It may not surprise you that George W. Bush is not my favorite of the living US ex-Presidents.
Except for yesterday. Yesterday, he was ex-President #1 in my opinion.
Yesterday, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon building outside Washington DC, all the living Presidents/ex-Presidents attended memorial services (except for Jimmy Carter, who at 97 has earned to right to stay home, and our latest ex). They and their wives all said somber and reassuring words, mourning the dead and celebrating the heroes created out of that national trauma. They all spoke of lessons learned and urged a return to the national unity that gripped the country immediately after the event. They were all reasonable and responsible and not really that memorable.
Except for George W. Bush, who spoke at the Flight 93 memorial service in Shanksville, PA. He alone called out the red elephant in the room: that since 9/11, the only terrorist attacks in our country have been from US citizens, the largest of which was inflamed by a Republican ex-President.
“And we have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within. There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
There is a saying “Only Nixon could go to China” (explained by The Free Dictionary as meaning “A phrase used to highlight a political leader’s unique ability to accomplish something particularly daunting or taboo. It refers to US President Richard Nixon’s landmark 1972 visit to Communist China, which established diplomatic relations between the two nations.”). On a day that is striving for unity, only a Republican could criticize a movement related to the Republican party, and President Bush is the only surviving Republican ex-President besides the one responsible for the problem he was critiquing.
I believe President Bush spoke out because he believed it was good for the country. I believe he is trying to pull back his party from the extremist precipice towards which it is heading. But I also think he spoke out because of his personal connection with 9/11. I believe he knows that our national experience around 9/11 would have been COMPLETELY different if it had not been for December 13, 2000.
If you remember, on election night in 2000, despite losing the popular vote, George W. Bush won the electoral college by the slimmest of margins––a little over 500 votes in Florida, whose electoral votes put him over the top. Naturally, the Gore campaign requested a recount, and the country waited through a month of disorganized and disputed recounts led by the Florida Secretary of State, who happened to be the co-chair of the Bush election campaign in the state, and overseen by the Florida governor, who happened to be George W. Bush’s brother. Finally, on December 12, the US Supreme Court, on a 5-4 decision (the 5 being the more conservative judges appointed by Republicans and the 4 being more liberal judges appointed by Democrats), called a halt to the recount, allowing the original count to stand and therefore making Bush the next President.
But in terms of my 9/11 lesson, what really mattered is what happened the next day.
On December 13, Vice President Al Gore appeared on national TV to concede the election. This is what he told the American people:
“This is America, and we put country before party. We stand together behind our new president.
I know that many of my supporters are disappointed. I am, too.
But I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country.”
With those words, Gore brought peace to the country. Other Democratic leaders followed his lead and accepted Bush as the incoming President, as did the American people, both Republican and Democratic. And life went on.
Sources say that Gore truly believed he had won the majority of the votes in Florida, as he had done overall. However, he sacrificed his personal ambition for the good of the country and the stability of the government.
But imagine for a minute what 9/11 would have been like if Gore and the Democratic had chosen differently. What if he had continued to bring lawsuits and had continued to insist to whatever media would cover him that the election had been stolen from him, that President Bush was not the legitimate president, and that US patriots needed to resist any attempts to install Bush as President? What if he had continued to whip up resentment over the election even after Bush’s inauguration, pushing a partisan rejection by both the politicians and the people of anything that President Bush said or did? What if he had spent all of his time and energy trying to drive a wider and deeper wedge between Republicans and Democrats, rural and urban, and white and non-white citizens?
Just think what our national reaction to the 9/11 attacks would have looked like under that scenario.
There would not have been that national coming together after the planes killed the 9/11 victims in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon, which President Biden called “American at its best.” President Bush described what he called the “mixed feelings” of our post-attack unity even better:
“There was horror at the scale of destruction and awe at the bravery and kindness that rose to meet it. There was shock at the audacity — audacity of evil — and gratitude for the heroism and decency that opposed it. In the sacrifice of the first responders, in the mutual aid of strangers, in the solidarity of grief and grace, the actions of an enemy revealed the spirit of a people. And we were proud of our wounded nation.”
I remember those days, the hope and the connection that were intertwined with the shock and the sorrow. I remember rural America proclaiming its oneness with New York City and DC. I remember people across the country standing in line for hours to donate blood, blood that was too far away to be of use to the wounded in the attacks, but a symbol for supporting each other however we could. I remember interfaith services in which Christian and Jewish and other faiths invited Muslim leaders to join them, modeling a healing and tolerance among people of all religions. I remember being proud of the face we showed to the world…a face of resolve, of resilience, and of brother/sisterhood.
None of that would have happened if Vice President Gore, Democratic politicians, and ultimately the American people had made different choices in December 2000.
Of course, the absence of a collective coming together as a nation is not the only bad consequence of this imagined alternate 9/11. Many would have decried this not as a national failure, but as a Republican one. Many would have blamed President Bush and his party alone for the deaths of innocent Americans. Perhaps some of the reforms that have so far eliminated any other attacks by foreign terrorists over the past 20 years would not have passed in a partisan reaction to the problem. In that case, we might have had another 9/11 by now.
Or perhaps the toll on 9/11 would have been even worse. Who knows how many lives were saved when the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 decided to overcome the terrorists and crash their plane in a field in Pennsylvania rather than allow it to hit its intended target. We don’t know for sure what the terrorists’ plans were, but most experts believe they intended to crash into the US Capitol. Had they succeeded, thousands more US citizens might have been killed between the 535 elected Senators and Representations, the tens of thousands of staff members, and visitors (the average at the time was about 10,000 visitors a day). But would Flight 93 heroes have been so united if the election had continued to be contested? Would Republicans have refused to join in if they believed that Democrats were planning the revolt or vice versa? Who knows…
My point is, the seeds of what good came out of 9/11 were planted the year before when we as a nation committed to a rule of law rather than to a path of petulance and personal grievance. I know that in December 2000, I was bitterly disappointed and was completely convinced that Vice President Gore had actually won the election. But like Gore himself, I accepted that our rules set up the Supreme Court as the ultimate decision maker in these matters, so I was resigned to their ruling, despite how much I disagreed with it. So did millions of others. Looking back, I see how well that served us during a time of crisis such as 9/11.
So that is the real lesson for me on this anniversary of my own mixed feelings about 9/11. That event showcased the worst of humanity in the actions by some who brought death to innocent people. It also showcased the best in humanity, particularly among the first responders who threw themselves into their work serving others, sometime resulting in their own death. But also among the people on Flight 93 who sacrificed their lives to save others. And also among the politicians of both parties who worked together in a bipartisan way to guide the nation through the trauma. And finally, also the American people, who for a time were united in a way we can’t imagine in today’s divided atmosphere.
But 9/11 reminds us that we can do better, because we have. And it may sound naive, but if we have done it before, I think we can do it again.
We as a people need to examine who we are listening to, who we are using as role models. We need to elect leaders who encourage our best instead of inciting our worst. And we need to step back from our own judgements and criticisms and rejections of other citizens who don’t look, sound, or think like us. We need to recapture that attitude of unity that we embodied, at least for a while, after 9/11.
So which leader will you align yourself with? Is it President Bush, who stated in his speech:
“In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people. When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own. Malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”
Is it President Biden, who visited the Shanksville Fire Department and praised Bush’s comments, adding:
“A number of serious Republicans, in the past and a few who are still around, call me and tell me, what can I do to help? Because they get it, too. …
It’s an idea, ‘we hold these truths.’ We never lived up to it, but we never walked away from it — except these last previous four years. …
Are we going to, in the next four, five, six, ten years, demonstrate that democracies can work, or not?”
Or is it the former President who turned down any invitations to memorial services and spent the day in seclusion, issued a few statements criticizing the current President, then last night provided “alternate commentary” on a boxing match, for which he bragged that he was receiving “an obscene amount of money”?
It’s your choice. But also remember that it is our collective future.