Bush Legacy Likely Defined By Sept. 11

Its been seven years since the attacks of Sept. 11th, 2001. Errol Henderson, a political science professor at Penn State, and Mary Stuckey, a professor of communications at Georgia State University offer analysis on how the national tragedy has shaped the Bush presidency and re-shaped the American political landscape.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. It's September 11th. Seven years since that day we remember all too well. A day that began with sunny skies in Washington and New York and ended with fire and smoke and grief and anger across the country and much of the world. In a few minutes, we'll hear from educators about how they're teaching this very recent history in the classroom.

But first, as we look back to the events of the day and forward to the future, especially the next administration, we want to know what lessons the country has learned, the citizens and the political leaders. How has 9/11 changed us? Joining us now to talk about this, Mary Stuckey. She's professor of communications at Georgia State University. She's written eight books about presidential rhetoric and national identity. She's joining us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Also with us, Errol Henderson. He's an associate professor of political science at Penn State. He studies international relations and the politics of war and peace. He joins us from member station WPSU in University Park, Pennsylvania. I welcome both of you and thank you so much for joining us.

Professor ERROL HENDERSON (Political Science, Penn State): Thank you for having us. Good to be here.

Professor MARY STUCKEY (Communications, Georgia State University): Happy to be here.

MARTIN: Mary, if I could begin with you. Just sort of thinking overall, how do you think 9/11 has changed the country, if it has changed the country?

Prof. STUCKEY: I think it has. I think the presidency has always been something of a protective figure for us. We look to the president to keep us safe, and certainly that was true throughout the Cold War, and if you think about presidents all the way back in history, like Andrew Jackson or Teddy Roosevelt, they were all about making us safe, and that's been a theme that I think lasts through much of American history.

I think that 9/11 militarized that in a way that I'm not sure we've seen before, even though there is the Cold War narrative going on. But I think that what it means to be safe now has been so restricted to this question of military security that we don't think as much as we have at other times about safety being domestic concerns, you know, that safety means that I have a chicken in every pot or the ability to feed my family or pay my mortgage or eat when I'm old. The social security sides of that, I think, have been very diminished in the last seven years.

MARTIN: And just so I understand where you're coming from on this, and I understand that the presidency is your subject, do you think that's top down or bottom up? I mean, do you think that - is it that the citizens have changed, or our expectations of our president have changed, or do you think that this is what this president, George W. Bush, decided his job is?

Prof. STUCKEY: Well, that's a tricky question because it's always, of course, both top down and bottom up. I think if the American people had had a very different view of things that the president would have had to change his actions, but I also think that our view of things is instrumentally and fundamentally influenced by the way the president talks and figures the world. And so I think it's both.

MARTIN: And Professor Henderson, what about you? Have we changed? Has the president changed? Has our opinion about what our leaders should do and be changed?

Prof. HENDERSON: No, I don't think it's changed much except grant that communications revolutions has given it the facade of great change. I don't think it is. I mean, you talk about the intimacy of the president and his relationship to society. There's nothing as comparable to, I think, the fireside chat phenomena of Franklin Roosevelt. And about impending doom and death and violence, nothing comes close to the Cold War, the crisis in Cuba and - I'm sorry, the Cuban missile crisis. It was so great that even the daisy spot that Johnson used to show the threat of nuclear war, I mean, many argue that that was a singular moment in a political campaign.

But what happens is, I think, we get a presentist(ph) orientation that suggests that those things that happen in our lifetime are so radically different than what's going on before. I would argue that even some of the policies that came out of the Bush administration are an extension of the policies of the Clinton administration. But we often don't study it in this context and I think the media did an awful job of informing Americans. They did a much better job of speaking to the sheer horror and terror of the event and that's important, but they gave more an illusion of unity instead of a demonstration of shock. And I think for most Americans, violence has been very common in their everyday lives, through one experience or another, sometimes broadcast, sometimes intimately felt, especially in the cities.

But I think what this suggested was something that was really analagous to a Pearl Harbor phenomena, but a Pearl Harbor phenomena that occurred in a place that most folks hadn't heard of, not like Manhattan.

MARTIN: OK, so just so I understand you. You're saying that this is part of a cycle. There's a historical parallel to the way we've experienced 9/11 and we've been there before.

Prof. HENDERSON: Exactly, Michel. That means there's lessons to be learned and the policies can be analyzed against something else as opposed to allowing leaders to say, this is a moment that's so exceptional, almost anything goes.

MARTIN: I see. All right. Hold on one second. Speaking about the way that we've talked about 9/11 and what messages our leaders are communicating to us, I want to play for you a short clip of, I think, what might been have been the sort of iconic moment for many Americans in thinking about our response to 9/11. This is President Bush when he went down to Ground Zero, and here it is.

(Soundbite of President George W. Bush speech, Ground Zero)

President GEORGE W. BUSH (United States of America): I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

MARTIN: So that was one message. I'm going to play another clip for you. This is a speech that the president gave as his address to the nation just a couple of days later. I think that was on September 20th, his Oval Office address, and do we have that clip? I'd like to play that for you and here it is.

(Soundbite of President George W. Bush Oval Office Address)

President BUSH: Americans are asking: What is expected of us? I ask you to live your lives and hug your children. I know many citizens have fears tonight, and I ask you to be calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat.

MARTIN: So, Mary Stuckey, communication is your thing. So what message do you think the president was sending? Was it a mixed message? Which one do you think we heard?

Prof. STUCKEY: I think that was not a mixed message. I think that the message in both of those is very clear: the government is going to take care of this and your job is to stay out of the way and to trust the government. I think this is a moment in which, when he says he's going to hear from all of us soon, that's clearly military action in which people like me were not expected to participate. I was supposed to be calm and resolute, so on the one hand, the government is empowered, and on the other hand, the people are not, which is a marked difference from the way that we reacted nationally to something like Pearl Harbor and much more like - I'm not very good at the Cuban missile crisis but that was also an incident in which there was a lot of waiting by the people and action by the government. And I think that it led very clearly to developments like the beginning of the Department of Homeland Security.

MARTIN: But Americans did respond. I mean, I was in New York on 9/11 and there were lines around the block for people who wanted to give blood, people who wanted to just sort of do something. I mean, there seemed to be an uptake in people joining the military. We heard many people say at the time, I want to do something. I want to serve. We've heard people talk about how it changed their lives. Do you just feel there was an energy that was nor harnessed or do you think they were just operating on two different levels? People had their private reaction but that there was sort of a public reaction was something else.

Prof. STUCKEY: I think that first, the energy wasn't harnessed by the government and it was specifically harnessed by the government or channeled by Bush into volunteerism, right? So what we were supposed to do was give blood, and citizen action was separated from government action, if you follow what I am saying.

MARTIN: I just want to pause right here to say, if you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I am speaking with professors Mary Stuckey and Errol Henderson about how 9/11 changed the country. If you'd like to share your thoughts about it, we'd like to hear from you. You can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again is 202-842-3522, or you can visit our blog on the Tell Me More page at npr.org.

Professor Henderson, what are your thoughts?

Prof. HENDERSON: Well, just hearing that, to be sure, those who people who knocked the buildings down were not in Iraq. And the idea about hugging your children and government response, that would have been great for the victims of Katrina, as well. So the point is that they should be seen in a broader context when we talk about change, as opposed to being effective from something. So it is important to appreciate you can have, just like you said, these cycles, and you do have this galvanizing of support, this motivation toward patriotic responses, but you also have in that same phenomenon the silencing of other types of voices, especially critical voices that are important for the smooth function of democracy.

This is repeated throughout war time, and it's important to recognize that and to recognize the demands of the citizenry on that. The president, in that sense, can be a leader but the citizens are what compromise the democracy in both domestic and foreign policy.

MARTIN: We only have a couple of minutes left and I'd like to hear from both of you before we let you go. So Professor Henderson first, obviously, we are in the middle of a hard-fought presidential campaign. In part it's about what we did after 9/11, it's in part about, sort of, Iraq. But how do you think is the way in which you think sort of 9/11 is shaping our response to how we think about this presidential campaign? I mean, it's hard to separate now the old practical realities of being a nation at war from the - what started it, but how do you think that this is framing the way we are thinking in this election year?

Prof. HENDERSON: I think, unfortunately, it's promoting a politics of theater and it's orienting us toward demonstrations of greater projections of power instead of studying the phenomena so we can understand the type of policies that it generated and the best responses for it. The media is doing an awful job. We are talking about lipstick when we should be talking about ongoing wars and poverty and issues like that.

MARTIN: Professor Stuckey, your final thought.

Prof. STUCKEY: I think that it's important to think about what it means to be safe. That does that include, you know, the citizens of New Orleans or does that simply mean protecting us from an amorphous terrorist threat? And I think that question is what's governing the election right now.

MARTIN: I guess, just to understand you are saying, that's what you'd like - we should be thinking about in your view, but are we thinking that way?

Prof. STUCKEY: No. I think that the other professor is exactly correct that those voices are being silenced. That debate is not being heard and we are being distracted by the lipstick question and the spectacle of the campaign in ways that I think are quite worrisome.

MARTIN: Mary Stuckey is a professor of communications at Georgia State University. Errol Henderson is an associate professor of political science at Penn State. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Prof. HENDERSON: Thank you, Michel.

Prof. STUCKEY: Thank you.

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