Bush Reacts to Attacks, Moves to Nebraska

The Washington Post | September 11, 2001; 4:36 p.m.
By Mike Allen

SARASOTA, Fla., Sept. 11 -- President Bush, who had been in Florida this morning, quickly changed his plans today after the attacks on New York and Washington and flew to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb., headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, to convene a meeting of the National Security Council via teleconference.

His trip to Omaha on Air Force One followed a hastily scheduled televised address to nation by Bush from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. He went there after canceling an education speech planned for Florida.

Bush stood in front of two American flags as he announced that the military was “on high-alert status” at home and around the world, and he said that officials “have taken the necessary security precautions to continue the functions of your government.”

“Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended,” Bush said. “The full resources of the federal government are working to assist local authorities, to save lives, and to help the victims of these attacks. Make no mistake: The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”

A glint of resolve could be seen in his eyes and his jaw was set as he said the word “mistake.”

“The president wants to return to Washington as quickly as possible,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “He arrived in Nebraska as a security precaution. He will convene a meeting of the National Security Council via teleconference from the Air Force Base.”

McClellan said at about 3 p.m. that Bush had talked several times to Vice President Cheney, and to First Lady Laura Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Cheney and the first lady had been taken to undisclosed locations for security purposes, according to the Associated Press.

“I ask the American people to join me in saying a thanks for all the folks who have been fighting hard to rescue our fellow citizens and to join me in saying a prayer for the victims and their families,” Bush said in his remarks in Louisiana. “The resolve of our great nation is being tested. But make no mistake, we will show the world that we will pass this test. God bless.”

Reporters traveling with Bush reported that some passengers from Air Force One were left behind at Barksdale when he departed at 1:37 p.m. The entourage was slimmed down for safety, officials said.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, “The president is looking forward to returning to Washington. He understand at a time like this, caution must be taken.”

Earlier, Bush had departed from hurriedly from an elementary school in Sarasota, leaving most of the White House press corps behind.

Bush had received the first news of the attack at 9:07 a.m., three minutes after he had stepped into a classroom to hear 18 second-graders show off their reading skills when his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., leaned over and whispered to him. Bush, whose eyes had been sparkling, looked suddenly grim. That was when officials still thought the crash at the World Trade Center was an accident, and he went ahead with the photo opportunity.

Bush sat with his hands folded and his legs crossed, with a bemused look. The second-graders read so well that Bush said, “Really good readers! Whoo! This must be sixth-graders.”

Bush asked his standard question about whether any of the children read more than they watch television, and was pleased to hear that some do. Their reading included the phrase “more to come.” Bush asked, “What does that mean, ‘More to come’‚?” 

One of the pupils said, “Something else is going to happen.”

Bush said, “That’s exactly right.”

As he consulted advisers and prepared his statement, the larger audience of pupils in the media center stood calmly. As word spread about what had happened, teachers patted each other’s shoulders.

A school official came to the microphone and asked the children to be patient, telling that Bush was doing “what presidents do.”

Bush had begun his morning at about 6:30 a.m., running 4.5 miles during a 42-minute stop at a golf course near the Longboat Key resort where he spent the night. It was dark when he started. He ran with a reporter, Richard Keil of Bloomberg News, and both were sopping wet after keeping a 7 minute 20 second pace. A Secret Service agent ran with them, and they were trailed by three golf carts—a reminder of the extraordinary apparatus that follows the president even at an ordinary moment.

The small, rotating pool of reporters that travels with Bush boarded Air Force One. The bulk of the press corps remained behind at a transmission center, the press charter grounded along with the rest of the nation’s air traffic.