A day to remember

Bush marks moment that defines him

2001 - 2006 -- 9/11 -- Five Years


September 11, 2006|By Mark Silva | Mark Silva,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, whose time in office and place in history were forever shaped by the Sept. 11 attacks, is playing a central role in the commemorations, from a solemn wreath-laying ceremony at Ground Zero yesterday to a prime-time address tonight to a nation that has grown more skeptical of his leadership.

The president and his wife, Laura, laid wreaths yesterday at the former site of the World Trade Center in New York, then attended a service at nearby St. Paul's Chapel.

Joining the president and first lady at Ground Zero were New York Gov. George E. Pataki, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the city's mayor on Sept. 11, 2001.

In his televised address, the president will attempt to bridge the horrific and the optimistic, delivering a "note of optimism as well as sobriety about what we've been through," a spokesman said.

It marks a continuation of what has been a push by the Bush administration to focus on the perpetrators of the attacks to try to revive public support for the war in Iraq, the president's prosecution of the war on terror and Republican fortunes in November midterm elections.

Bush's pursuit of the man responsible for the attacks, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, has helped shape the president's relationship with the American people. On the morning of the attacks, Bush pledged to "hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act." Within weeks, public support for the president's performance soared.

Yet now, with bin Laden at large and a majority of Americans opposed to the war in Iraq, the president is struggling. It is difficult for most to think of a pre-Sept. 11 Bush presidency.

Early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush set out for a pre-dawn jog around a Florida golf course. He logged 4 1/2 miles before showering and boarding his motorcade at 8:30 a.m. for a brief ride to a Sarasota school.

As he arrived at Emma E. Booker Elementary, he learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. But not until he had settled into a chair in the classroom of teacher Sandra Kay Daniels at 9:07 a.m. did he learn that a second plane had hit the other tower, as then-Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. stepped into the room to whisper the news in the president's ear: "America is under attack."

For five more minutes, as aides scrambled to sort out unfolding events, the president followed the reading of 18 second-graders seated before him. As they finished reading with the phrase, "More to come," Bush asked them what that means. Something is going to happen, some replied. "That's exactly right," he said.

Moments later, standing in the school library, the president vowed "to conduct a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act. ... Terrorism against our nation will not stand."

Within weeks, public support for Bush reached 90 percent in the Gallup Poll, an astounding figure for a president elected less than a year before who did not win the popular vote. But when Bush strayed from the hunt, turning to the invasion and subsequent war in Iraq and away from bin Laden, the public started to stray from him.

Some of the Democrats challenging Bush's re-election in 2004 taunted him with the image of "Osama been Forgotten." Yet the oft-stated resolve to fight terrorism and his response to the public's persistent fears helped him win a second term.

Now, with a majority of Americans opposing the war in Iraq and questioning the U.S. role in the broader war on terror, the president's party is struggling to keep control of Congress.

While bin Laden remains free, Bush announced last week that the CIA had moved several al-Qaida operatives responsible for Sept. 11 and other attacks to military custody, after years of "tough" interrogation in secret prisons.

The Republican Party has picked up the drumbeat, hoping that voters will again embrace aggressive tactics in the name of fighting terrorism.

"Because of interrogation programs by the CIA, our nation has gained invaluable intelligence that has saved American lives," Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, wrote to supporters. "Time and time again, some Democrats in Washington have questioned why our government needs tools like these to prevent attacks on American soil."

After Sept. 11 anniversary observances in New York this morning, Bush will go to the field near Shanksville, Pa., where a commandeered airliner crashed after its passengers tried to take control from the hijackers. He will later visit the Pentagon, where another hijacked airliner carried out the third strike on Sept. 11. And at 9:01 p.m., Bush will address Americans from the Oval Office.

"It is a day for us to remember the sorrow and the horror of that day," Bush said last week. "It's a day for us to remember the incredible bravery of first responders who were willing to rush into danger to save life. It's a day to remember those on the airplane that drove that airplane into the ground, which was the first victory in the war on terror."

And for many Americans, it will be a day for the public to assess all that has unfolded in five years.

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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