He may run as the Fetus-Protector President or the Old-Time Religion President or the One-Man and One-Woman Marriage President or the Privatization President or the No-Medicare President or the One-Test-Fits-All-Children President, but George Bush cannot run as the Commander-in-Chief President. In rough times, he is the little man who isn’t there.
Twice in George Bush’s life, when all hell broke loose, he vamoosed. His first disappearing act was during the Vietnam War, when he was a no-show officer in the Air National Guard. The second time he skedaddled was 9/11.
The Wall Street Journal has reconstructed the President’s movements on that day. What he did and when he did it has been fuzzed over by the President and his operatives, but the facts are out. He said, for example, that on the day in question, “one of the first acts I did was to put our military on alert.” But he didn’t. Air Force General Richard Myers, then the acting head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave that order without having consulted him. The reason for the fib was to show George to the voters as a man in control of himself and the situation through shot and shell.
On Dec. 3, 2001, Mr. Bush, who had been visiting a school in Florida when the attack happened, told an audience that “I was sitting outside the classroom, waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower-the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly myself, and I said, ‘Well, there’s one terrible pilot.'” It didn’t happen, at least not as Mr. Bush tells it; instead of issuing orders, he must have been making up stories. The television set wasn’t on where he was; no pictures of the first plane hitting the tower were shown until 12 hours after he had left Florida, so he was BS-ing. We all like to embellish, but if the President throws bull feces around, it inspires doubts, not confidence.
At four minutes of 10 a.m. on 9/11, the President took off from Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport and headed where? Not back to Washington, but to a stop in Louisiana and then on to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and an underground bunker. Why?
Because Dick Cheney told him there was a plot afoot to shoot down Air Force One. But by noon, there was not one nonmilitary plane aloft over the United States. Thus, making an attempt on Air Force One was impossible. The President was safe, but evidently not safe enough, for the Valiant One remained in his Nebraska bunker until after 5 p.m. Eastern Time, when he climbed back on his airplane and returned to the vacant seat of government.
So it transpires that, throughout this day of crisis and dismay, the President of the United States was not at his post. Rudolph Giuliani and George Pataki became the heroes of the hour. These two men, at their place of duty, were the calm faces and voices of courage and national determination. From leaderless Washington, there was little more than a void.
But what if he had been in danger? What if there had been a plan to attack Air Force One? Was Mr. Bush right to execute his Nebraska skedaddle? Yes, had he been a private citizen. In such a situation, you and I would not be criticized if we high-tailed ourselves off to safety. Do the same standards of discretion before valor hold for a President, for the Commander in Chief, for one who would soon send his young fellow citizens to face the dangers that he hid from?
Is part of the job of being President to risk your life? To expose yourself to danger? Mr. Bush answered no. Other Presidents have answered differently.
Since he cannot be compared to Abraham Lincoln in other respects, it would be unfair to compare George Bush’s want of courage to Abraham Lincoln’s. Lincoln was repeatedly warned of the nearness of danger, but he understood that a wartime leader must show his face in public.
Lincoln’s fate did not deter his successors from moving about among the people. James Garfield was assassinated in a Washington, D.C., railroad station in 1881, and William McKinley-who, like Garfield, had seen more than his share of action during the Civil War-was gunned down in 1901 in Buffalo, N.Y., at the Pan-American Exposition greeting citizens at an open reception. Presidents do that kind of thing, and it is dangerous.
John Kennedy, a World War II combat veteran who knew his Presidential history, nevertheless was riding in an open car when he was assassinated. He believed that Presidents ought not to hide; they should be seen up close, and they should mingle. The perils of doing so go with the territory.
Harry Truman knew that. On the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1950, President Truman was taking a nap. He was living at Blair House while the White House, across the street, was being rebuilt. As he slept, two assassins armed with pistols rushed the building, killing one Secret Service agent and wounding two others. One of the would-be murderers was also killed. After the shooting stopped, it was one of those 9/11 moments when nobody could say whether or not more attacks were coming. But Truman was scheduled to preside at a ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery, and he never gave a thought to canceling. Nor did he give up his daily health walk through the streets of Washington. “A President has to expect these things,” said Truman, a man who had fought in France in World War I.
Whatever the misgivings about movie actors, America knew that it had a President when, after Ronald Reagan had been shot and grievously wounded, the country heard about his joking with his surgeons as he was wheeled into the emergency room.
The gutsiest example of Presidential moxie under fire was given us in 1933 by Franklin Roosevelt. On a pleasant February evening, President-elect Roosevelt went to Miami’s Bay Front Park to address a crowd of 20,000 people. Roosevelt, who was unable to walk by himself, spoke from the rear of an open touring car. Near his automobile was Anton J. (Tony) Cermak, the Mayor of Chicago. A little after 9:30, a man in the second row of the audience, about 35 feet from Roosevelt, jumped up and began firing a revolver at him. The Mayor, still near Roosevelt, went down, as did a Mrs. Joseph Gill, shot twice in the stomach. Several other people went down as Roosevelt appraised what suddenly had become bedlam. Nobody knew how many gunmen there might be, or what could happen next. What did happen next was that the crippled Roosevelt took command. This is how Roosevelt remembered it, in his own words:
“The chauffeur started the car …. I looked around and saw Mayor Cermak doubled over and Mrs. Gill collapsing …. I called to the chauffeur to stop. He did-about fifteen feet from where we started. The Secret Service men shouted to him to get out of the crowd and he started forward again. I stopped him a second time ….
“I saw Mayor Cermak being carried. I motioned to have him put in the back of the car, which would be the first out. He was alive, but I didn’t think he was going to last. I put my left arm around him and my hand on his pulse, but I couldn’t find any pulse. He slumped forward ….
“After we had gone another block, Mayor Cermak straightened up and I got his pulse. It was surprising …. I held him all the way to the hospital and his pulse constantly improved. That trip to the hospital seemed thirty miles long. I talked to Mayor Cermak nearly all the way. I remember I said, ‘Tony, keep quiet-don’t move. It won’t hurt you if you keep quiet …. ‘”
Anton Cermak lived only a short time, but in the gloom of his death, and the Great Depression that F.D.R. would shortly have to contend with, the nation found out it had elected a man who defied danger, who kept his wits and his command of himself and others under fire, who was a leader. A few days later, Roosevelt was inaugurated and told the nation that it had “nothing to fear but fear itself.” By his actions, he had made his words believable.
The man who lingered in the Nebraska bunker doesn’t have the balls for the job.