Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Time Well Spent?

One of the many narratives to emerge from the initial findings of the 9/11 Commission involves the amount of time President Bush spent reading to a classroom of school children in Sarasota, Florida after his Chief of Staff Andrew Card informed him that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. Bush had learned about the first plane's impact prior to entering the classroom for the photo-op.

His reaction is significant. As reported by the Washington Post, "He doesn't move. Instead he continues to sit in the classroom, listening to children read aloud" for a full seven minutes before exiting the classroom and inquiring further as to the nature of events.

Bush claims that he did not want to frighten the children, nor did he want to convey a sense of panic. According the 9/11 Commission's report, "The President told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis . . . The President felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening."

His action, or perhaps more accurately seven minute inaction, raises an important question, though. Was this the most responsible thing for the Commander In Chief to be doing at a time when America was, ostensibly, under attack?

Bush's defenders are quick to argue in his defense that his reaction was proper. As Presidential scholar Fred Greenstein, a professor emeritus at Princeton, put it, "It certainly wouldn't present the right message if he turned white, rushed out, and kids started crying." Similarly, commentators such as MSNBC's Joe Scarborough argue that his reaction was better than running out of the room screaming with his hands up.

I am willing to concede that Bush's reaction was preferable to either of the alternatives posited by Professor Greenstein and Joe Scarborough, but are those really the only choices? Either sit there for the entire seven minutes or turn white and rush out screaming?

Is it so inconceivable that as the President of the United States he could have calmly stood up, offered a simple explanation that he was running late and had to leave and politely left upon hearing the news from Andrew Card? Would that have caused the children, who were unaware of the events unfolding, to start crying and grow fearful? Would that have portrayed the wrong sentiment to the rest of the country at a time when all television sets were glued to images of the twin towers engulfed in flames? Wouldn't the American people understood that the commander of our military forces had more pressing business to attend to?

Perhaps even more important though, is the issue of the potential danger his lack of attention might have exposed the nation to. For example, what if there were more planes, other than the one that hit the Pentagon and the one that crashed in Pennsylvania, that were highjacked that day? What if they were headed to other populated areas to cause massive casualties and death, and by waiting seven minutes he missed his window of opportunity to order those planes shot down before they could cause their intended carnage? In hindsight we know this not to be the case, but neither Bush nor those advising him were aware of the circumstances when he decided not to act for those seven minutes. No one appraised him of the facts at the time, nor was the complete picture clear anyway.

His failure to spring into action that day was a gross dereliction of duty at a time when the country needed decisive leadership. Could his immediate action have prevented the attack on the Pentagon? Probably not, but it is only luck and fortune that there weren't other tragedies that day that were able to unfold as the twin towers burned and the President sat in a classroom in Florida listening to school children reading from a book.

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