read and President Bush sat while—as described by The Wall Street Journal—”trying to keep under tight control.” Despite the president’s efforts, students knew something was wrong; they later said that the president’s face became red and serious, and his expression was “flabbergasted, shocked, and horrified”.
According to Bill Sammon’s book Fighting Back, Bush’s gaze flitted about the room—the children, the press, the floor, his staff—while his mind raced about everything he did not yet know. After receiving cue-card advice from his press secretary, Ari Fleischer (“DON’T SAY ANYTHING YET”), the “notoriously punctual” president lingered in the classroom after the reading exercise was finished: he adamantly did not want to give an appearance of panic.
After chatting with the students and their teacher, Bush deflected a Trade Center-related question from a reporter and began to learn about the magnitude of the attacks.
The New Yorker described a seven-minute “moment” of President Bush holding Reading Mastery “staring blankly into space”, while others saw the president as faltering in the face of the crisis.
In fact, there was nothing for Bush to do but wait for more information while not alarming the pupils. On his own behalf, Bush said that “his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis. The national press corps was standing behind the children in the classroom; he saw their phones and pagers start to ring. The president felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening.”
(Photo credit: Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty Images / NBC News).