How Bush Inspired Post-Terror Patriots

Regnery Publishing, a HUMAN EVENTS sister company, has just released Fighting Back-The War on Terrorism From Inside the Bush White House by Bill Sammon.

Sammon, an award winning investigative reporter, serves as senior White House correspondent for the Washington Times. In 2000, he covered Al Gore’s presidential campaign for the Times, and, following that, reported from the scene on the Florida recount controversy.

In 2001, Sammon wrote At Any Cost, a book-length investigation of the Florida recount that hit the New York Times bestseller list.

Fighting Back is based not only on Sammon’s eyewitness reporting on President Bush’s activities on and about September 11, but also on exclusive interviews with the President about his thoughts and emotions in the early hours of the war on terrorism.

HUMAN EVENTS Editor Terence P. Jeffrey interviewed Sammon last week about those extraordinary moments and the remarkable reporting that went into Fighting Back. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation.

HUMAN EVENTS: With its inside perspective on the activities and thinking of an American President, Fighting Back is reminiscent of Teddy White’s Making of the President series. Did you have that in mind when you started to write it?

Sammon: I really didn’t. I wanted to get down on paper as many details of this hugely historic episode as I could while they were still fresh in everybody’s minds, and while the people who participated in it were still around and hadn’t scattered to the four winds. I figured that in 50 or 100 years people are going to want to know what President Bush doing that day and what he was doing in the early days of the war against terrorism.

HE: Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the book is how much of it is written through the eyes of President Bush. How many times did you interview the President for this book?

Sammon: I had two lengthy formal interviews, both of which lasted the better part of an hour. One was in the Oval Office; one was on Air Force One. But the thing about being assigned to cover the White House as a reporter is that you’re traveling with the President all the time, you’re at the White House every day. Because you see the President all the time it gives you an opportunity to get questions into him.

I remember in December being down at his ranch in Crawford and I got four or five questions into him. Just me and four other reporters were there. So I asked him about some of the things that I write about in the book. I asked him if September 11 had changed him.

So as a daily newspaper reporter covering the White House beat I had wonderful access.

HE: Do you know if President Bush has read the book?

Sammon: I know he’s got it and that he said something about it to one of his aides because I slipped a couple of advance copies into the West Wing last Wednesday-including one for the President and one for Ari Fleischer. I dropped them off for Ari thinking that he would give one to the President and keep one for himself. But apparently his secretary immediately took a copy in to the President. Ari didn’t realize that, so he went into the Oval Office and the President, who already had a copy, said, “Hey, what’s with this book?” So I told Ari now I know who the real pipeline to the President is: It’s not you, it’s your secretary.

HE: Have you heard any feedback from the President on the book?

Sammon: I have not heard a peep-which may be a good thing. Because when you get something wrong, when you screw something up, you immediately hear about it.

HE: So you got the facts right.

Sammon: Exactly.

HE: Were you on the President’s trip to Sarasota, Fla., on September 11?

Sammon: Yes, I was.

HE: Did you realize instantly that you were an eyewitness to history?

Sammon: Pretty quickly. As it developed, I think we all realized the magnitude of what we were witnessing. I remember what the smallest details were. I was trying to ravenously gobble up everything that was happening. What were the kids saying in the classroom? What did the President say? What did he look like?

Writing this book gave me the opportunity to fully explore some of those details. On a daily newspaper you get a thousand words to squeeze in the biggest and most cataclysmic events of the day, while a lot of the color gets shoved aside. In doing the book, I was able to go back down to the school and spend a few days in that area and really do it right.

HE: One of the things readers of Fighting Back are going to notice immediately is how vivid and precise the details are in your narrative, which is a testimony to your reporting. When you were at that school in Sarasota on September 11 when the President was notified that the World Trade Towers had been destroyed, did you say to yourself then, I’m going to mark down what’s happening here in greater detail than ever because this is an extraordinary moment in history?

Sammon: That was my instinct and that’s what I sought to do. But I also realized that I was writing a newspaper story and had no notion at the time of writing a book. So I gathered as much detail as possible, but all of those details kept getting supplanted by bigger and bigger developments in the news of the day. First it was the two planes, and then it was three, and then four.

Meanwhile, the President is hopscotching across the country. That’s a lot of information to put in the next day’s news story, so a lot of detail got left out of the news reports.

HE: Were you on Air Force One when it took off from Florida and started back, originally, towards Washington, D.C.?

Sammon: Actually, I was not. They put only a pool of reporters, about a dozen, on Air Force One. The rest of us ride on a press plane. We rotate in and out of the pool on an alphabetical basis. I had just done my pool duty on Air Force One a day or two before that. It was not my turn on the pool that day, so I was not among the reporters. As it turned out, most of the pool reporters got kicked off Air Force One at its first stop at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. They cut the reporters down from 12 to five.

HE: So what happened to you that day?

Sammon: I was stuck with the rest of the reporters in Florida. The press charter ordinarily tails Air Force One wherever it goes. But that day when we got back to the airport at the last minute the Secret Service said, “You know what? We’re going to take this plane.” They sent the press back to the hotel. So we got stuck down there for a few days because there was no air travel and you couldn’t rent cars because they had all been snapped up. We eventually rented some buses and made the 24-hour drive back to D.C. At the end of that trip, we drove right by the Pentagon.

HE: Is it fair to say that a theme of your book is how President Bush proved even to his liberal enemies that he was not a lightweight after all?

Sammon: Yes. It is a central theme. Early in the book I describe a Sperling breakfast that took place on September 11, just as the attacks were taking place. The breakfast featured James Carville, Bob Shrum and Stanley Greenberg, three of the biggest Democratic political strategists in Washington. They trashed Bush for the whole breakfast, explaining how Democrats could undermine him by playing to the perception that the President was in over his head. They talked about how vulnerable he would be in 2004 almost as if it would be a cakewalk. They suggested he was going to drag down the GOP in the mid-term elections in 2002.

Carville even said that one thing he learned during the eight years of the Clinton Administration is that you never know when something’s going to blow up-suggesting Bush would not be able to handle a major crisis. He was saying this, unwittingly, even as the planes were hitting the towers.

But at the end of the breakfast, when the news came through about the attacks, he jumped to his feet and said, “Disregard everything we just said. This changes everything.”

HE: And it wasn’t long before they realized that they’d thoroughly underestimated the President.

Sammon: Exactly. And if you had to pick one moment that symbolized the President’s leadership skills it would have to be September 14 when he grabbed that bullhorn at Ground Zero and electrified the nation. There were a lot of big moments for the President after the September 11 attacks. But if you had to rank them, that’d probably have to be right at the top. That’s where he stepped into his own. That’s where he found his voice as President.

HE: Well the whole country was able to see the President emerge as a great statesman at Ground Zero that day. But in your book you tell another story, that the whole nation did not get to see, about how one woman saw the statesman emerging in George W. Bush. Tell me about Gwendolyn Tose-Rigell?

Sammon: She is the African American lady who is principal of the Emma E. Booker Elementary School, the school Bush was visiting when he learned about the attack. I went back and interviewed her, and she told me that she had voted for Gore ten months earlier. She is a life-long Democrat, a career public school teacher. She told me that she had considered Bush a “phony.”

But after he got the word from Andy Card that America was under attack, she was the very first person with whom the President had a private conversation. She told me that he calmly apologized to her and explained that a tragedy had just happened and he was going to have to change his schedule a bit. She said she saw a transformation in this man, that he became this leader. She said, “I was a convert. From that moment on, I was a convert.”

Bush had a similar effect on other people I talked to for this book. For example, Bob Beckwith is the old fireman that the President slung his arm over at Ground Zero when he climbed up on top of a crumpled fire truck with a megaphone. Like Gwendolyn, he, too, was a life-long Democrat who never would have considered voting for a Republican for President. They’re both now huge fans of President Bush.

I think that they are emblematic of a new breed of voters I call Post-Terror Patriots. They are the kind of swing voters that could make a difference in 2002 and 2004. I liken them to the Reagan Democrats and the Republican Soccer Moms. In other words, they are the bloc of voters from the other guy’s camp that will cross over and support Bush and other Republicans because of Bush’s leadership.

HE: There is an irony in the way you present this in the book. On the one hand you have these multi-millionaire so-called “populists,” such as Bob Shrum and James Carville, filled with venom against the President and plotting cynical political strategies against him-theoretically on behalf of the little people. On the other hand, you have salt-of-the-earth Americans in your book who meet with the President Bush and discover an easy-going and congenial man who connects with their values and concerns.

Sammon: He really does. I tried to describe not just his discussions with people like Vladimir Putin and Condoleezza Rice and other heavy hitters but also with the ordinary Americans he encounters. These are the kind of people, I believe, who can sense whether a President is genuine or not.

And he does have an easy way about him, and he does connect with people in a way I think his father did not. His father was much more patrician. The current President once said of his father that he moved to Texas too late in life, whereas the current President moved there when he was two years old. I think this President identifies more with the mindset of the Texans he grew up with than with the East Coast elite-as he as he derisively refers to them.

HE: So you sense that Bush has made a solid and enduring connection with a new type of constituency for the Republican Party out in the country?

Sammon: Absolutely. You know, I take this right out of Carville’s mouth. He pointed out that, in the 2000 presidential election, it was striking that both candidates got exactly the number of votes they were supposed to get and not one more. Gore got all the Democrats. Bush got all the Republicans. And it was a dead tie. But if you’re going succeed in this business you have to get all the votes you’re supposed to get plus some out of the other guy’s pie.

Reagan got the Reagan Democrats. Clinton got the Republican soccer moms. Bush didn’t get anybody like that in 2000. But now he’s got the Post-Terror Patriots. A lot of Democrats are behind him now.

The polls show it. His approval ratings show it. Not only does he have virtually every Republican supporting him now, but he also has a significant number of Democrats and independents. These are the swing voters who are going to make a big difference in the next election.

To purchase Fighting Back, click here.