Taking HeatThe President, the Press, and My Years in the White House
William Morrow & CompanyISBN: 0060747625
The Winds of War
September 14, 2001
The President's armored limousine turned onto New York City's Forty-second Street. Moments earlier, President Bush had hugged the last of some two hundred widows and widowers to be at the Jacob Javits Center in midtown Manhattan. On September 14, 2001, Forty-second Street could have been Main Street in any midwestern community or a small southern town. The street was lined ten deep on both sides with people holding signs reading "God Bless America" and "God Save the U.S." But this was New York City, the place where I was born and where my father commuted almost every day of his working life. It was Ground Zero, the place where Americahad been attacked seventy-two hours earlier. The city is not known forits outward displays of faith, but on September 14, New York City wasa quiet, pious place.
During my two and a half years as the press secretary in the WhiteHouse, no day was tougher than September 14. The attack of September11 fell like a blow. My day was consumed with reacting to it, wonderinghow it could have happened, and learning what we were going to do about it. The suffering was tremendous, but it was somehow distant. It was on TV, on the phone, outside the so-called bubble that shields the President and the entourage around him. September 14 brought it home.
The President was scheduled for a thirty-five-minute meeting with agroup of family members whose loved ones were still "missing" at the World Trade Center site. Instead, the meeting lasted almost two hours, as he walked around the room, hugging and consoling every grieving person there.
A New York City police officer came up to him with his niece in hisarms and a picture in his hand. The child, who looked like she was sixyears old, pointed to the picture of firefighters. The man she pointed to,the cop explained, was her father, his brother. He was missing at Ground Zero, and the little girl wanted to know if the President could help her find him.
Family after family presented the President with pictures of their missing loved ones. There wasn't a person in that room who thought his or her missing wife, husband, son, or daughter wouldn't get out alive. Despite their hopes, nearly everyone in the room, President Bush included, had tears in his or her eyes. The Secret Service, which usually form a protective phalanx around the President so no one can get very close for very long, stood back. They understood the solemnity of the scene before them. I wouldn't have been surprised if there were agents with tears in their eyes.
One woman approached the President with a picture of her husband,also missing at Ground Zero. He signed it, telling her that when her husband returned she should let him know that she had met the President and had the signature to prove it. He wanted to give the families a ray of hope that their missing loved ones would be found. She thanked him and tucked the picture into her Bible.
I stood a few feet away from the President and took it in. I hadnever witnessed such sadness. People waited for President Bush tomake his way around the room. Some cried out loud. Many sobbedsoftly. Several had to link arms to have the strength to stay on their feetin this makeshift room, with blue curtains acting as walls inside a giantconvention hall. As people waited for their turn to talk to the President,some struck up conversations with me. One woman told me her brotherhad served in the United States Marine Corps during Desert Storm andhad been working at the World Trade Center. She hadn't seen him since the attack. "If anyone knows how to get out," she told me, "it's him.He's a Marine. He knows how to survive for days." I told her I was sureshe was right.
Moments before it was time to go, the President approached an elderlywoman seated in a chair. Her name was Arlene Howard. She satserenely, waiting for him. In her hand she held the shield of a Port AuthorityPolice officer. The shield belonged to her son, George Howard,a Port Authority cop with the Emergency Security Unit at JFK Airportand a volunteer fireman in Hicksville, on New York's Long Island.When the towers were attacked, he rushed to the scene.
Rescue workers found her son's body the day after the attack withhis shield still on his shirt. It was given to her as a loving memory.When the President arrived at her side, she took the shield and gave it tohim. "This is so you remember what happened here," she said. "This isso no one will forget."
Six days later, when the President addressed the nation in a speechto a joint session of Congress, he held up the shield and said, "I willcarry this: It is the police shield of a man named George Howard, whodied at the World Trade Center trying to save others. It was given to meby his mom, Arlene, as a proud memorial to her son. This is my reminderof lives that ended, and a task that does not end."
As the motorcade sped down Forty-second Street, the President stillclutched George Howard's shield in his hand, and I stared at the silentcrowds from my vehicle, several cars back. Manhattan never felt sostill. We were on our way to the Wall Street Landing Zone to catch theMarine helicopters that would take us to New Jersey's McGuire AirForce Base, where Air Force One waited. As we passed Times Square,the billboard carrying that day's news circled round — "President BushCalls Up 50,000 Reservists," it said.
The winds of war were blowing.Continues...