The Day That Defined A Presidency: Sept. 11, 2001

This is the fourth in a series examining President Bush's legacy.

What They're Saying

Extended conversations with an academic, a historian and a journalist who have followed the career of George W. Bush can be heard — and downloaded — here.

President Bush's chief of staff whispers to him at a school reading event Sept. 11, 2001, in Florida i i

hide captionChief of Staff Andrew Card interrupts President Bush's school reading event shortly after news of the attacks broke in Sarasota, Fla.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
President Bush's chief of staff whispers to him at a school reading event Sept. 11, 2001, in Florida

Chief of Staff Andrew Card interrupts President Bush's school reading event shortly after news of the attacks broke in Sarasota, Fla.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore debates with Bush Oct. 11, 2000, in Winston-Salem, N.C. i i

hide captionIn a debate with Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore on Oct. 11, 2000, in Winston-Salem, N.C., Bush called for a "humble" approach to foreign policy.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore debates with Bush Oct. 11, 2000, in Winston-Salem, N.C.

In a debate with Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore on Oct. 11, 2000, in Winston-Salem, N.C., Bush called for a "humble" approach to foreign policy.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
President Bush delivers food to U.S. troops during a surprise Thanksgiving visit to Baghdad in 2003 i i

hide captionMonths after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, President Bush made a surprise trip to Baghdad to spend Thanksgiving Day with U.S. troops.

Reynaldo Ramon/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images
President Bush delivers food to U.S. troops during a surprise Thanksgiving visit to Baghdad in 2003

Months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, President Bush made a surprise trip to Baghdad to spend Thanksgiving Day with U.S. troops.

Reynaldo Ramon/U.S. Air Force/Getty Images

As President Bush prepares to leave office in just over a week, admirers and detractors agree on just one thing — that memories of this presidency will be dominated by a single day: Sept. 11, 2001.

The pictures of that day are still vivid. The World Trade Center. The panic in New York City. The smoke billowing from the Pentagon. The crash site in Pennsylvania.

For President Bush, the first moments of the crisis seemed halting. He was reading to schoolchildren in Florida as his chief of staff whispered in his ear. The president's face seemed to go blank as he processed the horrible news.

A half-hour later, he made his first statement to the nation: "I have ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to help the victims and their families, and to conduct a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act."

That day, the president flew, for security reasons, to a base in Louisiana, then another in Nebraska before going back to Washington to address the nation again from the Oval Office.

The public rallied behind him. He delivered a moving speech at a prayer service at the National Cathedral days later, then traveled to ground zero.

"I can hear you," he shouted through a bullhorn to cheers. "The rest of the world hears you. And the people who ... knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

In Defense Of National Security

The White House went on war footing after Sept. 11. Tight security got tighter, public tours were curtailed, presidential schedules were less detailed, secrecy flourished — all in the name of national security.

Responding to the attacks and framing every policy in terms of the attacks became the theme of the era.

It is hard to overstate how different this was from what candidate George W. Bush had foreseen. Less than a year earlier, in the final weeks of the 2000 campaign, Bush described himself as promoting a "humble" foreign policy.

"I just don't think it's the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, 'We do it this way; so should you,' " he said.

Compare that with his message to nations around the world as delivered to a joint session of Congress the week following Sept. 11: "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Historian Robert Dallek says Sept. 11 had a profound impact on how the president was viewed. "It gave him a surge of influence and standing, not just at home but around the world," Dallek says.

The Axis Of Evil And The Bush Doctrine

A few months later, Bush had a warning for Iraq, Iran and North Korea. "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world," he said in his State of the Union Address. "By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger."

The axis of evil speech was a sign of things to come. It signaled the coming of the so-called "Bush doctrine," which represented a major change in the United States' approach to the world. The doctrine embraced the concept of a pre-emptive war, an attack on a country deemed to pose a threat to the U.S. — even if that threat remained theoretical.

"Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent," Bush said. "Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?"

The concept of pre-emptive war would become reality in Iraq. The administration said Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was threatening to use weapons of mass destruction — implying that these might soon include nuclear weapons.

Even though allied forces invading Iraq found no such weapons, Bush would continue to justify the incursion by talking about Sept. 11. He would eventually admit that there was no evidence of a connection between Iraq and the Sept. 11 plotters.

The Iraq war also increased tension between the U.S. and its allies. The president took a tough stand with the United Nations, saying that the U.S. would consult the U.N. but not trust Saddam Hussein. "If necessary, we will lead a coalition to disarm him," Bush said.

Immediately after Sept. 11, the U.S. had received an outpouring of support from around the world. With the Iraq war, that changed to doubt and then to outright opposition.

The Expansion Of Executive Authority

Backed by popular support at home, however, President Bush pushed several measures through Congress, including the Patriot Act. The controversial legislation gave law enforcement enhanced powers to track potential terrorist activity, such as access to e-mail, telephone, health, financial and other records.

The president also established the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and he created a sprawling new Department of Homeland Security, which included a powerful new Transportation Safety Administration.

Though Americans wouldn't learn of it until years later, the administration also set up secret prisons for suspected terrorists in Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department redefined what it means to torture to allow waterboarding.

When any of these measures drew criticism, the administration would invoke Sept. 11.

The same kind of leverage was used to increase executive authority, fulfilling a cherished goal of Vice President Dick Cheney going back decades to the time he was President Gerald Ford's chief of staff.

"Time after time, administrations have traded away the authority of the president to do his job," Cheney told Fox News in 2002. "We're not going to do that in this administration. The president's bound and determined to defend those principles, and to pass on this office, his and mine, to future generations in better shape than we found it."

The first president to inherit these enhanced powers will be Barack Obama, who spoke out against them in his campaign for the White House. He has pledged to close Guantanamo and to reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq. But no new occupant of the Oval Office can escape the grim legacy of Sept. 11 — and all of the presidential actions that followed.

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