While all Americans remember where they were on the day of the deadliest attack on this nation’s soil, few have had the opportunity to hear about it from the American at the center of the tragedy and its aftermath. For the first time on camera, former President George W. Bush has shared his experiences, feelings, and responses on September 11, 2001.
On Sunday, August 28th, two weeks before the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the National Geographic Channel will air “George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview.” The film contains no narration other than Bush’s answers to questions posed by executive producer and director Peter Schnall. Viewers will see the terror attacks through the eyes of a president facing crisis.
The account is apolitical. National Geographic presents the emotional and grave human aspect of one American grappling with what so many others felt that day, and of his decision-making process in the midst of an unprecedented attack on the U.S.
“There were no politics, no agenda as he recalled what happened that day,” said Schnall, who conducted the interview with Bush over two days. “What you hear is the personal story of a man who also happened to be our president.”
Indeed, the juxtaposition of pictures and footage of the crashing planes, crumbling towers, and smoldering buildings with the president’s reaction and response likely will bring many viewers to tears — recalling the human tragedy and their own emotions — regardless of their political ideology or their feelings about Bush’s presidency.
The former president begins his account with his morning jog and describes the moment, during his visit to a local school, when he learned the nation was under attack. His story takes us through each of the attacks, the decisions he made, the measures he and his cabinet took to ensure Americans’ safety, his communications with the country and other branches of government, and his visits to the attack sites.
“The most powerless I ever felt was watching people jump to their death,” Bush says in the film. “And there was nothing I could do about it.”
He recalls the point at which he realized the country was truly at war, providing his immediate reactions to each of the plane crashes. Like many Americans, he thought the first plane crash was an accident. The second confirmed a terrorist attack. And the third, he says, was a declaration of war against the United States.
“It changed my presidency,” he explains. ”I went from being a president primarily focused on domestic issues, to a wartime president — something I never anticipated, nor something I ever wanted to be.” As the chaotic day progressed, Bush says, his primary goal was to do his job: to lead and lead well.
“It’s not one of those moments where you weigh the consequences or think about the politics,” he adds. ”You decide. And I made the decisions as best I could in the fog of war. I was determined. Determined to protect the country. And I was determined to find out who did it and go get them.”
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He chronicles his frustrations on that day, and a distress borne of not knowing the attacks were coming.
“At some point in time in the immediate aftermath of the attacks I thought about ‘why didn’t we know this?’” he says. “I knew we needed to figure out what went wrong to prevent other attacks. But I didn’t want to start finger-pointing … My attitude was that we now have a job to do and that is to go find these people and bring them to justice. And therefore we needed our intelligence community looking forward, and not backward.”
Between his emotional recollections, Bush has strong words for America’s enemies who attacked his country that day.
“The terrorists never won. They may have thought they won. They inflicted terrible damage on people’s lives and our economy. But they were never going to beat America,” he says. They just didn’t understand us. They didn’t know we are a nation of compassionate, kind people who are very courageous and would not yield to their barbaric attacks. September 11th thousands of our citizens lost their lives, and I vowed that day that it wasn’t going to happen again.”
Closing a chapter in American history, the film also captures Bush’s reaction to the announcement that SEAL Team 6 had eliminated Osama bin Laden. Fortuitously for the director, that news broke just one day before his interviews began.
“President Obama called me [and] told me that Osama bin Laden had been killed. And my response was — I congratulated him, and the special operators that conducted a very dangerous mission,” he says. “And I was so grateful. I didn’t feel any great sense of happiness or jubilation. I felt a sense of closure. I felt a sense of gratitude that justice had been done.”
The hour-long feature is a strong reminder of what Americans faced ten years ago. Like so many, Bush will be reliving that day for the rest of his life.
“Eventually, September 11 will be a day on the calendar; it’ll be like Pearl Harbor Day,” Bush says. “For those of us who lived through it, it’ll be a day that we’ll never forget.”
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