It started out as just another day at the White House. The president was out of town, the staff was shaking off summer doldrums and the main policy meeting was about an initiative called “Communities of Character” to be held in Karl Rove’s office in the afternoon.
Then everything changed.
A series of White House emails released by the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum provide a fresh look into the horrific events of that day, 14 years ago Friday, that transformed the country, the world and a presidency. In messages to one another and the outside world on Sept. 11, 2001, aides to Bush pivoted from business as usual to shock and confusion and the opening of a new era of war.
“Send all the wire.”
Karl Rove, the president’s senior adviser, emails an assistant seeking the morning news reports.
“I should be available; will find out for sure after a meeting with the VP this a.m.”
John McConnell, a speechwriter, emails his boss about a meeting that afternoon.
Talking points for President Bush’s education event that day.
Jim Wilkinson, a White House aide, sends out a copy to dozens of colleagues.
“All I would really need is 10 minutes or (sic) his time.”
Karen Hughes, the president’s counselor, receives a request for a television interview with Bush about his first year in the White House.
Then, suddenly, the emails begin taking on a different tone.
“Turn on CNN.”
Tucker Eskew, director of the White House media affairs office, emails three colleagues.
“9:30 Budget Meeting Cancelled.”
Tracey Schmitt, a White House aide, notifies various colleagues.
“WH/Congressional Conference Call Cancelled.”
Schmitt alerts another group of colleagues.
“Today is Pearl Harbor.”
Mary Matalin, the counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, receives this from David Horowitz, a conservative writer.
“Strength to You.”
Joshua B. Bolten, a deputy chief of staff, receives this from Dan Price, a colleague.
The emails released by the Bush library in response to an open-records request by The New York Times are incomplete. The library, operated by the National Archives and Records Administration, is still withholding the vast majority of messages sent that day, citing exceptions under the law like national security. But the emails that were divulged hint at the dramatic changes to come.
“Precedent for Coordinated National Emergency Response.”
Jay Lefkowitz, a White House lawyer, sends this to Bolten and other colleagues.
“HHS Office of Emergency Preparedness 5:00 PM Conference Call – Notes”
Bolten receives this from an official at the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Today’s Horrific Events: So much for any legislative agenda for awhile I suspect. Must be absolutely fascinating there this morning as the shock wears down (never off).”
Nicholas E. Calio, the legislative director, receives this from a college friend.
Fears for safety
After being evacuated from the White House, only some presidential aides return to the building, while others relocate to a makeshift headquarters a few blocks away. Wherever they are, they receive messages from friends and loved ones fearing for their safety, and they worry about friends and loved ones in New York or at the Pentagon.
“Are you safe? Hard to fathom what’s going on today. Hope you and (sic) safe and sound.”
Clay Johnson, the president’s longtime friend and now White House aide, receives this from his sister, Ellen.
“Mark and Rachel are okay. Brenda Anders also ok.”
Hughes receives this from an aide, reassuring her about friends and colleagues.
“Dear Karen, I am in disbelief. You are in my prayers as is the president. I realize that were a country behind this, we would now be at war. We have services today at 12:45 and 5:30. We will keep you in our prayers. I am attaching some notes from my meditation on Psalm 23. I love you, Doug.”
Hughes receives this from Douglas Fletcher, her pastor and friend in Texas.
“Josh, We’re thinking of you and are confident your team will handle this with wisdom and fortitude. Love from Ellen and Jay.”
Bolten receives this from an old friend.
“All my solidarity and friendship today. Javier.”
Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, receives this from Javier Solana, the European Union’s chief security official.
In none of the messages that were released do White House aides describe the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty inside the building in great detail. But they offer small hints.
“Unbelievable. Just got back into the White House, after having been in the ‘bunker’ all afternoon.”
Johnson replies to his sister.
“Are you feeling secure there?”
Johnson’s sister answers.
“If it’s safe enough for the president to return to, it’s safe enough for me.”
Drafts of speech
Bush is due to arrive back at the White House within the hour after fears for his safety kept him aboard Air Force One, flying from air base to air base for much of the day. After meeting with his top advisers, he plans to address the nation from the Oval Office. Drafts of a speech are exchanged and suggestions made.
Hughes receives an email with this subject line from Stuart Bowen, the deputy White House staff secretary, who includes psalms, proverbs and verses from Isaiah, Job and Matthew for consideration.
“the speech was extraordinarily good. Even more impressive is that you wrote it under unprecedented constraints, given the time and nightmarish circumstances involved.”
Hughes receives this from Bowen.
Soon enough, the day that no one in the White House had ever imagined comes to an end. But the nightmares were not over.