The day that defined a presidency
An interview with Andrew Card
September 12, 2016
He strides forward determinedly, purposefully-but not so fast as to arouse suspicion-toward the man in the chair.
Then he leans over and whispers two sentences. A mere two sentences, comprised of 11 words that are so momentous, he enunciates each one with razor-sharp precision, feeling their weight like stones in his mouth.
Andrew Card was White House Chief of Staff under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006, a key part of the Bush administration at an unusual time for America: the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
His memories of that day are clear: waking up early to read over reports; sending the president off to go running with a reporter on a golf course; traveling to Emma E. Booker Elementary, where the president was to read to a roomful of second graders and then deliver a speech over his policies of educational reform to a packed gymnasium.
“As we were piling into limousines, I remember two people asking a question,” Card said in a phone interview. “One was [Counselor to the President] Dan Bartlett and the other was [Deputy Chief of Staff] Karl Rove, and they both kind of asked the same question, ‘Anybody hear about a plane crash in New York City?’”
He hadn’t, but once they got to the school, more information was forthcoming.
“I was standing next to the principal when the director of the White House situation room and the Navy captain at that time came up to the president and said, ‘Sir it appears a small twin engine plane crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City’,” Card said. “We all had the same reaction, as in ‘Oh, what a horrible accident, the pilot must have had a heart attack’.”
The school had created a holding room to serve as a White House Command center, and it was in there that Card learned the true nature of the incident.
“The captain came to me again and said, ‘Sir it appears it was a commercial jetliner’,” Card said. “Then I thought about the fear the passengers must have had on that plane. But that thought didn’t last very long in my mind because the captain came right back up to me and said another plane hit the other tower. My mind flashed to the initials UBL- that’s what we called Osama Bin Laden. I knew about the attacks orchestrated by al-Qaida in 1992, so I presumed that. Then I performed the test that the chief of staff performs all the time: does the president need to know? And this was an easy test to pass: yes.”
So Card determined what he was going to say and walked into the room, knowing full well the impact his words would soon have.
“I didn’t take very long to think, and I opened the door to the classroom and stepped in,” Card said. “When the teacher finished the dialogue she’d been conducting with the president and students, I walked up from behind and leaned over and whispered into his right ear.”
To his credit, the president took the news with a straight face and gave the media no inkling that something was terribly wrong, even as both he and Card absorbed the full meaning behind the attack.
“I knew that I was delivering an unbelievably rare and important message, and that I was doing it in an unusual forum, a classroom filled with second graders in front of a press pool,” Card said. “I knew it was a message he did not want to have to hear. It was a message I did not want to have to deliver.”
After he was finished reading, the president stood and walked back to the holding room, where chaos erupted.
“I was impressed with how the president reacted that day,” Card said. “He did nothing to take away from the responsibility he had under his oath of office. I think that was the day he realized that the job of the president isn’t just what you campaign on and what you promise to do; it’s what you’re obligated to do because of the oath that you took. The oath comes right from the constitution and it says that the president’s responsibility is to preserve, protect and defend the United States.”
The world is an altered place now, says Card. New agencies such as Homeland Security and the Travel Security Agency were created primarily for one purpose: to prevent another such attack from ever happening again. Traffic throughout the U.S., be it emails, people or goods, is heavily scrutinized.
“Sept. 11 changed the world, and it changed the nature of how we conduct our business and our economy,” Card said. “So a lot of things changed in our daily lives and it ended up creating burdens and invited a little more paranoia- we see things more skeptically. [But] it gave us more resolve; in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 America came together, and there was a great source of pride. It left us as a different world and certainly a different United States.”