After chief of staff Andrew Card whispered the tragic news, President George W. Bush was as compliant as the unknowing third graders around him. He fidgeted in his seat. He grimaced. He beaded and unbeaded his eyes. He wiggled his razor lips. At one point he seemed on the verge of raising his hand and pleading for a toilet break.
Now, Mr. Payne is certainly entitled to his opinion, just as I am entitled to respond to it. And respond I will. I'm sending Mr. Payne the following, but--with the expectation that it will not make the pages of Newsday--I'm including it here.
Dear Mr. Payne:
I would like to take issue with a number of points in your opinion piece titled "What a film has taught the Bush team." Before I do, however, I'd like to start off with a simple question:
What were you doing for seven minutes after that second plane hit?
For that matter, what was Michael Moore doing? I know what I was doing--staring at the television, dumbfounded. And I didn't just sit there for several minutes; I sat there for several hours.
As you rightly pointed out, this was an attack on American soil unlike any seen since independence. No other President (with the possible exception of FDR...And I'll get to him in a moment) has had to deal with anything like this. So let me ask you, sir: What should his reaction have been? Would you have preferred to have him break down sobbing, as I'm sure many in the nation did that day? Perhaps he should have ripped open his shirt, revealing a big "W" on his chest, and flown out the window? Maybe he should have led the school in a prayer because that wouldn't have come back to haunt him, would it? I know, I know..."He's the President. He's our leader. He should have done something!" But he's also a human being, and maybe his reaction to this world-changing event was the right one for him. Maybe to him, it was more important to try and maintain control for the sake of the children in front of him, to let them know that even though things were never going to be the same anymore, that for the moment...Everything was okay.
Of course, there's another consideration. Even if, as you suggest, the President was doing nothing but "twiddling his thumbs for seven full minutes," then I have to ask: What about the Secret Service? If we expect the President to act immediately, what about the men responsible for his safety? After all, planes have crashed into the WTC, and others are heading for Washington. For all they know, the President is a target as well. Yet they do nothing. Perhaps for that seven minutes, the safest spot for the President was in that chair in front of those third graders, under the watch of those who had planned his security for this time and place down to the smallest detail. Perhaps the choice to do nothing was not his. After all, seven minutes does not seem an unreasonable amount of time for those who might have to change and update those same detailed security considerations to do so. Is that what happened? I can't say; I wasn't there. But I can give you a quote from someone who, unlike Michael Moore, was there that day--School Principal Gwendolyn Tose-Rigell, the principal at Emma E. Booker Elementary School, who says Bush handled himself properly:
"I don't think anyone could have handled it better," Tose-Rigell told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in a story published Wednesday. "What would it have served if he had jumped out of his chair and ran out of the room?"
What indeed? I suspect it would have served people much like yourself, who would today likely be using terms like "rushed off" and "abandoned" instead of "idle" and "compliant."
You bring up FDR's reaction to Pearl Harbor as a comparison:
Imagine Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the dawn of World War II. Word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did not spin him into a seven-minute seance. No cameras were present, but it is a sure bet FDR would not have awaited his turn to read to third graders.
You're right in pointing out that there were no cameras present. But Harry Hopkins was present. He wrote that FDR seemed unsurprised. Mrs. Roosevelt, discussing December 7, 1941 in This I Remember said that her husband seemed "in a way, more serene." Later that day, FDR met with newsman Edward R. Murrow. He also expressed surprise at Roosevelt's calm reaction. But certainly, despite the calm demeanor, he was a man of quick action, right? Well, at 9:30 pm on December 6, the day before Pearl Harbor was attacked, FDR read the decoded Japanese declaration of war. What did he do? He went back to his 34 dinner guests and told them "the war starts tomorrow." There's your answer--he wouldn't have awaited his turn to read to third graders; he would have awaited dessert.
Seven minutes is a small amount of time to judge someone, yet you seem to use it as an opportunity to bring up other, unrelated issues. Shall we judge other leaders that way? I'm not sure that seven minutes is a long enough time to determine any man's worth, whether it be seven minutes in response to a crisis or seven minutes (okay, I'm being generous) spent staining an intern's dress. You see what I mean?
In closing you suggest that the events surrounding the handover of Iraq show evidence that the Bush Administration "learned" something from the criticism of Bush's reaction on 9/11:
Bush scribbled on the note, "Let Freedom Reign!" The scripted Bush then turned to Blair, and this time he did the whispering. The two leaders shook hands. Though White House spokesmen have denied seeing "Fahrenheit 9/11," there was every indication at the summit that the handlers had clearly learned from it.
I ask you sir: don't you think that the President seems more 'viewer-friendly' during the handover of Iraq for two simple reasons--that this was a happy occasion, not a somber one, and that these events came as no surprise? If so, then where does the learning come in?
Finally, you take one last cheap shot. I'm going to do the same. You say:
If, however, the president intended to shadow the "let freedom ring" line of "My Country 'Tis of Thee," he ironically flubbed it by writing "reign."
Perhaps he should have spent a few more minutes with those Florida third graders.
There are other, more likely sources for "let freedom reign." For example, you may have heard of a fellow named Nelson Mandella. He was the first black president of South Africa. This is what he said in his 1994 inauguration speech:
We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves. Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.
Let freedom reign.
It's also entirely possible that the President simply chose the appropriate word. "Let freedom ring" doesn't make much sense, unless you include the lyrics before it: "from every mountainside, let freedom ring." However, when told, essentially, that Iraq possesses independent national authority, he responds with a phrase that means "let freedom prevail." Wholly appropriate, and not even close to a "flub."
Perhaps you should have spent a few more minutes with a dictionary.