The Day That Defined A Presidency: Sept. 11, 2001 The White House went on war footing after Sept. 11, expanding executive authority and establishing a rationale for pre-emptive war. Framing every policy in terms of the attacks became the theme of the Bush era.
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The Day That Defined A Presidency: Sept. 11, 2001

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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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With a little more than a week until the Bushes say goodbye to the White House, the president's admirers and detractors agree on just one thing. Memories of this presidency will be dominated by a single day: September 11, 2001. NPR's Don Gonyea has covered the Bush White House for the past eight years, and he has this look at how the terrorist attacks changed the Bush presidency.

DON GONYEA: 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 school children in Florida. His chief of staff whispered in his ear. His face seemed to go blank as he processed the horrible news. A half-hour later, he made his first statement to the nation.

(Soundbite of speech, September 11, 2001)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: 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.

GONYEA: That day, the president flew, for security reasons, to a base in Louisiana, then to one in Nebraska before getting back to Washington that night where he addressed the nation again, more formally, from the Oval Office. The public rallied behind him. Days later, he delivered a moving speech at a prayer service at the National Cathedral, and he traveled to ground zero.

(Soundbite of speech at ground zero)

President BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who ..

(Soundbite of people cheering and whistling)

President BUSH: And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

GONYEA: The White House went on war footing after 9/11. 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, framing every policy in terms of the attacks, became the theme of the era. It's hard to overstate how different this was from what candidate Bush had foreseen. Less than a year earlier, in the final weeks of the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush described himself as promoting a, quote, humble foreign policy.

President BUSH: 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.

GONYEA: Now compare that to what he told a joint session of Congress the week following 9/11 with this message to nations around the world.

President BUSH: Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.

GONYEA: Historian Robert Dallek says 9/11 had a profound impact on how the president was viewed.

Dr. ROBERT DALLEK (Historian): It gave him, initially, a surge of influence and of standing, not only in the United States but around the world.

GONYEA: Then there was this warning a few months later to Iraq, Iran and North Korea in the president's State of the Union Address in early 2002.

(Soundbite of State of the Union Address, 2002)

President BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world by seeking weapons of mass destruction. These regimes pose a grave and growing danger.

GONYEA: 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 U.S. approach to the world. The Bush doctrine embraced the concept of a pre-emptive war, an attack on a country deemed to pose a threat to the United States, even if that threat remained theoretical.

(Soundbite of State of the Union Address, 2002)

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

GONYEA: The concept of pre-emptive war would become reality in Iraq. The administration said Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was a threat to use weapons of mass destruction, implying that these might soon include nuclear weapons. Though allied forces invading Iraq found no such weapons, Mr. Bush would continue to justify the incursion by talking about 9/11, even as he eventually admitted there was no evidence of a connection between Iraq and the September 11th plotters. The Iraq war also increased tension between the U.S. and its allies. And the president took a new, tougher stand with the United Nations.

(Soundbite of speech)

President BUSH: We will consult. But let there be no misunderstanding. If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.

GONYEA: Immediately after 9/11, the U.S. received an outpouring of support from around the world. With the Iraq war, that changed to doubt and then to outright opposition. Back in the U.S., however, the president continued to ride a wave of support. The list of things he got from Congress after 9/11 includes the Patriot Act, the controversial measure that gives law enforcement enhanced powers to track potential terrorist activity, including access to email, 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. Later, we all learned the administration had set up secret prisons for terror suspects in Eastern Europe. In the same vein, the Justice Department redefined what it means to torture, allowing waterboarding, which has long been considered torture. When any of these measures drew criticism, the administration would invoke 9/11.

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 when he was President Gerald Ford's chief of staff. This is from Fox News in 2002.

(Soundbite of Fox News broadcast, 2002)

Vice President DICK CHENEY: Time after time after time, administrations have traded away the authority of the president to do his job. 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.

GONYEA: 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's 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 9/11 and all the presidential actions that followed. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

ROBERTS: You can retrace some of the highs and lows of President Bush's eight years in office through an interactive timeline on our Web site, You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

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