September 11th As You’ve Never Quite Heard It Before, From Andy Card

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The famous scene of White House chief of staff Andy Card whispering into President George W. Bush’s ear was carefully if quickly choreographed, Card told Massachusetts legislators Tuesday.

Card, a former Republican state representative from Holbrook, gave the keynote address to the Massachusetts Legislature marking the 17th anniversary of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.

“It was a perfect day in America. The skies were clear. There literally was not a cloud in the lower 48 states that day. It was a glorious day,” Card said, according to an audio recording of the speech made by State House News Service.

The most worrisome thing for the president early that morning was a scheduled run on a golf course in Florida before an appearance at an elementary school to talk about his education program, known as Leave No Child Behind.

“He was particularly nervous because he invited a reporter to go running with him and then he found out he’d been an NCAA All-American cross country runner,” Card said. “And the Bushes are very competitive. They don’t let their grandchildren beat them at Checkers. And George W. Bush didn’t want this reporter to beat him on the golf course.”

As the president ran, Card went about his normal business, reading through intelligence reports, economic reports, and the news of the day. He checked on the staff and made sure the motorcade was organized correctly.

“He came back from the run, and he was kind of George Bush cocky. He had a strut. He beat … that reporter. He ran pretty good times, and he felt full of himself. And I remember saying to him, ‘Get dressed. You’re going to a school. It’s your favorite topic. It’ll be an easy day’.”

On the way Card heard about a plane crash in New York City, but an early report from a U.S. Navy captain said it was a small twin-propeller airplane.

When they got to the elementary school, Card remembered going into the classroom before the president entered and seeing a misspelled word on the blackboard, which he had covered up.

“I didn’t want a ‘potato’ moment,” Card said, referring to a famous incident in 1992 when then-vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle inaccurately corrected a 12-year-old student’s spelling of the word by adding a non-existent “e” at the end, relying on a card the school had provided.

When Bush went into the classroom to interact with the students, Card stayed outside. He eventually learned that the airplane that crashed into a World Trade Center tower had been a commercial jet, and that a second commercial jet had crashed into the other tower.

“My mind then flashed to three initials:  U.B.L. – Usama Bin Laden,” Card said.

That created an immediate problem for Card, who described it this way:

“I then performed a test that chiefs of staff have to perform all the time:  Does the president need to know? This was an easy test:  yes. I thought about what I would say. I knew that he needed to know. But I also knew where he was. He was sitting in front of second graders, in front of a press pool. Chances are there was a boom microphone hanging over his head. And I thought carefully about what I would say. I decided to pass on two facts and then make one editorial comment, and to do nothing to enter into a dialogue with the president.”

He waited for an opportunity to break in, and it came when the teacher asked the students to get out a book so they could read with the president.

“And while the students were reaching for their books, I walked up to the president, from behind, and leaned over and whispered into his right ear, ‘A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.’

“I then stood back from the president, so that he couldn’t ask me a question. We didn’t have a dialogue. I saw his head bobbing up and down. I then took a few more steps back, looked again, and the students were entirely intentive [sic] on their books. The press corps was huddled with Ari Fleischer, the press secretary. And the president was sitting there with his head bobbing up and down,” Card said. “I was pleased with how the president reacted. He did nothing to introduce fear to those second graders. He did nothing to demonstrate fear to the media, that would have translated it to the satisfaction of the terrorists all around the world. I was also pleased that he was contemplating his responsibility.”

Card said he saw Bush processing what was happening, using Card’s words as his starting point.

“But whispering those words ‘America is under attack’ I’m convinced caused the president to reflect on his job. Not the speeches he had given, but the oath he had taken. The job of president – to preserve, protect, and defend,” Card said.

During his speech Tuesday, Card, now 71, also focused on another September 11th-oriented event that wasn’t captured by television cameras.

When the president visited Ground Zero in Manhattan, his staff arranged for an unscheduled stop at a makeshift meeting room in the Jacob Javits Center where family members of missing cops and firefighters were gathered, hoping to reunite with their loved ones.

Bush asked an advance man what the stop was about, and was told about the room, that a podium had been set up for him to say a few words, and that the visit should take about 10 minutes.

“And the president said, ‘I am not going to the podium’,” Card recalled.

Instead, he walked quickly ahead of the Secret Service agents and ahead of his staff members, making sure he could not be announced (as is standard protocol) before he entered the room. Instead, he entered first, and went from person to person, talking with each one.

“And oh, there was hope,” Card said, recalling some of the words he heard from family members:

‘My husband is a professional. He knows what he’s doing. He’ll be O.K.’

‘My daughter’s been trained for this. They need her. She’ll come out.’

’My son, this is his life. He’ll make it out.’”

But the grimness of the situation wasn’t lost on the people there.

“There was tremendous fear. There was anger. There were prayers. Lots of tears. Lots of hugs. And the president went to every single person,” Card said.

“As we’re getting ready to leave, I’ll never forget what happened. A woman who had been sitting in a chair by a column, short, courageous – she was one of the first people the president greeted when he walked into the room — stood up and took two steps to the president, looked up into his eyes, and held out her hand. ‘Mr. President, this is my son’s badge. His name is George Howard. Don’t ever forget’.”

“And with tears streaming down his cheeks – in fact, everyone was crying – the president took the badge, squeezed it, and looked at Mrs. Howard and said, ‘Mrs. Howard, America will forget. They’ll start to move on. But don’t worry about me. I will never forget.

“With tears streaming down our cheeks, we left the room, piled into a limousine, and I’m sitting right beside the president. He reaches into his pocket, with the tears still streaming down his cheeks. And he pulls out this badge, opens his hand. It was badge number 1012. He looks at it, doesn’t say anything, closes it, and squeezes his hands. And puts it back in his pocket,” Card said. “He carried that badge with him for the rest of his presidency. He will never forget. But he also convicted me to never forget.”

Card called on his listeners not only not to forget what happened 17 years ago, but “to remember to remember.”

“We’re a great people. We have great faith. We love God, and we love our country. And I pray that you will help everyone remember what we are about,” Card said. “Because September 11th, 2001 gave more definition to what we are about than any other act in our lifetime.”

Andrew H. Card Jr., former White House chief of staff under President George W. Bush and (long before that) former state representative from Holbrook, addresses state legislators in the chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he once served, on Tuesday, September 11, 2018. Photo by Sam Doran/SHNS.