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How the President Got A Life

Bush was a leader adrift. Then came September 11?and the world it wrought.

| Thu Dec. 8, 2005 4:00 AM EST

The "usually disengaged" President, as columnist Maureen Dowd labeled him, had just returned from a prolonged, brush-cutting Crawford vacation to much criticism and a nation in trouble. (One Republican congressman complained that "it was hard for Mr. Bush to get his message out if the White House lectern had a 'Gone Fishing' sign on it.") Democrats were on the attack. Journalistic coverage seemed to grow ever bolder. Bush's poll figures were dropping. A dozen prominent Republicans, fearful of a President out of touch with the national mood, gathered for a private dinner with Karl Rove to "offer an unvarnished critique of Mr. Bush's style and strategy." Next year's congressional elections suddenly seemed up for grabs. The President's aides were desperately scrambling to reposition him as a more "commanding" figure, while, according to the polls, a majority of Americans felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld had "cratered"; in the Middle East "violence was rising."

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An editorial in the New York Times caught the moment this way in its opening sentence: "A simple truth of human existence is that it is vastly easier to amplify fear than it is to assuage it." Now, there was a post-9/11 truth -- except that the editorial was headlined "The Statistical Shark" and its next sentence wasn't about planes smashing into buildings or the way the Bush administration had since wielded the fear card, but another hot-button issue entirely. It went: "Consider the shark attacks that have occurred in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina this summer."

This was, in fact, September 6, 2001, the waning days of a man-bites-dog summer in which headlines had been dominated by the deaths of David Peltier, a 10 year-old boy in Florida, and Sergei Zloukaev, a 27-year-old in North Carolina in fatal shark attacks. Just the day before, in fact, the Times had carried a piece by William J. Broad reassuring readers that scientists did not believe the world was facing a shark "rampage." "If anything," Broad concluded, "the recent global trend in shark attacks is down."

It was just past Labor Day. Congress was barely back in session. Heywood Hale Broun, the sportswriter, would die at 83 that relatively quiet week, while Mexican President Vicente Fox swept triumphantly into Washington and a new book, featured on Newsweek's cover, would carry the title, The Accidental President. The Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section was promoting "the new season" in entertainment, while that night a highly publicized 10-part mini-series was premiering on HBO -- Band of Brothers, a Tom Hanks/Steven Speilberg production that followed a platoon of Greatest-Generation soldiers deep into Germany. If World War II nostalgia was on the tube, war elsewhere in the American world was also largely on screen. On September 7, Times journalist Thom Shanker reported on a classified war game, a computer-generated simulation played out by "the nation's senior commanders" which determined that the U.S. military could "decisively defeat one potential adversary, North Korea, while repelling an attack from Iraq" -- even if "terrorists [attacked] New York City with chemical weapons."

All in all, that week before September 11th was a modestly uneventful one. An afternoon spent revisiting the New York Times' version of it, via a library microfiche machine, making my way through that paper, day by day, section by section, plunged me into a nearly forgotten world in which the Democrats still controlled the Senate by a single vote and key Republican senators -- it was Texan Phil Gramm's turn to announce his retirement that week -- were going down like bowling pins. (Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond had preceded Gramm "adding a new element of uncertainty to the 2002 race.") The President had been met by exceedingly gloomy economic news as the unemployment rate jumped that Saturday to 4.9% -- another 100,000 jobs lost -- a full point above election day, ten months earlier; and Wall Street responded with a sell-off that dropped the Dow Jones to 9,600. Republicans were "panicked," the administration adrift, and we wouldn't see the likes of it again for four years.

Eerie Resonances

A number of post-9/11 subjects would be in the paper that week:

Torture was in the headlines -- leading off the culture page that Saturday ("Torture Charge Pits Professor vs. Professor") in a memory piece, datelined Santiago, on Augusto Pinochet's brutal military rule in Chile. (The anniversary of his bloody coup -- September 11, 1973 -- was approaching.)

Then, too, an American citizen had been imprisoned without charges for 18 months -- but it was electrical engineer Fuming Fong and China was holding him.

Anthrax made the op-ed page -- but only because Russian scientists had developed a new type that could "overcome the standard Russian and American vaccines."

Terrorism in the U.S. was in the news -- an Oklahoma prosecutor was seeking the death penalty for Terry L. Nichols in the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building bombing.

"Violence in the Middle East" was on the front page -- but in that week, it had only one meaning, the endless Israeli/Palestinian conflict. (The first Israeli-Arab suicide bomber had just struck.)

The Taliban could be found on the front page on September 7 (and inside on subsequent days) -- but only because the mullahs were trying eight foreign aid workers for preaching Christianity. The bemused articles ("Another Strange Kabul Problem: Finding a Lawyer") were of the weird-foreigners variety.

Military recruitment was a topic of interest then as now -- the Army, after switching ad agencies and slogans ("Army of One" for "Be All You Can Be") had just conducted an "elaborate event" at the Pentagon, swearing into service its 75,800th recruit of the year, 19 year-old Rodrigo Vasquez III of Karnes City, Texas, in order to highlight meeting its recruitment goals a month ahead of schedule in the "most successful recruiting year since at least 1997."

Howard Dean made the inside pages of the paper that week -- the little-known Vermont governor (tagged with "fiscal conservativism/social liberalism") announced that he would not seek reelection to his fifth two-year term. There was "speculation" that he might even "run for the Democratic nomination for President."

Missing in Action

And then there were -- in terms of what we've been used to ever since -- the missing, or almost missing. Saddam Hussein didn't make it into the paper that week. Kim Jong Il was nowhere in sight. Osama bin Laden barely slipped into print -- twice deep into articles -- as "the accused terrorist" being hosted by the strange Taliban government. The Axis of Evil, of course, did not exist, nor did the Global War on Terror, and the potential enemy of the week, pushed by Donald Rumsfeld (himself on the defensive over the military budget and arguments with his generals), was "the rising China threat." Iran was scarcely a blip on the news radar screen; Syria rated not a mention. Also missing were just about any of the names we now consider second nature to the post-9/11 news. No "Scooter" Libby. No Valerie Plame. No Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, or Douglas Feith. In fact, not a neocon made it into the pages of the paper over those seven days, and Judy Miller, the neocons' future dream reporter, who would soon enough storm the front page of the Times and take it for her own, had two pieces that week, a September 5th page-five article about a former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency general counsel challenging the administration's "assertion that the global treaty banning biological weapons permits nations to test such arms for defensive purposes"; and, two days later, a tiny Israel piece tucked away at the bottom of page fifteen on "the alleged [on-line] support for terrorism" by Islamic groups and charities. The Vice President, seen silently at the President's side at a "hastily arranged" and awkward "appearance" on the White House grounds after the unemployment figures broke, was otherwise nowhere to be seen, though the Times speculated on its editorial page ("The Bush Merry-Go-Round") that he was "losing influence." ("Mr. Cheney's heart problems and his ardent embrace of the coal, oil and gas industries seem to have hobbled him.")

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