Attacks Defined A Presidency
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. Stay with us for a moment because I am going to bring someone else into the conversation, NPR's Mara Liasson. Tonight at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, there's gonna be what's called The Concert For Hope where President Barack Obama is going to be making a speech capping today's ceremonies. Mara, what can we expect tonight?
MARA LIASSON: Well, I would expect President Obama to stick with the tone that he struck during the ceremonies today. He's talked about how 10 years after the attacks, he feels America came through this thing, quote, "in a way that was consistent with our character." He said we made mistakes, some things haven't happened as quickly as they needed to, but overall, we took the fight to al-Qaida, we preserved our values and we preserved our character. I think that's the kind of thing that you're gonna hear the president talking about tonight.
CORNISH: And clearly there was an effort to avoid speeches by any political figures this morning and the day's been clear of partisanship. And so this is when we're actually going to hear the president make a real speech, not reading scriptures or anything like that that we've heard today.
LIASSON: Right. But I don't expect his remarks to really stray from the tone that's been struck all day, which is very nonpartisan, a message of unity. This certainly is the message that was the Obama brand. I think this is a relief for him almost, to be able to get back to that message, to talk about unity. I think he said earlier, he said that some things have changed since 9/11, some innocence perhaps has been lost, he said, but our core character, how we interact with each other, our love of this country and our ability to work through difficult issues in a way that's peaceful and democratic haven't changed.
Now, I think if you took that sentence literally, that's true. Members of Congress haven't started, you know, beating each other up on the House floor, but it is...
CORNISH: Not yet.
LIASSON: ...it is kind of, you know, wishful thinking, I mean, that that unity which we all acknowledge lasted for a very brief period after 9/11 and certainly the partisanship in this country has gotten more and more intense over the years and especially recently. But he's gonna give a speech that suggests there is another way.
CORNISH: How have the events of September 11th been used in political campaigns since then?
LIASSON: Well, they've been used a lot. I mean, certainly, as Don just explained, it was the signature for George W. Bush and he and his fellow Republicans ran on issues of national security in 2004. They used it to very good effect and very openly and not in any way subtly. I mean, Karl Rove would stand up in January and say in November we're gonna use national security against the Democrats and then 11 months later, he did. But it's been used to good effect.
I think George W. Bush won reelection, in part, because of that. Other people have tried to use 9/11, Rudy Giuliani first among them. He was America's mayor. He was the most prominent figure on the day of 9/11 and he used it so much in his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 that Joe Biden used to say, Rudy Giuliani's campaign is a noun, a verb and 9/11.
CORNISH: I remember that. This is a question for both of you. Republicans have used security concerns as a campaign issue, as you mentioned, but in this particular upcoming presidential campaign, do you expect that the killing of Osama bin Laden to diffuse that issue in any way for Democrats, for this president?
GONYEA: It diffuses it a bit in that it is something that the president can point to, a very successful operation, something that was accomplished on his watch that President Bush wasn't able to do. That said, barring something, you know, unforeseen at this point, this election is all about the economy and there wasn't much of a lingering effect for the president, positive effect, after the killing of bin Laden.
LIASSON: I do think it will be used in one way by Republicans. It will be used to show that they're not 100 percent partisan because they're gonna praise President Obama for capturing Osama bin Laden and it's gonna be kind of damning with faint praise. They'll say, on this I really tip my hat to him and then they'll segue into a big attack on the economy.
CORNISH: And I'm gonna pause for one moment because in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at this moment, there is the laying of the wreath, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the memorial there for United flight 93. President Obama, side-by-side with First Lady Michelle Obama, their heads are bowed and they're standing before a wreath, which is at the base of the memorial for the victims of the United 93 flight. This was the flight that went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers on that plane attempted to fight off their hijackers.
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CORNISH: And thank you to Mara Liasson and Don Gonyea for speaking with us.
LIASSON: Thank you.
CORNISH: You're listening to live special coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks from NPR News.
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