This is one in a series of 13 Yahoo News interviews with historians about defining moments in presidential leadership. The interviews were conducted by Andrew Romano, Lisa Belkin and Sam Matthews, and the videos were produced by Sam Matthews.
Peter Baker, author of “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House,” spoke to Yahoo News about the younger Bush’s defining moment of presidential leadership: standing up to anti-Muslim hatred and discrimination after the attacks on Sept. 11. 2001.
Islam was a mysterious concept to most Americans at that point. Most Americans probably didn’t know anyone who was Muslim and so they didn’t know what to make of it. ‘Is this something that is targeting us because they don’t like us? Is this something that we should be afraid of?’
Bush didn’t buy into the overall prejudice against Muslims. He understood that there were people who were good Muslims and bad Muslims, just like there are good Christians and bad Christians.
And what he needed as a president who was fighting a war against a group like al-Qaida was allies who were Muslim. People who were going to help. Alienating them would be a mistake.
One of the first things Bush did after 9/11 was visit a mosque in Washington. No president had done that before, but he wanted to make the point that whatever our war on terrorism was going to be, whatever the war with al-Qaida was going to be, it was not going to be a war with Islam. It worked to some extent. It didn’t keep people who were anti-Muslim from being anti-Muslim, but I think it helped shape the common dialogue.
Going to the mosque was an act of leadership. Presidents matter. Symbols matter. And the things they do, the things they say to the American public, particularly in moments of crisis, carry enormous weight. They signal what this country stands for.
I think most historians will look at that period after 9/11 as the high point of Bush’s presidency, when he had the country behind him, when he had the world behind him, when he rose to the occasion. He transcended the kind of rookie presidency he had been running up to that point and became, really, a national leader and a world leader.
He would eventually, of course, lose that or squander that, depending on your point of view. But in that period, in the first couple of months after 9/11, he was probably at his high point.
Click below to view the rest of the 13-part series.
Cover thumbnail photo: President George W. Bush disavows anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11 in a speech at the Islamic Center of Washington in 2001. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images, Doug Mills/AP)