Attacks Defined A Presidency

The Sept. 11 attacks were the defining moment of the Bush presidency. It affected the political and electoral landscape in the decade since the attacks. Audie Cornish talks to NPR's Don Gonyea. She also talks to NPR National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson about the "Concert for Hope" at the Kennedy Center on Sunday.

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AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

We turn now to Don Gonyea. He's the national political correspondent here at NPR. And Don, listening to that piece, it really makes you realize how much the federal government has changed since 9/11 10 years ago. And you were the White House correspondent for much of or the entire Bush presidency. What was the presidency like before 9/11?

DON GONYEA: Well, there's a clear marker before 9/11 and after. Before 9/11, we were talking a lot about education, No Child Left Behind. The president spent his usual August at the ranch in August of 2001 and the big thing there was his deliberations over the issue of stem cell research and how to proceed. There a lot of talk about immigration. We had just had the first state dinner with Mexican President Vicente Fox. And I recall there even being, you know, magazine articles at the time talking about the incredible shrinking or vanishing presidency.

He came in after the 2000 election, obviously a mid grade controversy, didn't get much of a honeymoon and he was just kind of, you know, going along, not particularly popular. And again, a lot of people just not paying a great deal of attention.

CORNISH: And with 9/11 in the course of essentially a day, he became a wartime president. Did that overshadow everything else that he did?

GONYEA: Well, it did. It became the focus of his administration from that point forward. And there were a lot of things that were high priority items that just kind of went away, things like immigration reform. He had pledged to do something about that. And again, he didn't really start to address it until late in his presidency in the second term, again, because of all the complications that 9/11 brought about. But he was also able to use the huge boost in popularity that he got after 9/11.

You know, the country rallied. They rallied behind him. They rallied behind him because there was a sense that we needed a unified front in confronting these threats around the world, but he also used that popularity to really put pressure on Democrats on a whole host of issues, including, you know, a second round of big tax cuts. So he used the popularity and leverage for other things.

CORNISH: At the same time, we saw essentially the growth of federal government under this administration with DHS and other agencies, security agencies growing in leaps and bounds, not exactly in line with Republican philosophy.

GONYEA: Right. Nor George Bush's philosophy. It was all portrayed as something we need to do in this time of crisis, in this time of emergency, to deal with these very real threats. But if we fast forward to 2006, 2008, 2010, it is one of the leading criticisms that you hear of President Bush from conservatives and from Republicans and from members of the Tea Party as the current campaign plays out, that he was a guy who, too quickly, embraced big government.

CORNISH: Don, in your estimation, having covered that administration, how did 9/11 shape the man himself and how did you see President Bush change over his years in office after 9/11?

GONYEA: With 9/11, he has said this, he found what his presidency was all about. He was convinced there was a reason he was put in the office at this time to deal with this. We heard a lot of his kind of tough Texas talk, you know, smoke 'em out dead or alive, bring it on, all that kind of stuff that seemed to kind of amplify that Texas persona. But it became really the singular thing that his administration was focused on literally right up until the time he left office, even though, obviously, he had other things he was dealing with along the way.

CORNISH: NPR's national political correspondent, Don Gonyea.

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